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Earth Art

Started: 1960s

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Important Art and Artists of Earth Art

The below artworks are the most important in Earth Art - that both overview the major ideas of the movement, and highlight the greatest achievements by each artist in Earth Art. Don't forget to visit the artist overview pages of the artists that interest you.

A Line Made By Walking (1967)
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A Line Made By Walking (1967)

Artist: Richard Long

Artwork description & Analysis: Made while Richard Long was a student in London, A Line Made By Walking documents a work he created as he walked back and forth across the same path in Wiltshire. Here, Long emphasizes the experiential factor of nature through the act of walking and the temporal factor involved in artistic practice, while also having an impact on the land. The subject matter is the interaction of the journey, marking the ground, and making a simple adjustment to the landscape. With its simple, geometric shape and minimal intervention on the site, the work is also reminiscent of - and perhaps influential to - later Minimalist works such as Richard Serra's To Encircle Base Plate Hexagram, Right Plates Inverted (1970). Like most Earthworks, the piece is site specific and ephemeral. The photographs document the work's temporary existence, but do not solely constitute the work itself. While the photographs simply mark the performance of the work, the documentation process was sometimes important to artists working in Earth art, as it was often the only way to evidence the creation of the work. The work was groundbreaking in its utter simplicity and ephemerality as it would have been invisible within hours or days as nature would have taken its course, thus also making the piece useless as a commodity object.

Documentation of performance

Double Negative (1969-70)
Artwork Images

Double Negative (1969-70)

Artist: Michael Heizer

Artwork description & Analysis: In 1969, with financial assistance from Virginia Dwan, Michael Heizer began this massive work that cut 240,000 tons of rhyolite and sandstone from cliffs to create two trenches on the eastern edges of the Mormon Mesa, northwest of Overton, Nevada. As few could visit the site after the work's completion, Heizer documented the production of the work in photographs and exhibited them at the Dwan Gallery in New York. With Double Negative, Heizer enacts a heroic gesture by removing earth from its site, forcing a contemplation of the manmade processes that constitute the artwork and the natural, physical elements that exist outside of it. He places Double Negative directly in the context of art history and architecture, touching upon megalithic ancient monuments as well as modern feats of engineering in the industrial age. Although the work required a great deal of labor, it consists of negative space; it is basically a 1,500-foot-long canyon into which a viewer would enter to be surrounded on three sides by 50-foot walls of earth. Its site-specificity and remoteness are typical of Earth art, as few viewers would be able to visit it. Its presence in the open air of the desert also means that it is subject to the environment and will eventually disintegrate. Connecting the work to Minimalism is its simplicity of design, the importance of the kinesthetic response of the viewer to its meaning, and its monumental size that was meant to overwhelm the spectator, which, much like Ronald Bladen's X (1967-68), makes them feel their smallness within the immensity of nature (and the work of art).

Two trenches dug out in the Mormon Mesa

Spiral Jetty (1970)
Artwork Images

Spiral Jetty (1970)

Artist: Robert Smithson

Artwork description & Analysis: Realized in April 1970, Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty is one of the most recognizable works from the Earth art movement. Smithson constructed a 1,500-foot-long and fifteen-foot-wide spiral made of stones, algae, and other organic materials (6,000 tons in all) in the northeastern part of Utah's Great Salt Lake. The Ace Gallery of Vancouver and Dwan financed an earth-moving company to create the spiral out of basalt rock and earth from the surrounding area. In 1972, when the water level rose, the work became submerged. Thirty years later, as the lake's water levels changed, Spiral Jetty became visible again, revealing the basalt rock crusted over with white salt. The work was inspired by the Pre-Columbian structure Serpent Mound, which Smithson had seen on a site visit in Ohio. Spiral Jetty and Smithson's body of work as a whole were typical of Earth art in their protest against the commodification of the art market since it was impossible to buy or sell the work. The physical mutability and even invisibility of the work resulting from natural processes, such as water currents and erosion, were essential to its meaning. As a work of art that was not only remote, but also at times impossible to view because of the forces of nature, Spiral Jetty is one of the best examples of Earth art and also underscores the movement's roots in Conceptualism.

Basalt rock, limestone, earth, and algae configured in a spiral off the shore of the Great Salt Lake

Sun Tunnels (1973-76)
Artwork Images

Sun Tunnels (1973-76)

Artist: Nancy Holt

Artwork description & Analysis: Positioning four gigantic concrete hollow cylinders, each measuring nine feet in diameter, Nancy Holt arranged her tunnels at precise geographical points to correspond with the sunrise and sunset during the summer and winter solstices, much like Stonehenge. Fascinated by astronomy, Holt punctured the cylinders with holes of differing sizes to create shadows of select constellations. Like some other Earth artists, Holt had a significant interest in science and ecology, actively informed by her undergraduate work at Tufts University. Sun Tunnels closely examines the physical qualities of perception, marking accurate positions of the sun on the horizon and allowing light to filter through the starry holes according to the position of available light. Holt created preparatory light works on paper, which captured the play of sunlight in two- and three-dimensional models. Her research-based practice and interest in remote locales connected Holt not only to other artists working in this mode, but also to the Conceptual interest in the intersection of art and ideas. The work is not meant to disintegrate as the majority of Earthworks, but it draws attention to the details of nature in a site-specific and remote locale.

Four 18 foot concrete cylinders

The Lightning Field (1977)
Artwork Images

The Lightning Field (1977)

Artist: Walter de Maria

Artwork description & Analysis: This work consists of 400 poles that are each set 220 feet apart in a grid format. The height of the piece varies from 15 to 26 feet depending on the level of the land. While the highly polished poles are meant to visually mark the undulations of the landscape, their primary function is to attract lightning, especially during lightning storm season in late summer when lightning strikes the rods and illuminates the installation. De Maria's use of a precise grid format is drawn from Minimalism, but the viewer's experience will depend on a number of environmental factors outside of the artist's control. For example, the work's visual impact is based on fluctuations in weather and the change of seasons; the piece would lose much of its attraction at times of the year when lightning is infrequent. As with most Earthworks, the site is remote and viewing is made more difficult by the requirement for viewers to stay overnight at cabins on site; no children are allowed. Much like Nancy Holt's Sun Tunnels, De Maria's work pairs fleeting moments of nature with the heroic materials of manmade industry.

400 stainless steel poles arranged in a grid measuring 1 x 1 km

Wheatfield (1982)
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Wheatfield (1982)

Artist: Agnes Denes

Artwork description & Analysis: Denes and her assistants cleared the Battery Park landfill and planted nearly two acres of golden wheat. The planting cycle was completed between May and August of that year, and the process involved establishing an irrigation system, weeding, fertilizing, and protecting the wheat from mildew. After much tending, one thousand pounds of wheat was eventually harvested and traveled around the world in the exhibition "The International Art Show for the End of World Hunger," which highlighted larger issues of human struggle inherent in agriculture and land use as well as the uncomplicated pleasures of nature.

Two acres of wheat planted in the Battery Park landfill

Pebbles, broken and scraped white with another stone (1985)
Artwork Images

Pebbles, broken and scraped white with another stone (1985)

Artist: Andy Goldsworthy

Artwork description & Analysis: Like his fellow countryman, Richard Long, Andy Goldsworthy seeks to establish a temporal relationship in his work. Goldsworthy manipulates nature, reworking organic materials such as stone, branches, flora, water, and snow to create fleeting impressions in a natural setting. The seemingly "final" work is recorded through documentation, but the process and the eventual disintegration of the work inform its status as well. The title of this work, Pebbles, broken and scraped white with another stone, dutifully explains the process by which the work was created, the materials that were used, and the physical properties of the work. Although Goldsworthy has documented an artwork, the work will eventually erode and lose its status as art through the passage of time. As with the work of all Earth artists, Goldsworthy's work questions the relationship that humans have with history, time, landscape, and natural processes.



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Related Art and Artists

The Wave Field (1995)
Artwork Images

The Wave Field (1995)

Artist: Maya Lin

Artwork description & Analysis: Designed for the FXB Aerospace Building on the University of Michigan campus, this outdoor sculptural installation engages one of Lin's earliest and most fundamental passions: science. Specifically inspired by the movement of water, the work is about fluidity. A three-month study of fluid dynamics, aerodynamics, and turbulence, conducted by the artist on site, preceded the work. While visibly indebted to other large-scale Earth Works (Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty comes to mind), alignment between the conceptual and formal properties of Lin's work is much closer. For example, its precise 90' by 90' grid of rising crests mimics that of a naturally occurring wave. Lin selected a particular wave type that brought together all areas she had been researching, including fluid dynamics, flight resistance, and turbulence.

Literally part of the ground on which the artist designed it, this delightful sculpture is at once playful and intellectual. Walking across it is quite different from viewing it through the window of one of the adjacent classrooms. It changes throughout the day as the sun passes and shadows emerge on different parts of it, achieving Lin's goal to highlight the interconnectedness between art and landscape.

Earth and grass - University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan

Grapefruit (1964)
Artwork Images

Grapefruit (1964)

Movement: Conceptual Art

Artist: Yoko Ono

Artwork description & Analysis: Yoko Ono's extremely plain-looking and oddly titled book, Grapefruit, first released in 1964, is an important early example of Conceptual art and of the link between it and Fluxus. Although the work, technically speaking, is an object, the art extends beyond its material constraints as it contains a series of artistic "event scores" - various instructions for readers to carry out, if they so choose. Listing some 150 sets of instructions divided into five sections (Music, Painting, Event, Poetry, and Object), Grapefruit acts as something of a user's manual in the Fluxus tradition with a perspective similar to Joseph Beuys's that "every human being is an artist." This book not only subordinates the importance of the physical object to the document or springboard for artistic practice, but also allows for execution of the works by anyone, potentially resulting in an infinite number of artworks stemming from one source. As with other Conceptual works, however, whether the instructions are in fact carried out is of little importance, as the artistic idea is paramount.

Book - First edition of 500, Wunternaum Press, Tokyo

Lever (1966)
Artwork Images

Lever (1966)

Movement: Minimalism

Artist: Carl Andre

Artwork description & Analysis: Carl Andre's Lever was the most audacious entry at the 1966 Primary Structures exhibition that introduced the public to Minimalism. This row of 137 firebricks aligned to project out from the wall and straight across the floor was likened by Andre to a fallen column. Lever startled gallery visitors, interrupted their movement and, in its simplicity, was annoying. Made from easily available building materials ("anyone could do it: where was the art?"), Lever demanded respect from thoughtful viewers while undermining traditional artistic values. Such provocations became routine for Andre: "my ambition as an artist is to be the 'Turner of matter.' As Turner severed color from depiction, so I attempt to sever matter from depiction." He went on to describe wood as the "mother of matter" and praised bricklayers as "people of fine craft."

In this way, Andre's Lever along with many Minimalist works challenged how art was situated in the gallery and how viewers interacted with it. Art no longer was hung discreetly on the wall or placed on a pedestal in the corner as something to enjoy in a purely visual way. It now required a more complex and thoughtful interaction from the viewer. This piece is made of nontraditional materials that call to mind industrial or building materials that require no manipulation from the hand of the artist. While the work is nonrepresentational, the title is suggestive of manual labor.

Fireplace bricks - Collection of the Artist

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