When the artists who pioneered what we now call Land art moved beyond museums and galleries to the great outdoors, they entered a world free of limitations and flush with earthy materials to use. In place of white walls rising up around them were vast expanses of space and forever-stretching horizon lines, and instead of things like epoxy and paint, they turned to tools such as rocks and dirt.
Though the lineage dates back centuries and even millennia, the prime of Land art as a movement sits most squarely in the 1960s and ’70s, when artists ventured into deserts in the American West and started drawing lines and carving into the earth. Part of the motivation was to work outside the confines of an increasingly commercialized art market, to make ever more enigmatic works that couldn’t be commodified as objects. But the spirit behind ambitious projects varied—all with an appreciation for the contemplativeness of long stretches of time and a vital sense of adventure.
Below are 15 works that help tell the story of Land art as it has expanded and evolved.
Robert Smithson, Spiral Jetty (1970)
The most iconic of the major earthworks of the ’70s, Spiral Jetty (pictured above) is a 1,500-foot vortex constructed with more than 6,000 tons of basalt rocks spinning out into Utah’s Great Salt Lake. Robert Smithson had been intrigued by the lake since he’d been told that certain organism-infested waters in it could be, as he wrote, “the color of tomato soup,” and among his many interests in the sculpture itself was playing with the sense of scale. “Size determines an object, but scale determines art,” he wrote. “A crack in the wall if viewed in terms of scale, not size, could be called the Grand Canyon. A room could be made to take on the immensity of the solar system.” Over the decades, the structure has come and gone, changing through states of submersion or resting on dry land as the lake itself expands and contracts. But it remains in place and is open for visits, about a two-hour drive from Salt Lake City.
Michelle Stuart, Niagara Gorge Path Relocated (1975)
Monumental yet fleeting—like a lot of Land art that exists now only in the historical record—Michelle Stuart’s Niagara Gorge Path Relocated was a 460-foot-long roll of paper descended down a gorge that had been, per a description in Stuart’s book Sculptural Objects: Journeys In & Out of the Studio, “the original location of Niagara Falls at the time of the last glacier approximately 12,000 years ago.” That original location is now Lewiston, New York—seven miles from the Falls’ current location and, back in the ’70s, the home of Artpark, an important site for Land art that featured works by other artists including Agnes Denes and Nancy Holt as well as a residency memorializing Robert Smithson (after his death in a plane crash in 1973 while working on another Land art project in Texas).
Michael Heizer, Circular Surface Planar Displacement Drawing (1970)
Some people draw with pencils. Others—like Michael Heizer at the height of his handsome dark-and-brooding wild cowboy prime—draw with the tires of a motorcycle speeding across a dry desert lakebed. That was his tool of choice for Circular Surface Planar Displacement Drawing, a series of lines inscribed into the earth in circles measuring around 900 by 500 feet. The drawing dissipated in time, but the legend of its making lives on in the legacy of an artist whose biking past is well-chronicled. As Heizer said of his childhood in a New York Times Magazine profile in 2005: “I didn’t have many friends. I wasn’t a sports guy, a team player. The only sport I liked as I grew up was riding motorcycles, and you do that alone.”
Walter De Maria, Yellow Painting/The Color Men Choose When They Attack the Earth (1968)
A curious inclusion in an important early “Earthworks” exhibition at Dwan Gallery in New York, Walter De Maria’s Painting (as it was originally titled, before a later alteration) features a small silver plaque bearing the words “The Color Men Choose When They Attack the Earth” in the middle of a large canvas painted bright yellow. Contributing a painting to a Land art show was an impish move (“an act of ostentatious contrariness,” as Suzaan Boettger wrote in her book Earthworks: Art and the Landscape of the Sixties), and its color evoked the familiar hue of Caterpillar-brand tractors and machinery used to make incursions into the natural world.
Maya Lin, Storm King Wavefield (2007–08)
A rolling field of would-be watery waves made with earth and grass is a surreal sight at the storied Storm King Art Center in Upstate New York, where 500 acres of Hudson River Valley idyll are devoted to enormous sculptures of different kinds. The work relates to two other similar wavefields (in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and Miami, Florida), but this one is the largest—with seven waves stretching 400 feet from side-to-side and rising in forms between 10 and 15 feet tall. The effect of walking among them—riding them, so to speak—is magnificent.
Andy Goldsworthy, Kelp thrown into a grey, overcast sky, Drakes Beach, California (2013)
Andy Goldsworthy has done a wealth of work in the great outdoors (like Maya Lin, above, he has an amazing stone wall at Storm King Art Center that winds around trees and even extends under a pond). But there’s a special elegance and simplicity in the wonder evoked by a series of photographs for which he threw seaweed into the air and captured their curvy, curly shapes in suspension. It turns out that kelp, wind, and gravity can conspire to draw lines as stimulating as those of the best draftsman.
Richard Long, Dusty Boots Line (1988)
Richard Long works with rocks and mud—and lots and lots of walking. An emblematic early work from the ’60s involved grass patted down in a line by the artist’s feet in motion, and for Dusty Boots Line, he kicked stones in the Sahara Desert away to clear a path in the middle of a landscape in which he did all sorts of other stuff during a fruitful journey in 1988. As Long himself said on the occasion of a retrospective in London: “To make art only by walking, or leaving ephemeral traces here and there, is my freedom. I can make art in a very simple way but on a huge scale in terms of miles and space.”
Michael Heizer, Double Negative (1969)
One of the most pulverizing and poetic earthworks of all, Double Negative is a monumental gash in a mesa 80 miles north of Las Vegas. To execute the work, a one-square-mile plot of land was purchased by the art-dealing patron Virginia Dwan (who didn’t know the purpose of the acreage when she bought it for $27,000 and later paid reportedly $40,000 more for construction). Heizer then dug out 240,000 tons of earth on either side of an abyss that was bifurcated by empty space in the middle. “That was metaphysics,” Heizer later said in the 2015 documentary Troublemakers: The Story of Land Art. In the same film, he held forth more on the subject of Land art: “You can’t trade this thing. You can’t put it in your pocket. If you have a war, you can’t move it around. It’s not worth anything. In fact, it’s an obligation.”
Druga Grupa, Giewont (1970)
Accusations of ego-mongering and megalomania were not rare during the rise of Land art, and the Polish artist collective Druga Grupa sent up the sentiment with a wry masterpiece of an unusual sort: an ambitious and meticulously documented earthwork that was fake. The plan was to cut into Giewont, a peak in the Tatra mountains in Poland, and charts and ideas for other cuts (into the 14th-century Wawel Castle in Krakow, for instance) were proposed. But as art critic Martyna Nowicka wonders in an exhibition catalogue devoted to Druga Grupa, in the context of the “mockery and swindle” integral to the group: “Does it sound like an insane footnote to the history of Polish performance art?” Indeed, it does.
Bill Beckley, Washington’s Crossing (1969)
Playing with how earthworks in faraway places were often experienced only by way of photographs and documentation, Bill Beckley built a sort of bridge between Land art and so-called “narrative art,” a conceptually minded style in which story was paramount. In 1969, he went to the location of George Washington’s famous crossing of the Delaware River during the Revolutionary War and repeated the action while pouring white paint behind him. But as he chronicled: “As I went, the current took me under, and I lost not only the paint but also the camera I was using to document the work. I realized then that all I had left was the story.” (A fun fact followed, though, when Beckley soon after staged a photograph of himself wearing a powdered wig and Washingtonian garb—“my first and last selfie,” as he later described it.)
Charles Ross, Star Axis (1971–ongoing)
Charles Ross’s Star Axis is an astrologically aligned observatory and architectonic sculpture in New Mexico, where stars light up endless night skies. Ross has worked with light in different ways (including works involving spectrums and “solar burns” for which he lights materials afire by focusing sunlight through glass), and for decades, he’s been constructing an enormous masterpiece that rises 11 stories high. When it opens to the public (with a projected date in 2022), different tunnels and chambers will showcase certain cosmic alignments—such that, in one of them, “the viewer can walk through layers of celestial time, making directly visible the 26,000-year cycle of precession, Earth’s shifting alignment with the stars.”
Dennis Oppenheim, Annual Rings (1968)
Annual Rings, for which Dennis Oppenheim drew large concentric lines into an icy covering over a waterway, draws on notions of time in trees and snow. By scaling up the patterns of rings that show a tree’s age, the artist—as a description of the work from the Metropolitan Museum of Art explains—“enlarged the patterns of the tree’s growth and, by shoveling pathways in the snow, transposed the annual rings to the frozen waterway that divides the United States and Canada and also divides their time zones.” By playing with the notion of boundaries between space and time, Oppenheim, the Met suggests, “opened to question the relative values of the ordering systems by which we live.” Or as the artist himself said in an old issue of Avalanche magazine around the time: “Let’s assume that art has moved away from its manual phase and that now it’s more concerned with the location of material and with speculation.”
Nancy Holt, Up and Under (1987–98)
The creator of a number of works of Land art (including her well-known Sun Tunnels in northwestern Utah), Nancy Holt took to a former sand quarry in Finland for Up and Under, a corkscrewing series of tunnels covered in grass, and aligned in relation to the North Star. Pools of water reflect the sky above, and gatherings of earth from different locations around Finland figure in the grounds. As suggested on the website for the Holt/Smithson Foundation (Holt was married to Robert Smithson, of Spiral Jetty fame): “The work provides a terrain ripe for sensory experience and conceptual musing alike.”
Donald Judd, 15 Works in Concrete (1980–84)
While many of Donald Judd’s Minimalist sculptures are defined by their meticulous measurements and fine fabrication, 15 Works in Concrete is rough-and-tumble by comparison. The large boxes (each playing with measurement and certain exactitudes of arrangement, to be sure) live outside in the wilds of Marfa, Texas, with dry desert brush and rabbits running all around. And they serve as a foil of sorts to Judd’s 100 untitled works in mill aluminum in a nearby artillery shed, all of those works, by contrast, gleaming and clean and bright. The 15 Works were made with early funding and support from the Dia Art Foundation (also responsible for other Land art works like Walter De Maria’s Lightning Field and Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, which the foundation has overseen since 1999). As Marianne Stockebrand wrote in an essay about Judd’s grand ambitions in Marfa, “Both Dia and Judd shared ideals that were rooted in the Renaissance, ideals that they were not afraid to measure themselves against, be it on a philanthropic or artistic level.”
Walter De Maria, The Lightning Field (1977)
The most otherworldly Land art work of all is The Lightning Field, an array of 400 silver rods standing on end in a flat expanse of desert ringed by mountains in New Mexico. Being there is an intensely sensory experience, with a stay required overnight (in a cabin that sleeps six visitors, who register in advance). And everything changes with the passage of time in the still but dynamic landscape, fluctuations in sunlight making the poles appear to be invisible when not burning with fiery flares of yellow and orange. Whether or not lightning strikes can come to feel beside the point of an experience that is no less wondrous without it, and venturing back out into the world at the end of a stay can leave a person changed. As Walter De Maria explained, “Isolation is the essence of Land Art.” But so, too, is communion—with all things and all fellow forces in an environment that even the most attentive of us can spend forever apprehending and appreciating anew.