Beginnings of Earth Art

Extending Minimalist and Conceptual Ideas

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.

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.

Earth Art: Concepts, Styles, and Trends

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 (soon evolving into the related, but independent Environmental Art movement). 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 - After Earth Art

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.

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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  • 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.

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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]. .
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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