From the Archives: Earthscapes, landworks and Oz

Cover of the September-October 1971 issue of Art in America.

The Valley of the Gods, in southern Utah, photographed by Dean Brown–a landscape that illuminates the preoccupations of the sculptors cited in Dave Hickey’s “Earthscapes, landworks and Oz.” “In big country you do not see the ordinary ways,” he writes. “There is no ‘middle distance,’ only ‘near’ and ‘far,’ the dust at your feet and the haze on the horizon. Between, just a rushing away.”


Dave Hickey tackled Land art with characteristic vigor in an essay for A.i.A.‘s September-October 1971 issue. With occasional detours into country music and The Wizard of Oz, he speculated on what seeing Land art as a new form of landscape, and on what this reconfiguration of “ground” would mean the status of the art object. Along the way he slips in a provocative thesis opposing Pop art and Land art as the favored forms of two art-world ecosystems that were rapidly expanding in the sixties and seventies: galleries and magazines. If Pop’s alchemical transformation of widely circulated commercial images into rare art objects spoke to the mystical power of the dealers who sold it, Land art was championed as an anti-market, anti-museum movement in the very magazines whose prestige increased through the publication of photographs of Earthworks in remote sites that few could visit in person.

Hickey came at the topic of Land art’s dissemination with a nudge and a wink. In our current issue, A.i.A. senior editor William S. Smith identifies the question of mediation as a central concern of Michael Heizer, whose Actual Size: Munich Rotary (1970) is featured as part of the Whitney Museum’s “Open Plan” exhibition series. To expand the historical perspective of our coverage, we offer Hickey’s essay below. —The editors 


“The country is really too big for human beings to live in without making a conscious adjustment, and there are only two you can make: You can either increase, through mind or machine, your own reach in space and time, or can break that space into man-sized chunks. The artist working in this environment, almost by necessity, renders his strategy public. . .”

A strict decorum governs conversation between man and man in hard climates and desolate country. Direct assertions are taboo, as are conversations face to face, since you can read private things in a man’s face. And since they demand response, direct questions are always redesigned. So conversation, in such country, takes place with men standing side by side addressing themselves to some external object or phenomenon with an attention which amazes outlanders. They do not understand that those two men standing on the concrete apron of the Mobil station, staring down the highway toward a fragile wisp of cloud, may, while discussing that cloud, reveal their souls, and only discover as much of one another as they want.

My father-in-law is a man of such elegance. When we talk we mostly look at clouds, cottonland, horses, heavy equipment or just distance, but we get it said. We might say it more eloquently before Michael Heizer’s Double Negative. Since my father-in-law makes roads, moves earth and loves the big machinery such work requires, it would be the kind of work he might enjoy; and since it is huge and vulnerable, it would lend itself to his most Roman topic (the favorite of all adult males west of Fort Worth): the ravages of nature upon the works of man. He would like driving out to the site in his white jeep, wearing his narrow-brimmed Stetson, his khaki slacks and jacket and his Gokey boots. The more difficult the trip, the more completely it would reinforce his serene pessimism. That would be his idea of going to see some art; mine, too, in proper company.

In big country you do not see in the ordinary way. There is no “middle distance,” only “near” and far,” the dust at your feet and the haze on the horizon. Between, just a rushing away. There is literally nothing to see, so that is what you look at: the nothingness-the no-thing-ness. Vacant space is the physical fact you perceive most insistently, pressing down on the earth as the prehistoric oceans used to. Objects intrude upon the vacancy to little effect; they only clutter your sight. Since you do not see things, but simply see, it is always easier to experience what has been taken away than what has been added. So you can “add” by taking away. By making his two cuts across the concavity of the mesa, Heizer has “created” a “double negative” space between them. Once negative by the mesa’s cul de sac, and twice by the horizontal column implied by the cuts.

I wonder if this particular negative space would be as palpable in a more cluttered, “positive” environment? I do know that privative pieces-those which involve cutting away, digging out or marking-have much more authority and intimacy with the country itself than the additive pieces like Smithson’s Spiral Jetty or Heizer’s Black Dye and Powder Dispersal, which are dwarfed in a way that even smaller privative pieces are not. Smithson’s Jetty, particularly, has a beaux-arts look about it, more related to other sculpture than to the lake. Like Wallace Stevens’ jar, it makes the “slovenly wilderness” surround it, “no longer wild,” and like the jar, “it takes dominion everywhere.” Which is all right if you like imperialistic art, which I do. Somehow, though, I would rather it took dominion over the MOMA than over the Great Salt Lake.

Rereading the above-strange, that the things we say in the presence of art are always indirect. Our critical remarks veil personal confessions, and our private revelations are nothing but esthetics in disguise. But just as well-I mean, art can be so much less than an occasion for discourse, and art’s attempts to subvert discussion only assure us that the talk, when it arises, will have a certain density and subtlety. It is misleading, though, to speak of quality in art when what we are really appraising is the quality of our own response. For me, there is a distinction between art which is attractive and art which I think is good. When a work is either or neither, there is no question of taste; but when I suspect that it may be both, there are difficulties-as with so much of the work done in the landscape. It is so attractive at a primitive personal and cultural level (that level I share with my father-in-law who, for all his virtues, cares not a rip for art) that it is always difficult to decide whether a work is true to itself or only true to some old echoes within myself, some resonant private mythology.

Well. Yes! Dorothy, and the Scarecrow, and the Tin Woodman, and the Cowardly Lion, and Toto have been to Oz. It was far out and groovy (Oz was), but insincere. And, like wow, the Wizard for all his power was kinda fakey and sexually ambiguous. I mean, it was the Emerald City, and the road was yellow brick, and it did go to Oz and not to Kansas City, and it was in technicolor which Kansas isn’t to this day, but it wasn’t real, y’know? Now, tomorrow Dorothy is going to borrow Auntie Em’s trencher and cut a Möbius strip in the No. 7 Pasture. She says it is going to be a half-mile long and a quarter-mile wide and Art. Can you dig it?

Radical gestures have an elegance and inevitability about them, but they lack much sense of becoming. Now it follows: that an art concerned with the gap between the world and our idea of it would eventually address itself to the world itself and the systems we use to parcel it up; that an art concerned with the semantics of specific objects would soon become involved with subtler forms of nominalization (with mass, locative, gerundive and collective concepts and their physical equivalents); that painting obsessed with the idea of “ground” and sculpture with the logistics of “grounding” would eventually discard the metaphor and address the archetypal plane/plain. The question is, what follows that?

It doesn’t follow that American artists are once more fleeing back to the landscape with the equipment and ideology of some secular and cosmopolitan art, that they are once again making art out of the ironic relationship between dirt, earth, country, property, landscape, territory and nature. That seems to be one of the dumbest American Dreams: to capture the landscape while capturing our imaginations. The military metaphor is unnerving (people are always capturing the American imagination); but from Emerson’s Nature to Fitzgerald’s Dutch sailors (the eyes of the Hudson River School), to those ever-so Easy Riders aboard their chrome ponies, souls stuffed with tapioca and reruns of the Cisco kid, it is manifest.

Once more “The Nature thing!” I don’t want to sound like a sissy, but I can’t see why people find nature more “natural” than anything else, or better for being so. The natural part of nature makes you sweat, sting and shiver. Forget it.

Do I imply that Dorothy, fresh back from Oz, cannot find happiness as an artist in the fields of Kansas?-that true happiness might elude her as she solves mapping problems in the wheat up top Auntie Em’s thresher? I certainly hope not. I couldn’t think of a more excellent enterprise. Making art in the landscape allows the elevation of many splendid activities from the bondage of utility into the realms of imitation-activities like sipping iced tea from a big glass while sitting on a tractor seat, loading a rock crusher, mapping out the land beneath your feet, or clearing your sinuses with the fragrance of asphalt. As George Puttenham was wont to say, the artist is “both a maker and a counterfaitor.” These are all things worth doing in and of themselves, however rich in reference.

I emphasize this because, according to the art press, I am probably one of that effete corps of dealers, critics, curators and collectors who are supposedly incensed, bewildered and frightened by the people who make Earth Art. This isn’t the case. I am incensed, bewildered and frightened by the people who make laws, but toward Earth artists I am sympathetic, even enthusiastic. I know that the movement (pun?) could use some detractors (pun?!), but this isn’t the good old days, when we had an avant-garde, when you were judged by the quality of your enemies, when you had it made if Harold Rosenberg used the New Yorker space usually alloted to the J. Press ad to announce that Kurt Schwitters did what you are doing x number of years ago. Ubi sunt? Now you have it made if you can survive the banal praise and keep the guts or stomach to make art.

I don’t, however, look forward to the much-heralded abolition of the object from art. For all the rage at our acquisitive society, I must agree with Mary McCarthy that Americans, beset by traditions of rationalism, puritanism and transcendentalism, have never had a truly easy intimacy with objects. It is certainly an acquired taste with me, and after years of cultivating it I’m not about to quit. Earth art, at least, isn’t predicated upon the abolition of the object. It is concerned with marking out, activating and controlling spaces; and an object in an unbounded environment occupies space, it doesn’t control it-unless it is truly monumental. (Dennis Oppenheim’s plan to move a fourteen-thousand-foot mountain to Kansas should delight Dorothy.) Otherwise, an object only controls enclosed spaces by interaction with the enclosure. So Heizer’s granite masses in cement depressions are bivalent. Each entire piece is an exterior work, while the granite masses create interior works vis-à-vis the enclosures.

Which doesn’t mean that the status of the object is not in jeopardy from the museums, who have nullified the liveliest object-art by hoarding it in a place where there is nothing but art and therefore no need for it. The virtue of object art (where surface and symbol are coextensive, portable and visible) is that it can be moved into the funkiest, most secular places and not lose its recognition. So there is always the possibility of confronting it unawares and responding to it while you are munching a peanut-butter sandwich or looking for the TV Guide, without getting into your art-watching suit. Sometimes, when this happens, you can have a kind of low-grade epiphany, the kind which would help Lew Archer solve a case, but which only helps us nonfiction characters forget the war.

For example, the other morning I was reading an article about earthworks titled “Dirty Pictures” (heh, heh) when I noticed from the corner of my eye that the linear configurations Peter Plagens had left on his large paper painting, when he painted it brown, were the same as those Heizer was marking onto the desert with his bike, and the same brown color. Peter had painted out 120 square feet of taped-together roadmap to make that painting. In effect he had painted the earth back over the ideational system of the map, leaving a negative configuration scarily similar to the one Heizer was mapping on the surface. That doesn’t mean anything, of course, but it does illustrate how object art will get you through breakfast. It has some implications as well.

To understand how appropriate it is that America was named for the man who mapped her rather than the man who discovered her you should make the run I make from time to time: from Kansas City through Oklahoma City and Dallas down to Austin, where I live. You drop like a tear down the face of the map, running before the wind which hasn’t hit so much as a billboard since it left Canada, through country of such spectacular monotony that, like a blind man, you become acutely sensitized to the conceptual spaces through which you are plummeting-time zones, states, counties, water districts, flyways, national parks, weather systems (the skies are not cloudy all day). In mid-morning you lose the CBS station in Kansas City and pick up the NBC station in Pittsburg, Kansas, off to the east. You have studied the comparative news styles of the networks, so now you can concentrate on the stylistic variations among the individual broadcasters (Dallas Townsend has one great voice). Hourly you note the incremental change in the news text, suggesting how time passes at the highest priority.

At sundown you pick up WBAP out of Fort Worth, and after midnight, the all-night truck driver’s show: country-western music-cold soul, sugar-little black pills and neon lights. The station broadcasts at fifty thousand watts, and after dark you can pick it up coast to coast. From the dedications, I guess most truckers do: “Could you please play something by Little Jimmy Dickens for Leroy who’s driving for Snowcrop out of Butte, from Laura and Sue in Bozier City . . . and here’s one from the girls at the Cline’s Corners truck stop for Jim Bob Brown who’s driving tonight for Double-M way up in Maine. I hope you’re listening Jim Bob, cause here comes Roger Miller and Bobbie McGee.”

The lights of Oklahoma City are sucked behind you, and soon you are running south again down your own short tunnel of light. In your mind the entire spread of the American night is plotted out, its pastures dark, its cities beds of coals, and its highways being traced by the puddles of light that run before the big trucks, whose drivers, up on the high lonesome, must feel the earth is rolling and the truck standing still. Somewhere west, near Salinas, Roger has let her slip away.

The country is really too big for human beings to live in without making a conscious adjustment, and there are only two you can make: You can either increase, through mind or machine, your own reach in space and time, or you can break that space into man-sized chunks. The artist working in this environment, almost by necessity, renders his strategy public. The trail-hands who used to drive cattle up and down the trail to Montana tried both ways. They had songs like The Texas Rangers which through incremental variations could extend to literally hundreds of verses, so that a cowboy walking his horse broke his day into discrete distances of time, but none so small as the “narrow grave, just six by three.” This, by the way, is essentially the strategy of Ed Ruscha’s books which contain sequences of photographs of gas stations, parking lots, apartment houses, swimming pools, etc., each photograph depicting one stopping place, or increment, on a human journey through space and time. A good rhetorician could also make a case for Nine Swimming Pools as an earthwork (heh, heh).

At night the cowboys would make up and recite brags by which they imaginatively expanded themselves into the landscape so as not to be swallowed up: “I’m big and I’m bold, boys, and I was big and bold when I was but nine days old. I’ve rode everything with hair on it and a few things that was too tough to grow any hair. I’ve rode bull moose on the prod, she-grizzlies and long bolts of lightning. I got nine rows of jaw teeth and holes bored for more. When I’m hungry I eat stick dynamite cut with alkali, when I’m thirsty I can drink a rising creek plumb dry, and when I’m tired, I pillow my head on the Big Horn Mountains, and stretch out from the Upper Grey Bull River clean over to the Crazy Woman Fork. I set my boots in Montana and my hat in Colorado. My bed tarp covers half of Texas and all of Old Mexico. The Grand Canyon, son, ain’t nothing but my bean hole . . .”

Maybe this is what MacLeish meant when he said that “the West is a country in the mind and so eternal.” The trucker listening to WBAP, the cowboy reciting his brag, the Earth artist executing a gigantic work at a distance of a few feet, all carry in their head the topographical image, which, at any given point on the surface, has more interest than the terrain they can actually see. I would imagine that for most Westerners this translation from man-high ground view into an aerial mapping is a cultural reflex. Before one of Oppenheim’s double- or triple-scale mapping problems, or Heizer’s or De Maria’s desert drawings, this translation from ground level to topography is rendered conscious and the viewer participates in the same kind of psychological apotheosis as the cowboy in his brag. It is a pity aerial photos exist to preconfirm your vision.

It should be obvious that the status of objects in the West is tenuous enough without any assistance from Canal Street. Even should an innocent object escape time, wind, weather and the Baptist Church, there is still the social thing: “Nice people buy land, only trashy folks buy things.” So you can always tell the artists who make things out here by the silly little smile that flickers around their lips. Like kamikaze pilots building their own planes, they are constantly amazed by the lunacy of their own activity.

The question is: Why have the national art magazines both overrepresented and misrepresented the earthworks movement and its related disciplines, choosing to portray them as a kind of agrarian Children’s Crusade against the art market and the museum system, when this is obviously not the case? First: the work is marketable-anything is marketable, as St. Paul so aptly demonstrated. Second: the museums have proved a good source of commissions for these artists. And third: even if the work weren’t marketable and the museums were rejecting it, an esthetic trench in Utah is going to have about as much effect on the object market and museum endowments as admission figures at the Grand Canyon.

The answer might be: It is not the Earth artists who are challenging the market and the museums, but the magazines themselves. Earth art and its unpackageable peers cannot hurt the market, but extensive magazine coverage can, since not as much object art will get exposure. The magazines have found in this unpackageable art a vehicle through which they can declare their independence from the art dealers who invented the critical press, nurtured it, and have tended to treat it like a wholly owned subsidiary. Now there is an art form ideally suited to presentation via magazine. Work consisting of photographs and documentation is not presented by journalism, but as journalism-a higher form, needless to say.

The people on the magazines must believe (and I think rightly) that these indefinite art forms might do for the magazines what Pop Art did for the dealers-lend a certain institutional luster, and with it a modicum of arbitrary power.

Should these art forms flourish and develop we shall soon need a kind of National Geographic for Esthetes. Already Philip Leider and Diane Waldman have been out to see Double Negative, and have returned with (literally and figuratively) breathless accounts. New styles of criticism are evolving: it’s goodbye Clement Greenberg and Michael Fried, hello Ernie Pyle and Richard Harding Davis. As the artist’s style of life becomes less analogous to that of the craftsman and more analogous to that of the professional soldier, concerned with specific campaigns in specific sites, with logistics, ordnance and the burdens of command, so art history and memoirs will change their tone, and we will find chapters like “The Mojave Desert Affair: Tactical Successes, Strategic Failures,” replete with snide attacks on the bureaucrats who never came out in the sun, brief praise for one bureaucrat who, although a peasant who didn’t understand a thing, did nevertheless sign the check. (No more, no more Kirk Douglas, earless in Amsterdam, lusting for life. Now it’s David Lean directing Lee Van Cleef in Jones of the Mojave.) What can happen, simply, is what happened to poetry and poets. The rituals that used to constitute marketing promotion-lectures, magazine articles, visiting-artist grants, museum commissions-can become money-making activities in themselves. This is not so farfetched as it sounds. An artist who makes documents needs an editor, not a dealer.

Now Pop Art was really dealer’s art. It belonged in a commercial gallery, and it lent the men who dealt in it a certain mystery and charisma. Consider: here is this commercial image done up as a painting, somehow transubstantiated from dross into “art,” an object of a higher order, but still for sale. And here is this guy in his handmade shoes and his serene smile selling this “higher-order-soup-can” for thousands of bucks. Right? While this poor schmoe down the street is hustling real soup cans for two-bits and his have soup. Obviously it takes a higher-order tradesman to hustle this higher order of merchandise.  A Wizard? Right, Dot!

There was a lot of that about the Pop exhibitions in the sixties. It was a cosmopolitan moment, with a kind of self-conscious, genuine-rhinestone, shallow-sophistication, tinsel-glamour joy. And then, as now, the pure in heart were appalled; and then, as now, it was hard to tell the true Marxist revulsion with capitalism from the old-line shabby-genteel revulsion with people “in trade,” as they say in Jane Austen. And the times were changing until the first Castelli Warehouse show showed how they could stay the same. In a twinkling we went from Ultra Violet to the Red Guard, from Ben Day to May Day, from androgynous popsters to post-cultural-revolution macho heavies. But the relationship of the work to the warehouse, and of its esthetic to “mainstream sculpture,” is structurally analogous with the relationship of Pop to the gallery and the esthetics of Pop to mainstream painting.

There is a curious kind of Shem-Shaun relationship, too, between Pop Art and Earth Art. They are both arts of location and dislocation, deriving energy from sophisticated forms of trespassing. The Pop artist imposes his vulgar image on the sanctioned “art” environment, while the Earth artist imposes his artificial image upon a secular “non-art” location. Between the two there is a great deal of work with processes and indefinite objects which, while violating the gallery space the way Pop did, concerns itself with place in a general way. It is hard to say, for instance, whether De Maria’s Pure Dirt is a simple indefinite object piece, an audacious Pop gesture, or an earthwork under house arrest, and it doesn’t really matter. What is interesting is that Dennis Oppenheim has executed the antithesis to De Maria’s thesis: his Gallery Transplant replicates the floor plan of a Stedelijk Museum gallery on a lot in Jersey City. Here Oppenheim demonstrates the inverse attitude about mediation which again pairs earthworks with Pop. The artist will begin with a mediated image (Johns with a map of the United States) which he remediates by, in essence, painting a picture of a picture. The Earth artist will often begin with a mediated image as well (Oppenheim with a map of the United States), but Oppenheim will demediate. With alterations he will force the map back upon the earth which it represents. This, again, is not unlike Lichtenstein applying the Ben Day illusionistic shadows and highlights to an actual round coffee-cup. Another kind of thesis and antithesis. Probably the most illuminating “cut” which could be made would be to distinguish the arts of location and dislocation according to their specificity. That is, to distinguish those arts concerned with the semantic idea of “place,” those concerned with the cultural idea of “art” and “non-art” space, and those concerned with actual cartographic “location.” This would make a cut which would group Huebler’s conceptual pieces and Oldenburg’s monument proposals and Ruscha’s books with the other work I have been discussing.

It is in Terry Allen’s studio in Lubbock, a storefront out on the Amarillo highway. Terry is banging his piano, and beer cans are dancing atop it; the wind is banging signs and doors, and the November sky is full of local topsoil. Everyone in the room is laughing to hold back tears of sublime self-pity as Terry plays A Truckload of Art. It is more than the paranoia and bathos of the song; there is an authentic ambivalence between a commitment to technicolor Oz and the sepia-tone city outside:

A truckload of art from New York City,

Came rolling down the road;

Yeah . . . the driver was singing and the sunset was pretty,

But the truck turned over and she rolled off the road.


Yeah . . . a Truckload of Art is burning near the highway,

Precious objects are scattered all over the ground,

A terrible sight, if a person were to see it,

But there weren’t nobody around.


Yes . . . the driver went sailing high in the sky,

Landing in the gold lap of the Lord,

Who smiled and then said. “Son you’re better off dead,

Than hauling a truckload full of hot avant-garde.”


Oh . . . a Truckload of Art is burning near the highway,

An’ it’s raging far out of control,

An’ what the critics have cheered is now shattered and queered,

And their noble reviews have been stewed on the road.

–Lyrics by Terry Allen, courtesy Clean Music Inc.