THE FIRST ARTWORK SPONSORED by the United States Bureau of Mines was realized in 1979 in the small unincorporated community of SeaTac, named for the nearby Seattle-Tacoma Airport in Washington State. According to a 1981 technical report for the U.S. Department of the Interior, “a depleted county gravel pit was rehabilitated by contracting an artist to turn it into a sculpture.” That artist, Robert Morris, conceived the gravel pit sculpture as a critique of surface mining and the profit driven destruction of entire ecosystems in pursuit of coal, ore, and other nonrenewable resources. Morris started with the relatively level site of a gravel mine, abandoned since the 1940s and naturally reclaimed by pine trees and grasses. The site was razed according to Morris’s plan until only a few dozen waist-high tree stumps remained.
Morris then excavated the shallow depression into a deep, terraced crater. Bulldozers sculpted the site’s topography into that of a strip mine—a form associated not with gravel mining but with the extraction of coal or metallic ores including copper and uranium. (In particular, the work appears as a miniaturization of the famous Bingham Canyon Mine, known locally as the Kennecott Copper Mine, in Utah, which Morris illustrated in his 1979 essay “Notes on Art as/and Land Reclamation.”) The remaining tree stumps were blackened and preserved with coal-tar creosote, creating a “ghost forest” that framed the crater, conveying a further sense of environmental catastrophe.
The Bureau of Mines technical report notes that “public reaction was critical.” Indeed, as Morris explained in his keynote address for a 1979 symposium at the University of Washington, his SeaTac project would not redeem those responsible for ravaging the land, including a public dependent on cheap, nonrenewable resources. A year after the work’s completion, Seattle Times critic Deloris Tarzan wrote that “no piece of public art has been complained about by so many or seen by so few as The Earthwork.” There were public complaints that the earthwork was “too like the contours of a strip mine” and that the artist commissioned to reclaim the site “had not renewed the land … but denuded it”—a fair critique, although for Morris, the larger purpose of the piece was to articulate the implications of a systemic ecological crisis.
Within the art world, Morris’s Untitled Earthwork (Johnson Pit #30) barely registered. Though the suburban earthwork is a mere 10-minute drive from a major airport, few among those who have journeyed to Utah to see Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty or to New Mexico to experience Walter De Maria’s Lightning Field have included it on their itineraries. Yet Morris’s introduction of an ethically self aware approach to Land art as a form of public art that grappled with land claims and histories of extraction is more relevant than ever.
UNTITLED EARTHWORK (JOHNSON PIT #30) was created as part of the visionary King County Earthworks: Land Reclamation as Sculpture initiative organized by the King County Arts Commission. The concept of reclamation as sculpture occurred to local sculptor Parks Anderson around 1977 as he drove past the gaping quarries of the Lakeside Sand and Gravel Company in the Cascade Mountain foothills. Anderson was aware of the earthworks of Smithson and Michael Heizer, as well as Smithson’s determination to collaborate with the mining industry in the design of “earth sculptures” for depleted mining sites before his untimely 1973 death.
In 1977, Congress passed the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, levying a mandatory reclamation fee on mining companies to fund the restoration of devastated lands “to a higher or better use.” Artists working in the landscape took notice. When Anderson presented the idea of Land Reclamation as Sculpture to the King County Arts Commission, of which he was a member, the group embraced the idea: it responded to land use issues that arose as a manufacturing- and technology-based economy took root in what had historically been a farming, logging, and mining region. They won support from an alliance of stakeholders ranging from the Seattle Arts Commission to the County Department of Public Works to private and corporate donors.
The county invited eight artists to submit proposals for blighted sites. Beverly Pepper suggested converting a landfill mound into the form of a ziggurat, with a window that would reveal a cross-section of accumulated garbage inside, along with the roots of new vegetation. At the opposite end of the landfill site, an array of posts would register shifts in ground elevation as the landfill settled. Mary Miss’s proposal was for an airport buffer zone that contained remnants of torn-up roadways and building foundations from an abandoned residential area that was razed when the Seattle-Tacoma Airport opened in 1944; Miss’s scheme incorporated these elements into a series of structures that could be climbed or entered, providing both seclusion and opportunities to view the runway. A design by Richard Fleischner for Lakeside Sand and Gravel included an inverted sod pyramid that would function as an amphitheater and drainage system for the site, as well as dwellings and office space built into the face of a cliff created through mining operations.
Of the eight proposals, only two were realized, both in the Kent Valley south of Seattle: Morris’s Untitled Earthwork (Johnson Pit #30) and Bauhaus designer Herbert Bayer’s Mill Creek Canyon Earthworks (1982), which transformed a flood-prone drainage basin. Bayer’s design controlled natural flooding at the mouth of a creek that had become a problem due to new housing developments. The plan contoured the ground into a series of mounds, rings, and pools that serve as catch basins along the creek’s meandering path. Shifts in elevation (mounds, depressions, bridges) make the visitor’s encounter with water a topographic experience. The design’s artificial forms are, as Bayer intended, “integral with the original landscape of the canyon,” his circles echoing the natural contours of the basin and ending at the forested elevations on either side. In Bayer’s elegant, sculptural approach to civil engineering, reassuring geometries organize and contain the creek’s flow to create a welcoming, human-scaled green space.
Morris’s Untitled Earthwork (Johnson Pit #30), on the other hand, does not welcome or reassure but invites reflection on the technologized landscape that comes into focus through sweeping vistas at the site. As the population of the Pacific Northwest expanded rapidly after World War II, constructing new buildings and roads required ever greater quantities of sand and gravel. The population shift was not just a matter of density, but also of ethnic makeup. Prior to the war, a large majority of the region’s farms were leased or owned by Japanese Americans, many of whom were placed in internment camps during the war. After the war, most Japanese Americans did not return. As environmental historian Traci Brynne Voyles writes in her 2015 book, Wastelanding: Legacies of Uranium Mining in Navajo Country, “Wastelands of many kinds are constituted through racial and spatial politics that render certain bodies and landscapes pollutable.” The site of Untitled Earthwork (Johnson Pit #30) fell into disuse around 1940. While the gravel mines had been tolerated by farmers, mine reclamation became a priority as white suburbanites put down stakes. Many were employed by new facilities such as the Boeing Space Center, a large aerospace and defense facility that opened near the Johnson Pit in 1965, in time to build the “moon buggy” used in the Apollo 11 moon landing.
In a 1995 article in Artweek magazine, Seattle writer Jeff Kelley captured the broader implications of Morris’s earthwork. He recognized the “unimaginable scale of nuclear devastation” in this “earthen hourglass” embedded in the landscape, and pointed to events bracketing the project: “Three Mile Island on the front side and Chernobyl on the back, and … the election to the presidency of Ronald Reagan, who exploited our fear of nuclear war with the Soviet ‘evil empire.’” Anticipating that his reading might seem too speculative, Kelley doubled down: “To look across the Kent Valley, and Morris must have known this, was to see not only its pastoral farmlands but also, near the foothills of Kent, much of Boeing’s defense-related industry.”
In Kelley’s understanding, Morris’s intervention within a rapidly changing pastoral landscape manifested the lurking military-industrial complex and the economy propelling exurban expansion and development. This critical take echoes James Rosenquist’s memorable remark on his 1964–65 painting F-111 featuring a fighter jet: “The prime force of this thing has been to keep people working, an economic tool: but behind it, this is a war machine.”
Morris’s open pit mine had once condensed associations of the military-industrial complex: bomb craters and ore extraction, both displaced from American deserts. But by the 2000s, housing developments abutted the site of Untitled Earthwork (Johnson Pit #30), and a power line was strung over the crater, which became a dog park. “Whatever political edge the work once had, if any, has, I would guess, long ago washed out of it,” Morris told The Stranger’s art critic Jen Graves in 2010. For those living adjacent to the earthwork, it is an easily accessible green space. When I last visited in 2021, it was well maintained as a park, the ryegrass newly mowed and thickets around the crater recently cut back. A few tree trunks darkened with patches of creosote persisted, weathered remains of the “ghost forest.” One was tagged BLM, marking the site with politics urgently awakened by Black Lives Matter protests in the present.
It may be an unusually terraformed dog park to its neighbors, but from afar, Morris’s earthwork has recently come to be regarded as a prescient ecocritical artwork. In 1980, Morris wrote about the “unimaginable complexity” of the environmental impacts of extraction, including “changes in the atmosphere” and “changes in climate,” neither of which were household concerns at the time of the work’s completion. Today, they are recognized existential threats. As we confront the climate crisis with new urgency, overlooked ecocritical artworks like Untitled Earthwork (Johnson Pit #30) have come into focus for contemporary artists, scholars, and general viewers: in 2021, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places, the only 20th-century earthwork on the list.
THE LAND RECLAMATION AS SCULPTURE INITIATIVE built upon a history of ambitious and, at times, risky public sculpture commissions in the Seattle area and the city of Bellingham to the north. Starting in the late 1960s, several notable works signaled the significant cultural and economic shifts underway in the region. Isamu Noguchi’s Black Sun, the second sculpture supported by the “Art in Public Places” program of the National Endowment for the Arts (following Alexander Calder’s La Grande Vitesse in Grand Rapids, Michigan), was unveiled in Volunteer Park in front of the Seattle Art Museum in 1969. It became an immediate landmark, as did Barnett Newman’s Broken Obelisk (1963/1967), dedicated on the city’s University of Washington campus in 1971.
The latter was a gift of the influential arts patron Virginia Wright, who also supported the development of a contemporary sculpture collection on the grounds of Western Washington University in Bellingham, which includes important works by Noguchi, Morris, Pepper, Richard Serra, Alice Aycock, Nancy Holt, Bruce Nauman, and many others. Holt’s first permanent public sculpture, Stone Enclosure: Rock Rings, was completed there in 1978. Works like Morris’s 1971 Untitled (Steam Work for Bellingham)—a “fountain” that periodically emits a shifting, ephemeral cloud of steam from an underground pipe, also for the Western campus—were at the vanguard of conceptual, systems-based practices.
Heizer’s Adjacent, Against, Upon (1976) set a precedent for the role of sculpture in reclaiming degraded land in the region. Three massive slabs of granite balanced on concrete blocks were sited on the Seattle waterfront, scaled to the vast spaces of the industrial port city framed by rugged mountain ranges. Adjacent, Against, Upon relocated granite quarried from the Cascade Range to the east, siting it on the banks of the Puget Sound with views to the Olympic Range to the west. The work was a watershed for the artist and the city: it was Heizer’s first public commission and his first permanent artwork in an urban setting, after he had established a reputation for projects in the Nevada desert, most famously Double Negative (1969), with its trenches dynamited into Mormon Mesa.
The urban project was also the inaugural artwork supported by the Seattle Art Commission’s new percent-for-art program. The simple sculptural sequence reclaimed a stretch of waterfront that was being used as a dumping ground for the remains of buildings razed during the construction of Interstate 5; it had become one of the city’s largest homeless encampments. The unveiling of Adjacent, Against, Upon completed the waterfront’s transformation into Myrtle Edwards Park, posthumously named to honor an activist city council member.
Heizer’s commission demonstrated the potential of Land art, previously associated with open desert landscapes distant from large populations, to transform urban wastelands into spaces of cultural capital and civic pride. Though the sculpture was initially unpopular—the family of Councilwoman Edwards found it an unfitting tribute, and mockeries and objections appeared in editorial pages—it is today a well appreciated landmark. At the time of its completion, Adjacent, Against, Upon was understood by critic Deloris Tarzan to have put Seattle on the cultural map: “We have not purchased three granite rocks,” she wrote. “We have purchased a reputation.”
WHEN THE OLYMPIC SCULPTURE PARK OPENED in 2007 on a stretch of waterfront abutting Myrtle Edwards Park to the south, it was celebrated not just for the outstanding public sculptures on display, but for the monumental reclamation of a nine-acre brownfield to become one of the country’s premier public spaces. Alexander Calder’s stabile Eagle (1971), the park’s unofficial “mascot,” soars at a height of nearly 40 feet, overlooking the Puget Sound and a still-active rail line that runs through the park.
This infrastructure was once essential to the site. The waterfront tract functioned as an oil storage and fueling facility for the Union Oil Company of California (UNOCAL) for more than 60 years. As UNOCAL operations wound down in the mid-1970s, the then heavily contaminated site that would become the Olympic Sculpture Park was considered for inclusion in the Land Reclamation as Sculpture initiative, though it was ultimately not selected. Under the leadership of Mimi Gardner Gates, director of the Seattle Art Museum from 1994 to 2009, the Olympic Sculpture Park was realized with significant support from the Microsoft Corporation and its employees.
Parks Anderson described the Olympic Sculpture Park to me as “part of the story” of reclamation and sculpture in the region, extending the precedent set by Morris and Bayer. Today, there is no sign of the petroleum-contaminated soil and groundwater remediated by the Washington State Department of Ecology before the sculpture park was constructed. Ecological renewal is an organizing principle: sculptures are sited within four biomes—valley, meadows, grove, and shore—representing native ecosystems of the Pacific Northwest. One of the park’s signature artworks, Mark Dion’s Neukom Vivarium (2006)—named for former Microsoft general counsel William Neukom and his wife Sally, who funded the piece—is a decaying nurse log that supports a biome inside an elaborate greenhouse.
At the same time, the park stages a very different ecological tableau as freight cars pass in front of
Calder’s Eagle laden with coal from Wyoming and Montana bound for ports in British Columbia to supply the Asian market. This scene points to the site’s history as a fossil fuel depot, to current global supply chains, and to global warming that is affecting the planet’s future. Barges loaded with shipping containers approaching or leaving the Port of Seattle linger offshore, a reminder of vast, usually invisible oceanic trade networks, what artist Allan Sekula called the “forgotten spaces” of the global economy.
If current industry and infrastructure are a visible aesthetic of the Olympic Sculpture Park, there is equal erasure of the site’s history and socioeconomic realities. In the 2021 book Seattle’s Olympic Sculpture Park: A Place for Art, Environment, and an Open Mind, Lisa Graziose Corrin, the park’s inaugural curator, introduces photographs by Glenn Rudolph depicting itinerant workers around the waterfront site. “Until recently,” Corrin writes, “the Olympic Sculpture Park site was inhabited by multiple communities who lived in the margins of the city during the period of rapid change sparked by the late twentieth century tech boom.” Corrin calls the displacement of these populations—these workers and others inhabiting “hobo jungles” on Seattle’s waterfront—“a modern day echo of the displacement of the region’s indigenous people who once camped on these shores.” Corrin’s frank, if brief, discussion acknowledges the conflicts faced by the Olympic Sculpture Park and similar undertakings. What is the role of sculpture as reclamation in the dramatically uneven development of the contemporary city?
Robert Morris aimed some pointed questions at the audience attending his keynote address for the “Land Reclamation as Sculpture” symposium in July 1979:
“Do those sites scarred by mining or poisoned by chemicals now seem less like the entropic liabilities of ravenous and short-sighted industry and more like long-awaited aesthetic possibilities? Will it be a little easier in the future to rip up the landscape for one last shovelful of non-renewable energy source if an artist can be found (cheap, mind you) to transform the devastation into an inspiring and modern work of art? Or anyway, into a fun place to be? Well, at the very least, into a tidy, mugger-free park.”
Morris’s ambivalent lecture, delivered as Untitled Earthwork (Johnson Pit #30) neared completion, conveys the conflicts and potential inequities involved in reimagining derelict, damaged landscapes. To become engaged in reclamation, artists necessarily take on a site with a fraught history of what Morris called “land abuse,” staking an alternate, perhaps more ethical land claim.
Artistic reclamation became a widespread phenomenon in the last decades of the 20th century, often in tandem with urban redevelopment, involving negotiations among industry, private developers, city agencies, arts commissions, and communities. (Examples include Mierle Laderman Ukeles’s landfill park Turnaround/Surround, 1990–2004, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Patricia Johanson’s Fair Park Lagoon, 1981–86, in Dallas.) But King County was groundbreaking in identifying reclamation as an explicit goal of sculpture’s relationship to site.
Still, the implications of sculpture as reclamation remain largely unexamined. How should we assess the Olympic Sculpture Park in light of Morris’s critique of the sanitizing power of art that changes derelict landscapes into modern art and tidy parks? As monuments from generations earlier are revisited, what about the recent history of sculpture in defining public space? To consider the Olympic Sculpture Park through the lens of Morris’s thinking foregrounds a story it is critical to tell: that of the uneven social geographies of today’s cities as well as the elided histories of environmental degradation.
The author would like to thank Parks Anderson, Sarah Clark-Langager, Craig Langager, and Hafthor Yngvason.
This article appears in the September 2022 issue, pp. 50–55.