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

Summary of Earth Art

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 & Accomplishments

  • 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.

Overview of Earth Art

Earth Art Photo

"In my Land art dealing with astronomical phenomena, I am putting 'centers of the universe' wherever I go," Nancy Holt said. Her Sun Tunnels in the desert of Utah were meant, she said, "to make people conscious of the cyclical time of the universe."

Key Artists

  • Robert Smithson was an American artist best known for his innovations in Land and Earth Art. Smithson's large-scale projects employed earth and other natural resources to construct works that both manipulated and preserved the natural landscape. His most famous work is Spiral Jetty in Utah, constructed entirely from basalt, earth and salt.
  • Walter de Maria is an American sculptor, composer, and multi-media artist whose best known work is The Lightning Field (1977), consisting of 400 lightning rods situated on a field in New Mexico.
  • Andy Goldsworthy creates site-specific, delicate, and intricate Earthworks. He often uses photography to capture his nature-based artworks at their apexes.
  • Michael Heizer is an American artist who specializes in Land art installations and environments. Heizer's most celebrated pieces are Earthworks that rely on the alteration but ultimate preservation of the natural landscape, such as Double Negative (1969), in which Heizer cut a 1500-foot long trench into a mesa in the Nevada desert.
  • Nancy Holt is best known for working with Earth art, Installation art, and large-scale public sculpture. After her artist husband Robert Smithson died in 1973, Holt turned her focus on her own art and created the seminal Sun Tunnels.
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Do Not Miss

  • Environmental Art refers to art dealing with ecological issues in the aethetic, formal, the political, the historical, or the social context. First associated with Earth art, the expanding term of Environmental Art also encompasses the scope of the urban landscape.
  • Post-Minimalism refers to a range of art practices that emerged in the wake of Minimalism in the late 1960s, such as Body art, Performance, Process art, Site-Specific art, and aspects of Conceptual art. Some artists created art objects that do not have the representational function of traditional sculpture, objects that often have a strong material presence; others reacted against Minimalism's impersonality, and reintroduced emotionally expressive qualities.
  • Conceptual art describes an influential movement that first emerged in the mid-1960s and prized ideas over the formal or visual components of traditional works of art. The artists often challenged old concepts such as beauty and quality; they also questioned the conventional means by which the public consumed art; and they rejected the conventional art object in favor of diverse mediums, ranging from maps and diagrams to texts and videos.

Important Art and Artists of Earth 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.

Double Negative (1969-70)

Artist: Michael Heizer

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).

Spiral Jetty (1970)

Artist: Robert Smithson

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.

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Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

"Earth Art Movement Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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First published on 17 Jun 2015. Updated and modified regularly
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