Land Art (Earth Art)

What is Land Art?

Also called earth art and earthworks, land art is a form of artistic practice that uses natural materials, often on a large scale, that interact with nature in a site-specific manner. The movement emerged in the 1960s as a building block of contemporary art based on the principles of conceptual art and also minimalism, as it looked to locate art outside of the gallery or exhibition space.

Notable Examples of Land Art

 

Spiral Jetty, Robert Smithson, 1970

Spiral Jetty from Rozel Point, UT by Robert Smithson
Spiral Jetty, Robert Smithson, 1970, from Wikimedia Commons

 

Wood Line, Andy Goldsworthy, 2010

Woodline, Andy Goldsworthy
Woodline, Andy Goldsworthy, Photo Credit: Nick Amoscato/Flickr

 

Untitled (Guanaroca [First Woman]), Ana Mendieta, 1981-1984

Brooklyn Museum, Gift of Stephanie Ingrassia, 2007.15. © artist or artist's estate
Ana Mendieta, Untitled (Guanaroca [First Woman]), photo courtesy of Brooklyn Museum, Gift of Stephanie Ingrassia, Copyright artist or artist’s estate

History of Land Art

The political turmoil and social unrest experienced during the 1960s produced a number of major turning points in the arts and cultural sectors. As modernism came to an end, contemporary art was born and in turn spurned conceptual art and minimalism.

Both of these movements questioned how art was produced, disseminated and understood. Land art, based on the conceptual principle that art is an enquiry into the essence of art itself and that a tangible product or physical embodiment of that enquiry should be solely viewed as a temporal manifestation of the conclusion reached by the artist.

Influenced by minimalism, land art also relies on simplicity and is an abstract form of expression. Land art helped expand the definition of what art could be, where it could be located, how it could be seen, its temporality, and how it could be produced, documented and used to draw attention to important issues by highlighting man’s relationship with nature.

This legacy means it is often regarded as important as such moments as the introduction of Duchamp’s readymade in terms of the evolution of art in a historical sense. Works by its major practitioners clearly highlight these characteristics.

 

British artist Richard Long began to produce land art in the late 1960s using the action of merely walking freely within the natural landscape. Known as his seminal work records his 1967 action of creating a straight line in field of normal grass by repeatedly walking up and down in the same plane: A Line Made By Walking is no more than a photograph showing the effect of the artist’s feet on the nature landscape. Long went on to make transient marks in a range of forms, including crosses, squares, circles, spirals, rings, parallel and crooked lines, piles and scratches.

During the 1970s he turned to the arranging natural materials as ephemeral collective objects found within the environments he traversed. Land art is often explained as involving primordial activities and believed to be influenced by prehistoric and large-scale cultural production seen in ancient cultures. Long is quoted as saying: “I think circles have belonged in some way or other to all people at all times . . . They are universal and timeless, like the image of a human hand. For me, that is part of their emotional power, although there is nothing symbolic or mystical in my work.”

 

Robert Smithson, an American, created what is commonly recognized as the most famous piece of land art, Spiral Jetty (1970), which involved creating a very large 1,500-foot-long and fifteen-foot-wide stone spiral that weighed 6,000 tons in the northeastern part of Utah’s Great Salt Lake. The work was submerged in 1972 to become visible again thirty years later after changes in the water level. Smithson revealed that the work was inspired by a pre-Columbian structure known as Serpent Mound, which he had seen on a visit to Ohio.  Smithson’s work is seen as a protest against the over-commercialization of art and the commodification of the art market. As it was impossible to buy or sell the piece and often impossible to even see it, underlining this protest as the work’s significance means it is one of the best examples of land art.

 

The large-scale nature of particularly the American practices by land artists led somewhat to the movement’s decline. For example, the Ace Gallery of Vancouver and Dwan was required to pay to move the earth for Smithson to create the Spiral Jetty from local basalt rock and earth. But land art has not gone away. Smithson’s wife, Nancy Holt, continued working of most her life, producing a number of important works. Andy Goldsworthy, a British land artist, continues to work into the third decade of the 21st century, receiving acclaim for numerous permanent public sculptures across the globe that bring land art to natural spaces including Spire (2008) at the Golden Gate National Park.

Notable Land Artists

  • Robert Smithson (1938–1973)
  • Nancy Holt (1938–2014)
  • Andy Goldsworthy (b. 1956)
  • Ana Mendieta (1948–1985)
  • Michael Heizer (b. 1944)
  • Walter de Maria (1935–2013)
  • Richard Long (b. 1945)
  • Joseph Beuys (1921–1986)

Related Terms

  • Conceptual art
  • Minimalism
  • Earth art
  • Earthworks
  • Sculpture
  • Ecofeminism
  • Environmental art

 

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