It’s nearly time for the holidays! In the spirit of something a little lighter (because, let’s be honest, there’s a lot going on right now) I wanted to take some time to write about something different that I find fascinating.
Hopefully this is something a little fun and interesting for you to discover as the year draws to a close, so read on to learn about the beauty of land art.
What is Land art
Land art, also known as Earth Art or Earth Works, refers to artwork that is situated in nature rather than a gallery or ‘traditional’ art setting. Artists use natural landscapes to create site-specific works that relate to the locations they’re placed within. They’re often created in remote locations to emphasise the power and beauty of natural spaces, working with the surrounding land to invite audiences to consider the entire environment as part of the work.
Land art was often made from natural materials like soil, rocks and trees, with choices made depending on what was available at the specific sites of the projects, sometimes alongside manmade materials like metal and concrete. It usually falls into one of two categories: large-scale, ambitious sculptures in remote areas, or works that are deliberately ephemeral, shared with audiences through documentation (eg. photographs or film). Permanent works were also deliberately left exposed to the elements. This ephemerality and potential disintegration also separated them from mainstream art, which was protected in controlled galleries.
While inherently connected to environment, land art isn’t the same as environmental art. It’s rooted in the site it’s created for, drawing attention to the environment around it, as opposed to indoor or transportable pieces that include natural elements and speak to environmental/social issues.
The Beginnings of Land Art
While the framework for land art is rooted in examples from art history – including Stonehenge in the United Kingdom and the pyramids in Egypt – the modern movement began in the 1960s, with many artists drawing from roots in conceptual art and minimalism.
One of the first specific examples of land Art is Japanese-American artist Isama Noguchi’s 1941 design for Contoured Playground, which used ‘earth modulations’ to imagine a playground for children. Alan Sonfist’s Time Landscape, which placed a pre-colonial forest in the centre of New York to envision how the city looked before urbanisation, was also highly influential.
Isama Noguchi with model for Contoured Playground, approx 1946. Learn more here.
Land art as an established movement is said to have emerged in the United States, as part of a wider interest in environmental protection and political activism focusing on rebellion and liberation. Many artists made work that protested increasingly polluted and industrialised society, as well as the heavily commercialised art market.
Artists began to turn to the natural world, which reflected a simpler, less commercial way of living, outside of the constraints of consumerism. While other artworks were transportable and sold for profit, these large-scale installations forced audiences to travel to remote rural areas to view them.
American land artists often had access to huge amounts of land, presenting possibilities for site-specific works in various landscapes like deserts, prairies and mountains. Land artists were especially attracted to the vast, empty spaces of the American West, such as the Colorado Plateau or Utah’s Great Salk Lake. Areas were also chosen for specific reasons, such as Robert Smithson’s decision to use damaged sites for his works to suggest renewal and rebirth, or Walter de Maria’s choice of New Mexico’s Catron County, a site of frequent lightning storms.
Meanwhile in the UK, artists such as Richard Long were known for exploring how the body related to nature. American cultural theorist, landscape designer and architectural historian Charles Jencks is also well known in Britain, having created massive interactive sculptural environments such as Landform at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art and Cells of Life at Jupiter Artland.
Cells of Life, Jupiter Artland
The guiding principles of Land art include communicating a respect for the earth, bearing a crucial connection to the site of the piece, and a thought-provoking message to inspire social or ecological change. By following these principles, land artists helped to promote a more positive relationship between the audience and the earth, which was especially important during a time of such rapid urban development…
Even though the concerns of the land art movement centered around rejection of the commercialisation of art-making, it is likely this emergent trend would not have gained traction without the burgeoning ecological movement of the time. Coinciding with this rejection of urbanism and its associated life choices, land art often espoused various utopian and spiritual yearnings for Planet Earth as the home of mankind.
One of the most notorious land artists, Robert Smithson created his famous work Spiral Jetty on the northeastern shore of Utah’s Great Salt Lake in April 1970. Smithson used over 6000 tons of black basalt rocks and earth from the area to make a 1500-foot long, 15 foot wide, anti-clockwise coil. Over time the spiral has changed, existing submerged in the water or on dry land as the lake expands and contracts.
Smithson was also particularly known for the works Broken Circle/Spiral Hill (1971), and Amarillo Ramp (1973).
Spiral Jetty & Broken Circle/Spiral Hill
With a wide-ranging career spanning over five decades, Denes was a pioneering artist in many fields. She created what are considered some of the first public artworks to engage with ecological concerns in the 1960s, including Rice/Tree/Burial in 1968.
One of her most famous works is 1982’s Wheatfield – A Confrontation, a golden wheat field created in lower Manhattan over two acres of rubble-filled landfill, rather than in a remote location. She cleaned the area, covered it in over 200 truckloads of topsoil and had seeds sewn by hand before installing an irrigation system to support the wheat’s growth cycle over four months. By early Autumn, Denes harvested over one thousand pounds of grain, which travelled to 28 cities worldwide.
Denes’s work is both approachable and ecologically minded. “Wheatfield,” along with her later work — “The Living Pyramid” (2015), a grassy construction in a Queens park, or “A Forest for Australia” (1998), the reforestation of an Australian water treatment site — aren’t solitary confrontations between artist and environment but rather a kind of public offering.
Denes’s work is about how we look at the earth itself, rather than an attempt to make her mark upon it — which, as we industrialize our planet out of habitability, feels exactly right.
The wife of Robert Smithson and pioneer in her own right, Nancy Holt was known for her public sculpture, installation art and land art. Her later works were created to track the positions of the sun, earth and stars, and for relating these celestial elements to a fixed point on earth.
She is most famous for the work Sun Tunnels, which consists of four huge concrete tunnels (18 feet long and nine feet in diameter) laid in an X shape. Viewers are able to step inside these tunnels and perfectly view the sunrise and sunset during the summer and winter solstices. They can be seen from over 2km away, providing shelter in a barren stretch of Utah desert, while inside each tunnel is drilled with small holes forming the constellations of Draco, Perseus, Columba, and Capricorn. These holes allow daylight into the dark tunnels, projecting constellations onto the dark concrete.
She is also known for the work Up and Under, a series of tunnels aligned in relation to the North Star in a former sand quarry in Finland.
Sun Tunnels & Up and Under
Walter De Maria
Walter de Maria used geometric forms to create a series of repetitions in his sculptures, installations and land works.
His most famous land work, Lighting Field (1977), is a grid of one mile by one kilometre installed in the desert of Quemado, New Mexico. The grid holds four hundred stainless steel rods, each over twenty feet tall and designed to attract lightning strikes. Visitors can book overnight trips to the site from May to October, once there they can both walk inside the grid or look from afar.
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
Long is known for working with rocks, mud, and a lot of walking. 1967’s A Line Made By Walking documents a work he created as he walked back and forth across the same path near Bristol, while 1988’s Dusty Boots Line, saw him kick stones in the Sahara Desert away to clear a path. He aimed to emphasise the experience of nature alongside the time involved to create art, while also leaving a mark on the land that would disappear again within hours, making the work impossible to commercialise.
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.
A pioneer of exploring how the body relates to nature, Cuban artist Ana Mendieta created her Silueta (Silhouette) series between 1973 and 1980 by physically embedding her body into the landscape. She would cover herself with materials such as flowers or feathers and push herself into the ground until she left her mark, utilising landscape such as beaches, archaeological sites, Mexican alcoves and more.
Maya Lin first became known for winning a competition to design the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (a V-shaped wall that cuts into the surrounding landscape) in Washington D.C. while still a senior at Yale University. Her largest piece is 2008’s Storm King Wavefield; a series of undulating hills that covers over 11 acres of Storm King Art Center. These wave-like structures of earth and grass range from 12 – 18 feet. While intimidating from far away, up close they can be found covered in flowers, short grasses, butterflies, and bees.
Storm King Wavefield
after assisting muralist Diego Rivera in the 1950s, Michelle Stuart moved away from political art and towards the earth. Some of her most famous works are her large paper scrolls. She meticulously rubbed paper and muslin into the earth, leaving residue on the material, to create ‘drawings’ that gained their colours and textures from the ground itself. Examples include Sayreville Strata Quartet (1976), using red clay from Sayreville, New Jersey.
One of Stuart’s other notable works was Niagara Gorge Path Relocated (1975), where she unfurled a 460-foot-long scroll down a gorge in New York, where Niagara Falls had flowed at the time of the last glacier approximately 12,000 years earlier.
Niagara Gorge Path Relocated
Known for his large-scale works, Michael Heizer became a prominent figure of the land art movement in the late 1960s. In 1970 he created Circular Surface Planar Displacement Drawing by driving a motorbike across a dry desert lakebed to draw a series of circles measuring around 900 by 500 feet, which disappeared over time.
One of Heizer’s most famous works is 1969’s Double Negative, which consists of a huge manmade canyon 80 miles north of Las Vegas. He cut 240,000 tons of rhyolite and sandstone from cliffs on the eastern edges of the Mormon Mesa, Nevada, documenting the creation of this negative space in photographs for that were later exhibited.
Dennis Oppenheim sought to break away from traditional forms of sculpture, instead using the form to ask questions. One of his most famous works was 1968’s Annual Rings. He shovelled circular pathways in the snow, reflecting the annual rings of a tree trunk, on a frozen waterway dividing the United States and Canada, which also divides their time zones. He is also well known for works such as Directed Harvest.
Christo and Jeanne-Claude
Christo and Jeanne-Claude were a married artist duo, aiming to completely transform landscapes into new environments and forms. Their monumental work Wrapped Coast (1969) saw one and a half miles of Sydney’s coastline wrapped in metres of fabric and rope. Production took 17,000 hours over four weeks, and this concept would be repeated many times (most recently at the Arc de Triomphe). Other notable works included Valley Curtain (1970 – 72), Running Fence (1972-76), and Surrounded Islands (1980 – 83).
Charles Ross uses sunlight and starlight as the source for his art, creating prisms to project solar spectrum into varying spaces. The infamous work Star Axis (set to open in 2025) is both a sculpture and an astrologically aligned observatory in New Mexico. All of Star Axis’s shapes and angles are determined by earth-to-star alignments; they are built into the sculpture so viewers can experience them in human scale. Construction began in the 1970s and, once open to the public, different tunnels and chambers will showcase different alignments.
In the 70s and 80s, Lita Albuquerque was known for her ephemeral pigment drawings, which she installed everywhere from the Mojave Desert to the Great Pyramids of Giza. She created the first large site-specific artwork in Antarctica, Stellar Axis, in 2006. It consisted of 99 blue spheres that corresponded in size and location to the stars above at the time of installation. Over the course of the installation, the earth rotated, changing the alignment between the spheres and stars, and marking the passing of time and space.
Alice Aycock began creating land art in the early 70s, cutting through landscapes with complex tunnels, wells and mazes. Viewers were invited to climb through dark spaces, creating both fear and excitement. One of her seminal works was 1973’s Low Building with Dirt Roof (For Mary), built on her family’s farm. Resembling a partially buried house, the structure rose just out of the ground, under a planted roof that matched crops from surrounding fields. To fully experience the work, viewers had to lie down in a small entrapment, bringing their bodies as close as possible to the earth.
Low Building with Dirt Roof (For Mary)
Dedicating to artmaking that addressed the character and history of the American South, Beverly Buchanan’s 1981 work Marsh Ruins was situated in Georgia’s Marshes of Glynn. The site was close to St. Simons Island, where a group of slaves died by suicide in 1803. She planted concrete forms in the marshes, covering them in a mixture of sand, water, and lime that was used in the construction of plantations and slave living quarters. Over time it cracked and sunk into the mud, while Buchanan documented this erosion on video.
Though often considered a minimalist, Donald Judd’s concerns overlapped with the main principles of land art. He was particularly interested in how a work of art and its surroundings related to each other, considering the space itself to be key to the work.
Created from 1980-84, his infamous 15 Works in Concrete features large boxes placed on the edge of his estate in Marfa, Texas.
15 Works in Concrete
While all of this work is different, making land art a little hard to pin down as a genre, one thing each artist has in common is an appreciation of the world around us. Every work draws attention to the environment it’s in and the conditions at the time of its creation. They invite us to open up and really see our surroundings, whilst also recognising the constantly shifting nature of our earth as pieces are left to change and disintegrate with the elements. Each of these artists encourages us to see a little differently, and invites us to see the natural world as something we’re in dialogue with, a source of collaboration, not a space we dominate.