Land Art
History, Characteristics, Types of 20th Century Earthworks by Robert Smithson.
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Spiral Jetty (1970) Rozel Point,
Great Salt Lake, Utah.
Created by Robert Smithson.

Land Art

Contents

Characteristics
Origins
History
Famous Examples of Land Art


Encirclement of Eleven Florida Islands
in Pink (1980-3), Biscayne Bay, by
Christo and Jeanne Claude.

HISTORY OF VISUAL ARTS
For a list of important dates about
movements, schools, famous styles,
from the Stone Age to 20th Century,
see: History of Art Timeline.
For other postmodernist art, see:
Contemporary Art Movements.

Characteristics

A form of contemporary art, known also as Earthworks, or Earth Art, this artistic movement emerged in America during the 1960s when a number of sculptors and painters - such as Robert Smithson (1938-73) - determined to heighten public awareness of Man's relationship with the natural world by intervening in the landscape in a series of thought-provoking constructions.

These (frequently massive) land-based interventions or artworks took a variety of forms, from large-scale land artworks like man-made curtains reaching across vast stretches of landscape, the encirclement of whole islands in coloured fabric, and reshaped waterways and volcanoes, to simple lines of footprints in the earth.

Although the precise meaning of each construction varied, the underlying aim of this novel type of visual art was to create artistic imagery using earth, rocks, soil and other natural material, with a view to increasing our sensibility towards our environment.


Giant Snowball, London (2000)
by Andy Goldsworthy.

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classification issues concerning
fine/decorative/applied arts, see:
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VISUAL ARTS CATEGORIES
Definitions, forms, styles, genres,
periods, see: Types of Art.

 

Origins and Development of Land Art

Ancient cultures frequently used earthworks to express themselves, long before the "invention" of the term "art". Such land art occurs around the globe, including the American continent: examples include works in Peru by the Nazka Indians, the Great Serpent Mound in Ohio USA, and Inukshuks in Canada, associated with Inuit Cultures.

In modern times, because many of the artists involved in it were also linked with Minimalism and Conceptualism, Earth art has been associated with a number of other art forms, including traditional sculpture, De Stijl, Cubism, Minimalist and Conceptual art, Assemblage and Installation, as well as the work of the Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi (1876-1957) and the basalt-and-oak-saplings project of the avant-gardist Joseph Beuys (1921-86). It was also allegedly influenced by the 1941 design for a Contoured Playground in New York, by the Japanese sculptor Isamu Noguchi (1904-88).

Be this as it may, Land art was also a protest by a number of contemporary artists against the commercial straitjacket imposed by materialistic art galleries and dealers. Ironically, not only were their monumental landscape projects extremely expensive to complete (often requiring land-purchase as well as the use of earth-moving equipment), thus necessitating financial support from the very system that the artists despised, but these works were typically situated in remote places accessible only by the super-rich, and properly viewable only from the air. All of which made this type of large-scale back-to-nature populist art rather elitist, especially since art galleries and museums proved more than adept at exploiting the commercial opportunities offered through photographs and video.

To avoid this problem, several land artists turned to smaller or easier projects, offering better opportunities for the creation of environment-based works of art. However, because this form of visual art uses natural materials which decay, wither or melt, many constructions were temporary, necessitating their capture on camera or video. Thus, in the same way as large-scale earthworks, these smaller constructions became (and still are) dependent on the more traditional media of 2-D photography and film. Which does not make them a good example of Conceptual art!

History of Land Art

In 1968, shortly after the publication of Robert Smithson's essay 'The Sedimentation of the Mind: Earth Projects', the 'movement' made its first appearance at an exhibition entitled 'Earthworks' which was held at the Candace Dwan Gallery, New York. Three months later, in early 1969, a major 'Earth Art' exhibition was staged at Cornell University's Andrew Dickson White Museum of Art. Participating artists included: Walter De Maria (b.1935), Jan Dibbets (b.1941), Hans Haacke (b.1936), Michael Heizer (b.1944), Richard Long (b.1945), David Medalla, Robert Morris (b.1931), Dennis Oppenheim, Robert Smithson, and Gunther Uecker (b.1930). Other American artists who became part of the movement include Nancy Holt, Alice Aycock, Alan Sonfist, and James Turrell (b.1943).

Outside America, the leading postmodernist artists involved in land art include: the British sculptor and mixed-media artist Andy Goldsworthy, the British sculptor Richard Long (b.1945) and of course the German avant-garde experimental artist and sculptor Joseph Beuys. The Bulgarian sculptor Christo Javacheff (b.1935), noted for enveloping buildings and landscapes in fabric, is also associated with the movement.

As stated, American Land artists were dependent on wealthy patrons and foundations to finance their high-cost projects. After the economic depression of the mid-70s, funds dried up, and after the untimely death of Robert Smithson in in 1973, the movement declined rapidly.

Famous Examples of Land Art

Undoubtedly the most celebrated piece of earth art is Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty of 1970. In the completion of this earth sculpture, Smithson had to rearrange rock, soil and algae to form a long (1500 feet) spiral-shaped jetty jutting out into the Great Salt Lake in Utah. Another famous earthwork - probably the largest ever attempted - was James Turrell's project to re-sculpt the earth around the Roden Crater volcano in Arizona. Other famous projects include Christo Javacheff and Jeanne-Claude's encirclement of eleven Florida islands in pink polypropylene fabric in 1980-3, and their 1997-8 installation at the Fondation Beyeler and Berower Park in Basel, Switzerland, during which 180 trees were wrapped in woven polyester fabric. Alan Sonfist's Time Garden in New York is another work of note.

Andy Goldsworthy's forte is the subtle rearrangement of natural materials, and is noted for his assembly of thirteen jumbo-size snowballs (London, 2000), a perfect illustration of postmodernist art. Other artworks include Conch Shell Leafwork (1988) and Arch at Goodwood (2002). Richard Long began by recording his footsteps over the countryside in photographic form. He moved on to assembling rocks, sticks and mud in aesthetic configurations, often in large-scale circles. His works include A Square of Ground (1966), A Line Made by Walking (1967), and Red Slate Circle (1980).

Selected Literature on Land Art

Robert Smithson: The Sedimentation of the Mind: Earth Projects (1968).
Max Andrews (Ed.): Land, Art: A Cultural Ecology Handbook (2006).
John Beardsley: Earthworks and Beyond. Contemporary Art in the Landscape (1998).
Amy Dempsey: Destination Art (2006).
Gilles A. Tiberghien: Land Art (1995).
John K. Grande: Balance: Art and Nature (2003).
John K. Grande: Art Nature Dialogues: Interviews w. Environmental Artists (2004).
Udo Weilacher: Between Landscape Architecture and Land Art (1999).

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