A Simple Metaphor for Life

A Line Made by Walking by Richard Long. 1967. Documentation of performance

Earth Art
1960s onward

Earth art, also known as Land art or Earthworks, is an American-dominated movement that uses the natural landscape to create location-specific structures, art forms, and sculptures. An outgrowth of Conceptualism and Minimalism, the beginnings of the environmental movement, and the uncontrolled commoditization of art in the late 1950s. The artists were drawn to the humble and everyday materials of Arte Povera and the social sculptures of Joseph Beuys that emphasized performance and creativity in any environment

Earth artists favoured materials that could be extracted from nature, such as stones, gravel, water, and soil. Influenced by the prehistoric monoliths such as Avebury, Stonehenge, and Castle Rigg, the Earth artists left their creations exposed to the elements of nature. The sense of mortality and eventual decay of the artworks put them outside the mainstream of art being coddled and protected in controlled environments.

Double Negative by Michael Heizer. 1969-70. Two trenches dug out in the Mormon Mesa

Earth artists used materials available on the site where their works were constructed and placed in honour of that specific location. The locations were often chosen for a reason such as Robert Smithson who selected damaged areas for his works to create portrayals of renewal and rebirth. The concept of site-specificity was introduced to the world by Earth art, placing the artist in the vanguard due to their works often needing wide and open spaces, as such many of their works are not to the average viewer thus questioning whether art really requires to be viewed.

Earth Art practice is defined by the rejection of traditional gallery and museum spaces. Creating artworks outside of these venues the Earth artists rebuffed and challenge the commodity status that these venues put on art, the ideal of traditional definitions of art as something to be used for profit.

Through the late 1960s and 1970s, one of the most experimental periods of Western art history, concurrent movements and artists working simultaneously in more than one style made it difficult to attach stylistic labels to the works of the period. The ethos of Earth art shared characteristics with Minimalism, such as the focus on how objects occupied their space, simplicity of form, and human interaction with works of art. The adoption of the pared-down Minimalist aesthetic was often a central point of Earth Art, the artists were hands-on with documentation and the process of production, even including an element of performance at times, aligning the movement more to Post-Minimalism tendencies, including process art, installation art, and performance art. Largely outside and made of natural elements, Earthworks were also subject to natural erosion and degradation over time, one of the most unique aspects of the Earth Art movement.

Sun Tunnels by Nancy Holt. 1973-76. Four 18-foot concrete cylinders

Similar to Conceptual Art, Earth Art is not just focused on beauty and aesthetic pleasure offered by a piece of art. Earthworks placed stress on the rejection of commodity status and the mainstream exhibition venues, electing to focus on ephemerality instead. Earth Art was visually stunning but these concepts were imbued in the pieces.

Earth artists were predominantly of the Vietnam era and many had been drafted to fight in the war and received their college education through the G.I. Bill. Artists such as Michael Heizer and Robert Smithson started their careers as painters with Smithson’s initial paintings evolving from figurative abstraction to geometrical canvases, before moving on to sculpture. Smithson began showing with Virginia Dwan, an influential gallerist who significantly influenced the shape of Earth art.

Smithson began working as a consultant for an engineering firm, a position that inspired him to plan what he referred to as “Aerial Art” for the Dallas Fort Worth Airport. Aerial Art comprised of monumental and large-scale works constructed between runways that were meant to be seen from above during landings and take-offs. Aerial Art never came to fruition but it inspired Smithson and other artists such as Nancy Holt, Carl Andre, Michael Heizer, and Robert Morris to explore a variety of unexploited areas in nearby New Jersey and other western states that provided large, open spaces.

Wheatfield by Agnes Denes 1982. Two acres of wheat planted in the Battery Park landfill

Dwan, an heiress to the Minnesota Mining & Manufacturing Company (3M), had studied art and often accompanied artists to far-flung sites and provided patronage and support to produce earth Works at her gallery space in New York. Some of the showing artists had problems finding land for the site-specific projects, so Earth Works exhibited the documentation of these projects by artists such as Robert Morris, Sol LeWitt, Dennis Oppenheim, Stephen Kaltenbach, and Claes Oldenburg. The show catalogued their work through maps, photographs, drawings, and transparencies. The remoteness of certain sites, many of which could only be viewed from the air meant that the movement was often accused of elitism.

The Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell University became the first American museum to exhibit Earth Art in 1969. The works were displayed both at the museum and throughout the campus of the university, providing a setting for art that would continue to question the commodity status of art, particularly works that blurred boundaries between object and context. Including works of artists such as Robert Smithson, Michael Heizer, Walter de Maria, Robert Morris, Dennis Oppenheim, Hans Haacke, and Richard Long the 1970s ushered in a new decade of ambitious projects in far-flung American locations.

Pebbles, broken and scraped white with another stone by Andy Goldsworthy. 1985

To designate theoretical differences in the physical context of artwork produced, Smithson delineated the concepts of “Site” and “Nonsite”. “Nonsite”, an indoor earthwork, referred to a piece that could be exhibited in a gallery setting, displacing the natural from its original setting with accompanying drawings and/or photographs. “Site”, is an “outdoor earthwork” created outside the structure of a gallery in site-specific locations with materials from that location.

Earth Art was influenced by prehistoric and ancient monuments that were monumental in size and scale such as Stonehenge and Native American burial mounds. Visiting various archaeological excavations with his father, Heizer experienced these ancient sites firsthand as a child. Prehistoric monuments and their continued existence incorporated the passage of time through natural decay and erosion. The entropy of manmade and natural materials was integral to Earthworks. Artists such as Smithson and Heizer created outdoor works naturally subjected to the depredations of the elements so decay and disintegration were part of their meaning.

Earthworks are often divided into those that make great changes to the landscape and those that do not. Landscape-changing works needed earth-moving equipment to make massive changes to a site such as Robert Heizer’s Double Negative (1969-70). Non-invasive are seen as more respectful to the land including Richard Long’s A Line Made Walking (1967).

The recession during the mid-1970s dramatically impacted funding of Earth Art. Many artists were dependent on patrons to purchase the expensive tracts of land to complete large-scale work. In addition to this economic slump in 1973 Robert Smithson’s sudden death while surveying possible sites in Texas changed the momentum of the movement. Artists such as De Maria, Heizer, Morris, and Andre took different career directions reorienting their work to accommodate gallery and institutional spaces. Along with other post-war Conceptual artists, Earth artists ushered in a new period of art favouring installations over discrete objects, challenging the traditional expectations of art production.

During this time the tenets of Conceptualism became dominant as many art movements began to share ideas and encourage artists to work in multiple frameworks. Post-Minimalist such as Process Art were connected to Earth Art. Many of the artists working between movements shifted towards the gallery model as the economy worsened and cheaper alternative spaces became available. Conceptual Art brought with it an era of performance that translated well in the gallery setting. Like Earth Art, it challenged traditional ideas and concepts of art as a commodity.

Important Earth Artists:

Robert Smithson

Walter De Maria

Andy Goldsworthy

Michael Heizer


Earthworks And Beyond: Contemporary Art In the Landscape by John Beardsley

Art & Place: Site-Specific Art of the Americas by Adrian Locke, Robert Shane, and Lucy Bowditch

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