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Suzaan Boettger
Earthworks: Art and the Landscape of the Sixties

Claes Oldenburg (kneeling) overseeing the preparation of his Placid Civic Monument in Central Park, 1967

Virginia Dwan at the Dwan Gallery, New York, 1969

Brian W. Aldiss, Earthworks (Signet, 1966)

Dennis Oppenheim
Annual Rings

Robert Smithson
Spiral Jetty
Land Rush
by James Croak

Suzaan Boettger, Earthworks: Art and the Landscape of the Sixties, 316 pp., University of California Press, 2002, $50

Art has always been linked to the earth. Early tools for hoeing and digging had handles that were decorated beyond what would be needed to gain a purchase, as if working the land produced a sacred mystery that needed to be recorded. Ritual markings directly onto the earth date back into prehistory, and include the evolved esthetics of Aboriginal sand drawings, the lyrical markings in caves at Chavet Pont-d'arc, the volcanic ash carvings by Moai on Easter Island and the gigantic land drawings on the Nazca plains of Southern Peru.

As Western civilization formed, for two millennia paint was brewed by mining rocks and minerals and mashing them into a paste. The mortar & pestle was so intrinsic to the art that Marcel Duchamp claimed that the first readymades were the commercial paints in tubes that appeared in the late 1850s, store-bought colors separating the artist from the earth, the original sin as it were.

In the second half of the 20th century, following Minimalism and preceding Performance Art, there was a moment when artists found their feet by looking beneath their shoes. During 1966-1974, a handful of artists displaced the studio with the vacant lot and gave up their brushes and carving tools for the bulldozer and dump truck.

Until now we haven't had a thorough description lacing the concatenation of causes that gave rise to this dramatic art, indeed we hadn't even a source of photos for this period. With her new book, Earthworks: Art and the Landscape of the Sixties, the New York art historian and writer Suzaan Boettger has filled that gap.

Flipping through Boettger's vitae, my first impression is that she has been selling art history door to door. I began humming Willy Nelson's On the Road Again as I scanned her long typed hodgepodge of one-night stands in whatever backwater bog had a check to write. Like the circuit pastors before her, wherever the stagecoach stopped she hopped out and preached the gospel of contemporary art. A night course here, a lecture there, a review or critique, the odd 50-buck panel.

I suspect all of that is behind her now, for Boettger has produced a major historical document. It is meticulously researched -- the 69-page bibliography and notes alone are thick enough to bludgeon a thesis advisor -- and given that most art writing sings the rhythm of a rental lease I dreaded the 316 pages in front of me.

But Boettger does not drone on like an academic sermon; rather, she engages readers with the timbre of a joyful storyteller, I found myself in Clancyland, grabbing handfuls of pages at each sitting and looking forward to her next tale. Boettger writes with such staggering authority that this could be taken for her tenth book and not her first.

The saga of land art begins, improbably enough, with a grave dug in New York's Central Park by Claes Oldenburg in 1967 as part of "Sculpture in the Environment," an official government event. Claes didn't do the digging himself, but rather hired cemetery workers at standard scale. With this odd act began a chapter of art history that became known as "earthworks."

Boettger builds the narrative pebble by pebble, following the now familiar path: off the wall, onto the floor, out of the gallery, into the ground and finally out of town, landing us in the Big Sky Country of the vast Western United States. Pivotal to the movement was a seminal 1968 show at New York's Dwan Gallery, titled "Earth Works" and showcasing ten artists already working on the land (Carl Andre, Herbert Bayer, Michael Heizer, Stephen Kaltenbach, Sol LeWitt, Walter De Maria, Robert Morris, Oldenburg, Dennis Oppenheim and Robert Smithson).

Boettger focuses on the meandering journey of these early earthworkers as they matured. Nine of them had already lived in the West prior to coming to New York City, a detail that seems telling now. Similarly, Robert Smithson, a science fiction fan and painter of monsters, was wandering New Jersey's toxic badlands seeking earthwork sites, all the while carrying a copy of Brian Aldiss' 1965 sci-fi novel Earthworks in his hip pocket, the story of a man wandering the planet transporting barges of sand here and there. Smithson first introduced the term earthworks into contemporary art, a term then that presumably came via sci-fi fantasy.

Boettger does a good job of setting the earthworks movement within a context of growing environmental awareness (although Eisenhower's 1955 Clean Air Act gets misplaced in the Nixon administration). While ecology might have played a part in the initial reception of early earthworks, it had little to do with their design, which in general gave no consideration to their surroundings.

These art-carpetbaggers wandered from the studio onto the land with a pre-existing and developed language having little to do with the natural surroundings in which they found themselves. Serial art turncoat Sol LeWitt, for example, himself dug a grave and dropped one of his trademark cubes into it in order to gain entrance to Dwan's "Earth Works" show.

Other artists, like Goliath with a paint kit, more often than not simply used vacant acreage like an immense canvas. Similarly, works that were carved into the earth as bas-relief only echo the popular formalist sculpture of the time -- lots of straight lines, squares, circles and cones, as if shipped intact from the studio. (The complete absence of figuration in contemporary earthworks -- despite examples like the aforementioned Nazca line drawings and Mount Rushmore -- is in retrospect something of a faux pas.)

On the other hand, Robert Smithson was so unconcerned with ecology or the natural, and fascinated by ruins, that one of his pieces called for covering an island in Vancouver's pristine Strait of Georgia with tons of broken glass. One can imagine sea birds getting chopped up as they sought a resting place; fortunately it was prevented by a local ecology group.

One exception to all this ecological disinterestedness is Dennis Oppenheim, who was the first earthworks artist to start his career as an earthworks artist (the rest migrated from other trades, language intact). His works rise from the land, and show a characteristic wit. In Direct Seeding, a farmer drove his combine through a wheat field harvesting in rhythmic undulating patterns instead of mind-numbing rows, a work that added to the surroundings, an invisible gain in beauty. His Annual Rings trudged in the snow delineating the Canadian American border is this writer's personal favorite, informed by the surroundings, and at once ironic and peaceful.

Driving this movement much more than ecology was the social milieu of the 1960s and the utopian Marxist ideas of the time, seized upon by the youth movement in an idealistic search for egalitarianism. Inasmuch as the phenomenal run up in contemporary art prices was already under way and had become synonymous with the privileged class, these land-art rebels went the other way, constructing their art in situations where it could be neither collected nor sold.

In a comical reversal of the stolid European order, Oppenheim, apparently forever in the snow, copied the floor plan of the Holland's ornate Stedelijk Museum onto a snow-covered lot in blue-collar New Jersey. One has to admire this anti-precious gesture, but we see quickly that the hated marketplace was durable enough to absorb even this. Almost immediately, artists began carting yards of dirt, rock and grass into galleries and museums for discreet pieces that were very much intended to become private property. In 1968 Walter De Maria filled a Munich gallery with 1,600 cubic feet of topsoil, a piece that became known as the Munich Earth Room, and then listed it for sale at $7,000, the annual income of a non-Marxist family of four.

The book concludes with two seminal events in 1973 that becalmed the land art movement. First was the early death of Robert Smithson in a plane crash while viewing his next site. Soon after came the conceptual earthquake caused by the auction at Sotheby's of the contemporary collection of Robert and Ethyl Scull, a runaway sale credited with turning the emotional pursuit of art into a business deal.

Several of the most ambitious land artists shrugged and left town, heading for their roots in the vast open spaces of America's outback. There they remain today, laboring on mammoth earthworks on par with those created previously by whole civilizations. Spiritually, Earthworks ends in the arid western desert with Michael Heizer's mammoth Double Negative, James Turrell's gigantic Roden Crater and de Maria's frightful Lightning Field.

It is an area of the world where urban dwellers feel they have departed the planet, a place where silence is a physical rather than a theoretical reality, where the bright heat of the day and still dryness assault with a feeling of danger, each night brings a light show arching from horizon to horizon, a billion stars, brighter than we can imagine, inscribing our brief and tiny existence. . . .

For some it is the only place to make an artwork, the only possible setting for true greatness. It is the singular experience many earth artists sought to memorialize in a hundred ways, and one this book does so well for us.

Most of JAMES CROAK's sculpture is made of dirt.