by Ariela Osuna

  Double Negative.   Photo Unknown .
Double Negative. Photo Unknown.

The late 1960s saw the beginnings of an emerging art movement that challenged sculpture. The artists who took part in this movement moved outside of the galleries and used earth’s vast lands as canvases and nature as materials. Blurring the distinctions between landscape, architecture, sculpture, and archeology, these works of art, etched in the earth’s landscape, came to be known as “land art,” “site-specific sculpture,” or “earth work.”

Since these artworks were site-specific, or permanently located and inscribed in nature, these works were only accessible through road trips to the American Southwest, or via photographic and textual documentation exhibited in museums and galleries. In some cases, works were created for a gallery setting.

Smithson, Heizer and de Maria were major catalysts of the movement, known for their works Spiral Jetty, Double Negative, and Lightning Field, respectively. These works are scattered across Utah, Nevada and New Mexico. Although they are physically distant, they share formal and conceptual affinities in their break with history and ritualistic production. The process through which they were created imitates rituals in an effort to impose or construct a history with Earth. They’re spiritual, yet greatly physical. These paradoxes reflect the complex relationship man has with nature.  

  Spiral Jetty .  Photo by Scott Haefner .
Spiral Jetty. Photo by Scott Haefner.
  Double Negative . Photo Unknown.
Double Negative. Photo Unknown.
  Lighting Field . Photo by John Cliett, July 1979.
Lighting Field. Photo by John Cliett, July 1979.


 American action painter,  Jackson Pollock.
American action painter, Jackson Pollock.

The ritualistic processes through which land art works were created embody the complicated relationship mankind has with nature. These works of art cannot be fully appreciated without considering their production as performative by the land artists.

Similar to the post-war gestures by “American Action Painters,” such as Jackson Pollock (pictured left), Heizer’s Double Negative is characterized by the image of Heizer shoveling and flinging dirt away from his work.

Nonetheless, immersed in nature—in the lakes, deserts and valleys of the American Southwest—these performative gestures gain a deeper meaning. The performative production of these works of art can be likened to indigenous rituals performed to deities or Mother Earth.

The land artists, however, relied on industrial construction tools. The same tools that are used for the exploitation of earth’s natural resources—to tear down forests and displace debris, for example— were employed for the creation of land art. These associations are difficult to disentangle. Through destruction, land art was created.

An image of Charles Ross Constructing Star Axis near Las Vegas, New Mexico in 1976. From the documentary “Troublemakers: The Story of Land Art,” a film by James Crump. (Elizabeth Ginsberg / First Run Features).

To create Double Negative in 1969, Heizer used bulldozers to cut out two 1,500-foot-long trenches of the tabletop of the Mormon Mesa—each 30 feet wide and 50 feet deep. Heizer’s initial cuts were very precise, almost surgical. Nonetheless, the discrepancy between Heizer’s initial intervention and its current condition displays nature’s power over time. Any climatic change or seismic force has the power to decay Michael Heizer’s cavity on the earth’s surface. As such, the piece is never finished. The eroding walls of Double Negative speak to mankind’s weakness. While we might believe ourselves to be invincible, the laws of nature never cease to govern.

 Caption Constructing the Spiral Jetty, 1970. Photographs by Gianfranco Gorgoni.  © Estate of Robert Smithson, New York /DACS London, 2007.
Caption Constructing the Spiral Jetty, 1970. Photographs by Gianfranco Gorgoni. © Estate of Robert Smithson, New York /DACS London, 2007.

To create Spiral Jetty, Robert Smithson displaced a total of 6,650 tons of earth to outline a spiral in the Great Salt Lake. The topography of the site and a whirlpool in the middle delineated the spiral line Smithson created. Earth, in response to this ritual, fluctuates the rising levels of the waters in a peaceful ebb which reveals and temporarily obscures Smithson’s intervention.

Although Smithson aspired to challenge notions of temporality in admiration of nature’s entropy, the hindered visibility of this earthwork is a simple metaphor of the inconsistent, tired relationship between man and nature.


 Nazca lines, Peru.  UNESCO & Beyond.
Nazca lines, Peru. UNESCO & Beyond.

These works of arts, like their artists, were characteristically American, seeking to carve out history in the American desert by imitating Native American archeological traces. The influence of ancient archeological monuments—such as Stonehenge, the Nazca lines, the Toltec ballcourts, or Indian burial mounds—cannot be dismissed as simply influential in the tradition of sculpture.

 Xochicalco ballcourt.  EnAcademic.
Xochicalco ballcourt. EnAcademic.

These references embodied an Americanization of history. At a time when political turmoil challenged American identity, these artists sought to reinforce Western traditions with their references to primitive cultures in North America.

Not only were they trying to reinvigorate forms of contemporary art, land artists were trying to re-create history. By crafting their own set of geoglyphs, land artists were looking to leave a mark in the landscape similar to those created by Native American civilizations.

However, the land art works don’t succeed in competing with the history of ancient civilizations as they’re the outcome of individualistic endeavors, not collective pursuits. Through their individualism and industrial production, they become a break from history, rather than an adherence to it.

  Spiral Jetty . Photo by  Ray Boren, Deseret News archives .
Spiral Jetty. Photo by Ray Boren, Deseret News archives.

The creation of ahistorical American archeological monuments calls into question the relationship between modern Americans and indigenous communities. While Smithson, Heizer and de Maria appear to show fascination these native cultures, controversy emerged over cultural appropriation, which underscores the complicated relationship between Americans and Native Americans, who have struggled to maintain land they previously held for centuries.

The American objectives of these earthworks were criticized and the artists were accused of being haughty. Images of the artists at work wearing denim and cowboy boots underpinned the criticisms of the Westernization, or rather, the Americanization of art.

On a simpler level, land art’s adherence to a prehistoric past is a break in linear history which underscores land artists’ rejection of the contemporary culture. Their references to primitive earth works stresses their alignment with the prehistoric past—one uncorrupted by mass media and consumer culture. While contemporary artists, such as Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, capitalized on the rise of popular culture, land artists moved away from it—both physically and ideologically. Specifically, land artists tried to create their own relics of contemporary America, distancing themselves from the popular culture. This suggests that these artists had larger, albeit inconclusive, aspirations for their art.


  Lightning Field .  Photo .
Lightning Field.

In their immense interventions in nature, land artists appear to be interested in pursuing the sublime. The sublime, according to Edmund Burke’s definition, is a way to describe landscapes or vistas that induce terror through their evocation of solitude, vastness, or power, rather than pure beauty.

The colossal scale of land art is at once awe-inspiring and terrifying. At such a scale, the viewer is completely immersed in nature. Furthermore, these sites were usually remote or uninhabited. The remote location of each work completely is free from the comfort of human population. Viewers are greatly reminded of the extent of the earth’s landscape.  

Although many of the land artists speak of their work as a means to experience nature, the way in which we engage with the work of art highlights the physical experience of our bodies in nature. A simple formal analysis does not suffice. The viewer’s experience with the work is a significant component for its appreciation. Again, at times, the engagement with land art bears semblance to spirituality as it requires a pilgrimage to the American Southwest to see it firsthand.   

 Double Negative, Michael Heizer.  The Outdoor Project.
Double Negative, Michael Heizer. The Outdoor Project.
 Double Negative.  HyperAllergic.
Double Negative. HyperAllergic.

These artists intended to create an experience and a feeling of awe that is only achievable at a scale that replicates existing canyons and natural fissures on the earth’s surface. At such a scale, however, the only way to truly appreciate this work of art is to be within it.

A true appreciation for the Heizer’s work, for example, requires a visit, or pilgrimage, to the site in Nevada. Only a walk between the earth’s boulders can give the work of art a proper sense of scale. While the photographic reproduction of art has long been a contested mode of perception, given the monumental scale and site-specific permanence of land art, it becomes even more complicated.

The different viewpoints in which audiences engage with earthworks is representative of our conflicting self-awareness of and integration with nature. The viewer can engage with the work of art in one of two ways: a direct interaction with nature at the site or at a museum, gallery or even via internet looking at aerial photographs of the work. There’s a large discrepancy between viewing the work from within, as some artists intended, and viewing the work from above, as was most accessible. Through aerial photography, man gains a greater sense of self-awareness.

The scale of nature, exponentially smaller via photographic documentation, distorts the role of man as part of nature, giving a sense of dominance over nature. In person, the experience is quite the opposite. Man becomes subject to nature’s expansive domain and undeniable power when physically immersed in the deserts of the American Southwest, a true experience of the sublime.  

Article by Ariela Osuna. To follow more of her architecture & art musings, follow @art.scapades on Instagram.