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Earth Art Collage

Earth Art

Started: 1960s

Earth Art Timeline


"When a finished work of 20th century sculpture is placed in an 18th century garden, it is absorbed by the ideal representation of the past, thus reinforcing political and social values that are no longer with us."
Robert Smithson
"A work of art when placed in a gallery loses its charge, and becomes a portable object or surface disengaged from the outside world."
Robert Smithson
"My work has become a simple metaphor of life. A figure walking down his road, making his mark. It is an affirmation of my human scale and senses."
Richard Long
"It is a very desolate area, but it is totally accessible, and it can be easily visited, making Sun Tunnels more accessible really than art in museums. Eventually, as many people will see Sun Tunnels as would see many works in a city - in a museum anyway."
Nancy Holt
"I feel that the need to look at the sky - at the moon and the stars - is very basic, and it is inside all of us. So when I say my work is an exteriorization of my own inner reality, I mean I am giving back to people through art what they already have in them."
Nancy Holt
"Every good work should have at least ten meanings."
Walter de Maria
"You could say that my work is also a balance between the patterns of nature and the formalism of human, abstract ideas like lines and circles. It is where my human characteristics meet the natural forces and patterns of the world, and that is really the kind of subject of my work."
Richard Long
"If you want to see the Pieta, you go to Italy. To see the Great Wall, you go to China. My work isn't conceptual art, it's sculpture. You just have to go see it."
Michael Heizer


Robert SmithsonRobert Smithson
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Walter de MariaWalter de Maria
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Andy GoldsworthyAndy Goldsworthy
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Michael HeizerMichael Heizer
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Nancy HoltNancy Holt
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Richard LongRichard Long
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"I want to get under the surface. When I work with a leaf, rock, stick, it is not just that material in itself, it is an opening into the processes of life within and around it. When I leave it, these processes continue."

Andy Goldsworthy


Earth art, also referred to as Land art or Earthworks, is largely an American movement that uses the natural landscape to create site-specific structures, art forms, and sculptures. The movement was an outgrowth of Conceptualism and Minimalism: the beginnings of the environmental movement and the rampant commoditization of American art in the late 1960s influenced ideas and works that were, to varying degrees, divorced from the art market. In addition to the monumentality and simplicity of Minimalist objects, the artists were drawn to the humble everyday materials of Arte Povera and the participatory "social sculptures" of Joseph Beuys that stressed performance and creativity in any environment.

Key Ideas

The favored materials for Earthworks were those that could be extracted directly from nature, such as stones, water, gravel, and soil. Influenced by prehistoric artworks such as Stonehenge, Earth artists left their structures exposed to the elements. The resulting ephemerality and eventual disintegration of the works put them outside of the mainstream where works of art were typically coddled and protected in controlled environments.
Earth artists often utilized materials that were available at the site on which their works were constructed and placed, honoring the specificity of the site. Locales were commonly chosen for particular reasons. Robert Smithson, for example, picked damaged sites for his works in order to suggest renewal and rebirth. This idea of site-specificity was something introduced to the art world by Earth art, again placing the artists at the vanguard because their pieces often required wide, open spaces, meaning that many of their works were not available to the average viewer and thus questioned the very purpose of art as something to be viewed.
The rejection of traditional gallery and museum spaces defined Earth art practice. By creating their works outside of these institutions, Earth artists rebuffed the commodity status these venues conferred on art, again challenging traditional definitions of art as something to be bought and sold for profit.

Most Important Art

Earth Art Famous Art

A Line Made By Walking (1967)

Artist: Richard Long
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.
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Earth Art Artworks in Focus:


Extending Minimalist and Conceptual Ideas

Neil Jenney, Dennis Oppenheim, Gunther Uecker, Jan Dibbets, Richard Long, and Robert Smithson (left to right) with Thomas W. Leavitt (1930-2010), Director, A. D. White Museum of Art, Cornell University (standing).

The late 1960s and 1970s was one of the most experimental periods in the history of Western art with many concurrent movements and artists working simultaneously in more than one style, making it sometimes difficult to definitively attach stylistic labels to works from the period. The ethos of Earth art, for example, shared certain characteristics with Minimalism, including its concerns with how objects occupied their space; the interaction of humans with works of art; and, especially, simplicity of form. However, although the adoption of the pared down Minimalist aesthetic was often central to Earth art, the artists were typically hands-on with the documentation and process of production, at times even including a performative element; these characteristics aligned Earth artists more with Post-Minimalist tendencies such as process art, installation art, and performance Art. Earthworks, largely existing outdoors and made of natural elements, were also subject to the natural degradation and erosion that would occur with time, which was antithetical to Minimalism's more industrial and urban aesthetic, making it one of the most unique elements of the Earth art movement.

Like Conceptual art, Earth art was not just about the beauty and aesthetic pleasure offered by the artwork. Almost all Earthworks stressed the rejection of commodity status and mainstream exhibition venues, focusing instead on ephemerality. So while the majority of Earth art was visually stunning, at its core, the pieces were imbued with these concepts.

The 1960s and Virginia Dwan

Earth artists were typically products of the Vietnam era, many of whom had been drafted to fight in the war and were college educated through the G.I. Bill. Most, like Robert Smithson and Michael Heizer, began their careers as painters. Smithson's first paintings evolved from figurative abstractions to geometrical canvases, and then eventually to sculpture. In 1966, Smithson began showing with the influential gallerist Virginia Dwan, who would shape the Earth art movement significantly.

At the same time, Smithson began working as a consultant for a New York City engineering firm, a position that inspired him to plan what he called "Aerial Art" for the Dallas Fort Worth airport. Aerial Art comprised monumental works to be constructed between airport runways that were meant to be viewed from above during takeoff and landing. As an art form, Aerial Art never came to fruition, but Smithson and his colleagues, such as Carl Andre, Nancy Holt, Robert Morris, and Michael Heizer, were inspired by the idea to explore various unexploited territories in nearby New Jersey and in various western states that provided large, open spaces.

Dwan, who was the heiress to the Minnesota Mining & Manufacturing Company (3M) and had studied art, often accompanied artists to far-flung sites and provided generous patronage and support to produce Earth art projects that would have foundered with no funding. In 1968, Dwan exhibited a show entitled Earth Works at her gallery space in New York City, publicly identifying a group of pioneering artists. Some of the artists in the show were having a difficult time finding available land for their site-specific projects, so Earth Works exhibited the documentation of these projects by artists such as Sol LeWitt, Robert Morris, Claes Oldenburg, Dennis Oppenheim, and Stephen Kaltenbach. The show cataloged the conception of their work through maps, photographs, transparencies, and drawings. There is some irony in the fact that while these artists tried to eschew traditional institutions, they were often required to accept funding from them in order to further their projects. In addition, the remoteness of certain sites, many of which could only be viewed from private aircraft, meant that the movement was sometimes accused of elitism.

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Earth Art Overview Continues

Institutional Exhibitions and Global Ambitions

In February of 1969, the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell University became the first American museum to show an exhibit of Earth art, entitled simply, Earth Art. The works were displayed both at the museum and throughout the grounds of Cornell's campus in Ithaca, thus providing an institutional setting for works that would continue to question the commodity status of art, particularly those works placed on the campus which served to blur boundaries between the object and its context. Curated by Willoughby Sharp, an independent scholar and cofounder of the avant-garde art magazine Avalanche, Earth Art exhibited new works created onsite by American artists such as Robert Smithson, Robert Morris, Michael Heizer, Walter de Maria, and Dennis Oppenheim. International artists such as British artist Richard Long and German artist Hans Haacke were also included. The 1970s would usher in a new decade of extremely ambitious projects in far-flung American locales, further expanding the American contribution to Earth art.

Concepts and Styles

Site-specificity and environmentalism

Smithson delineated the concepts of "Site" and "Nonsite" to designate theoretical differences in the physical context of work produced. "Nonsite" was termed as an "indoor earthwork" and indicated a piece that could be exhibited in a gallery setting, displacing natural materials from their original sites with accompanying drawings or photographs. "Site" referred to those works created outside the gallery infrastructure in site-specific locales with materials taken from that location. Smithson's iteration of these new frameworks along with the activist mentality of the late 1960s underscored the interest of some Earth artists in socially engaged art that explored humans' relationship with the land. For many artists, this was a conscious movement away from Greenbergian modernism that instead stressed art's lack of connection to the mundane world.


Earth artists were influenced by prehistoric and ancient monuments such as Stonehenge and Native American burial mounds that were monumental in size and scale. Heizer experienced these prehistoric sites firsthand as a child, visiting various excavations with his father, who was an archaeologist. The prehistoric monuments, by means of their continued existence incorporated the passage of time through natural decay and erosion. The entropy of the materials, which were both manmade and organic, was integral to Earthworks. The pieces created outdoors by the likes of Smithson and Heizer were naturally subjected to the depredations of the elements so that decay and disintegration were part of their meaning; preservation was understood as a conceit.

Invasive and Non-invasive

Earthworks are sometimes divided into those works that make great changes to the landscape and those that do not. Works in the former category generally require earth-moving equipment to make massive alterations to a site, such as Robert Heizer's Double Negative (1969-70). Those works that are non-invasive and are seen as more respectful to the land include Richard Long's A Line Made by Walking (1967), along with pieces by Andy Goldsworthy and Alan Sonfist.

Later Developments

During the mid-1970s, the recession impacted the funding of Earth art dramatically. Many artists were dependent on patrons to purchase expensive tracts of land to complete large-scale work. In addition to the economic slump, Robert Smithson's sudden death in 1973 while surveying possible sites in Texas changed the momentum of the movement. Those who established their names through Earth art, such as De Maria, Heizer, Morris, and Andre, took their careers in other directions, reorienting their production to accommodate institutional and gallery spaces. De Maria's New York Earth Room (1977) was executed in 1977 and several international iterations were created. Heizer would also create gallery-appropriate works, reconfiguring notions of site-specificity to adapt to art world institutions. Along with other postwar Conceptual artists, Earth artists ushered in a new period of art that favored installations over discrete objects, challenging the expectations of artistic production.

The tenets of Conceptualism became dominant in the art world during this period, as many movements began to share ideas and encourage artists working in multiple institutional frameworks. Post-Minimalist movements such as Process art were strongly connected to Earth art, and many artists working between the movements would shift towards the gallery model as the economy weakened and cheap alternative spaces became available in urban locales. Conceptual art also ushered in an era of performance that translated well in gallery settings and, like Earth art, challenged traditional notions of art as a commodity because of its transitory nature. Organic materials were sometimes utilized within the gallery space, and an emphasis on the ephemeral was understood through site-specific and temporary installations.

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Useful Resources on Earth Art





The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing of this page. These also suggest some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.
Ends of the Earth: Land Art to 1974 Recomended resource

By Philipp Kaiser, Miwon Kwon, Tom Holert, Julian Meyers, Emily Scott, and Jane McFadden

Art & Place: Site-Specific Art of the Americas Recomended resource

By Editors of Phaidon

Land and Environmental Art Recomended resource

By Jeffrey Kastner and Brian Wallis

Earthworks and Beyond: Contemporary Art in the Landscape

By John Beardsley

More Interesting Books about Earth Art
Earth Art Exhibition - 1969 Recomended resource

At the Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University

Monumental Land Art: A List of Selected Websites on Earthworks Recomended resource

Land Art

Info from the Utah Museum of Fine Arts

Alan Sonfist: Official Website

More Interesting Websites about Earth Art
Rethinking "Land Art"

By Bianca Nandzik
Fair Observer
May 26, 2013

Land Art: Earthworks that Defined Postwar American Art Recomended resource

By Dana Micucci
Art & Antiques Magazine
April 2012

Earth Markers

By Tom Vanderbilt
The New York Times
July 27, 2008

This Land Is Her Land (and Her Artwork, Too)

By Karen Rosenberg
The New York Times
July 13, 2008

More Interesting Articles about Earth Art
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