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, 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 commercialised art market, to make ever more enigmatic works that couldn’t be com-modified as objects. But the spirit behind ambitious projects varied all with an appreciation for the contemplatives of long stretches of time and a vital sense of adventure.
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 Monumental yet fleeting—like a lot of Land art that exists now only in the 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 Art park, an important for Land art that featured works by other artists including Agnes Denes and Nancy Holt as well as a residency memorialising Robert Smithson.
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.
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.