Moving Mountains, Walking on Water

As artists like James Turrell and Michael Heizer continue to toil on their massive Earthworks, caretakers of other examples of Land Art are facing questions of conservation, access, and environmental impact. Meanwhile, more ecologically conscious artists have been updating the genre.

Aleksandra Mir’s “spoof on Earth Art and art history” transformed a Dutch beach into a lunar landscape of hills and craters for a day in l999.


They rank among the greatest artworks of the last generation, according to some, monuments conceived on a grand scale by visionaries who were undaunted by size, site, or the sheer mechanics of displacing huge quantities of obdurate matter. Like the solitary prophets of biblical times or the early American pioneers, these men (they were mostly men) went off to remote and often inaccessible spots to build imposing gestures to a new artistic faith. The projects they produced—and in some cases are still producing—are known variously as Earthworks, Land Art, or Earth Art. The major artists include Robert Smithson, Walter De Maria, James Turrell, and Michael Heizer. They all came of age in the 1960s and ’70s, a time when political and social rebellion in the larger world was matched by noisy chafing against the constraints of museums and galleries in the smaller cosmos of the art world. In moving beyond the confines of museums and galleries, the creators of Earthworks expanded the way we look at and think about art. Their example taught younger artists that it was possible to work in far-flung outposts, at a distance from the commercial end of art making.

Two of these projects, Smithson’s Spiral Jetty and De Maria’s The Lightning Field, have been accessible for more than a quarter century and continue to draw visitors on a regular basis. Two others, Turrell’s Roden Crater and Heizer’s City, are still under construction. All are epic in scale, and all have found a patron and champion in the Dia Foundation, a New York–based nonprofit organization devoted to art created since the 1960s.

Perhaps the best-known Earthwork is Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, completed in three weeks in 1970, an immense coil composed of 6,650 tons of black basalt rock and earth jutting into the shallows of the Great Salt Lake, in Utah. Smithson, who died in a plane crash in 1973, chose a site on the lake’s northeast shore, because he was drawn to the dark rose color of the water, which comes from the bacteria and algae living in it. He wanted people to be able to walk on top of the rocks as if on a pier.

Smithson lived long enough to see Spiral Jetty completely submerged and to witness its reemergence a few weeks later. It looked, he said in an interview, “like a kind of archipelago of white islands because of the heavy salt concentrations.” Jettyperiodically disappears underwater and resurfaces; today it is completely visible because of severe drought in the area.

“The Great Salt Lake doesn’t have any springs or streams running into it, and it doesn’t have anything running out of it, which is even more the issue,” explains Jack Flam, Distinguished Professor of 19th- and Early-20th-Century European and American Art at the City University of New York, who visited the site in 1995 with Smithson’s widow, the artist Nancy Holt. “When there’s snow and rain in the mountains in winter, water from the melt-off goes into the lake, and then the sun is so intense in summer that it evaporates. So the natural cycle of the lake is that it maintains water through a combination of runoff and evaporation,” says Flam, who edited Smithson’s collected writings.

“The salt water coats Spiral Jettyon and off with white crystals, and that was very much the intention of the piece,” says Michael Govan, director of Dia, which acquired the work as a gift from Smithson’s estate in 1999 and maintains it in conjunction with Holt. Right now, he adds, “it’s amazingly beautiful. Time has served it well.”

The drought, which began in 1999, has brought Jettyeven more attention. Part of what makes the experience so memorable is the “heavy” quality of the Great Salt Lake, whose water has so high a salt concentration that it supports only brine shrimp and algae. “There are no birds, no fish,” says Flam. “All you hear is the lapping of the water” when the jetty is partially submerged, “and it doesn’t sound like water. It almost sounds like molten lead, a slightly thudding sound. The place has an unearthly magic.”

But Spiral Jetty’s periodic submersion and its thick salt encrustation, as well as the visitors scrambling among the rocks, have given rise to concerns about conservation. Some of the fill between the rocks has washed away over the years. The salt encrustation completely hides the black basalt. Tourists scrambling over the piece cause further erosion; people walk away with buckets of rock and jars of pink water. Dia curator Lynne Cooke says, “The profile has remained absolutely in place because the salt acts as a preservative. Smithson expected salt crystals to accumulate, and there’s now a crust of perhaps three inches.” The artist himself had talked of adding rocks to raise Jetty, and that idea still inspires debate from time to time, but Holt doesn’t feel any sense of urgency. “It’s not going to fall apart, and it’s delightful to see it back, visible,” she says.

Equally remote is Walter De Maria’s seminal Earthwork The Lightning Field, completed in 1977 in the high desert 200 miles southwest of Albuquerque, New Mexico. The installation is composed of 400 highly polished stainless-steel poles with pointed tips, which average two inches in diameter and vary in height from 15 to about 27 feet. They are set in a grid measuring one mile by one kilometer (about five-eighths of a mile), on slightly undulating ground. When lightning strikes, as it occasionally does from late July through August, the ensuing display is said to be spectacular. But nature doesn’t have to be at her most dramatic for the work to be appreciated; the light-reflective poles are especially vivid at dawn and dusk, when the sun’s rays send waves of color across them.

Like Spiral Jetty (and other key Earthworks), The Lightning Fieldis owned and managed by Dia, which commissioned the work. It, too, attracts visitors, whose number is severely restricted. Only six people can stay at the site overnight, from May through September, in accordance with the artist’s wish that the work be experienced in isolation or in small groups during a 24-hour period.

No matter how remote or how desolate the terrain, at least Spiral Jetty and The Lightning Field are completed works of art, available to the curious and the hardy. Not so Dia’s two other major Earthworks: Turrell’s Roden Crater, north of Flagstaff, Arizona, and Heizer’s City, in the middle of the Nevada desert. Because of the ongoing nature of these projects, and their ambitious size, Dia’s staff can’t say when either will be open to the public. “A couple of years” is the estimate for Roden Crater. Neither artist would consent to be interviewed.

In the making for nearly 25 years, Roden Crater is carved from—or into, depending on your point of view—a black and red volcano overlooking the Painted Desert, near a Navajo reservation, 40 miles north of Flagstaff. Its creation has entailed cutting an 854-foot-long tunnel to the dormant volcano’s center, displacing about 1.2 million cubic yar
ds of dirt.

Turrell is also building “sky spaces” in the crater: rooms for meditation, with openings in the ceiling that allow light to play across the walls and floor at different times of day. “The idea is to examine perception through various experiences of the sky and other celestial events,” says Govan of Turrell’s masterwork.

Hundreds of miles north of Roden Crater, in an even more remote expanse of desert, Heizer’s City has been taking shape over an even longer period of time. Heizer first conceived it in 1970 and began to work on it in 1971. He has said that he wants Cityto rival the grandeur of ancient Mayan and Aztec ruins.

The first phase of City, completed a few years ago, consists of three rectangular structures around a sunken gravel-coated pit. They are immense: “Complex 2” is more than a quarter of a mile long. In time, the work will comprise five “Complexes,” as Heizer calls them, gigantic abstract sculptures that will together be more than a mile long. This may be the most massive Earthwork ever built. “It is interesting to build a sculpture that attempts to create an atmosphere of awe,” Heizer once noted. “Awe is a state of mind equivalent to religious experience.”

The history of Earthworks hasn’t been without controversy. There has been a backlash against the grandiosity and possibly destructive nature of these projects, which were under way or completed when environmental restraints were nonexistent and before the general consciousness about ecology had been raised.

Younger artists, coming of age in changed times, have reacted in different ways, but “no one is just moving earth around arbitrarily anymore,” reports Suzaan Boettger, author of a definitive history of the movement, Earthworks: Art and the Landscape of the Sixties(University of California Press, 2002).

“I don’t know of anyone who’s doing anything on the scale of these artists,” says Eugenie Tsai, who is curating a retrospective of Smithson’s art for the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, scheduled to open in September. Nonetheless, the Earthworks movement does have its stepchildren, whose projects have ranged from the ephemeral to the insouciant to the ecologically correct. Perhaps the best known of these artists is the 48-year-old, British-born Andy Goldsworthy, whose fanciful and often fragile sculptures are made from the landscape’s detritus: leaves and stones, snow and ice, reeds and thorns. In a more conceptual vein, the Polish-born artist Aleksandra Mir takes most of her cues from popular culture. Her First Woman on the Moon(1999) was a one-day project that transformed a Dutch beach into a lunar landscape of hills and craters. “It’s kind of a spoof on Earth Art and art history,” she says.

What these artists have taken from the grand masters of Earth Art is a delight in natural materials and the example of working out of doors, far from the confines of walled interior spaces. None aspires to the scale of a Smithson or a Turrell, in part because gaining the necessary permits, given environmental legislation, would probably be almost impossible today, and in part because the spirit of the times is different—less ostentatious, less concerned with making enduring monuments. “In some ways, these artists achieved their goals in making museums look beyond their walls and take on these kinds of projects,” says Tsai. “It’s quite a different art world now from what it was then.”

Ann Landi is a contributing editor ofARTnews.

This article has been abridged for the Web site.

Copyright 2019, Art Media ARTNEWS, llc. 110 Greene Street, 2nd Fl., New York, N.Y. 10012. All rights reserved.

[add_to_cart item="103-06" showprice="no"]

  • Issues