Environmental art is a broad term encapsulating art that creates an immersive ‘environment’, often made for an urban or rural space, as opposed to a traditional gallery. The term was popularised in the late 1960s by artists pushing the boundaries of sculpture and is often closely linked with Land Art. The scope of environmental art is very broad and can be fragile and ephemeral, solid and permanent, large or small scale.
Environmental Art in the 1960s and 70s
American artist Allan Kaprow is also often referred to as the pioneer of environmental art with his experimental, interactive ‘happenings’ and ‘environments’ produced in a range of settings. In 1961 he created ‘Yard’ in the back yard of the Martha Jackson Gallery in New York, filling the space with car tyres and other objects wrapped in tarpaper. Visitors were invited to climb on the objects and instructed to ‘rearrange the tyres’. Kaprow wrote in 1998, ‘According to the first principles of Environmental Art … (Yard) must always change.’ Kaprow was a pioneer in developing a new form of art which visitors could interact with in an outdoor setting, leading the way for a new generation.
In Europe and the United States in the 1960s and ‘70s a rising interest in the landscape as a site of creativity and harmony with nature developed, with artists producing expanded sculptures, performances and installations in the environment, many of which would come to be termed Land Art. Prominent artists to emerge in the United States were Christo and Jeanne-Claude, and Robert Morris, who produced ambitious, vastly proportioned outdoor sculptures. In the UK, Richard Long and Andy Goldsworthy responded to the environment with a Romantic sensibility, often producing ephemeral, temporary artworks. In Long’s A Line Made by Walking, 1967 he made the first of many artworks produced through the movement of his body, walking back and forth across a stretch of field to flatten a long line of grass.
German artist Joseph Beuys was also acutely aware of the environment and our important relationship with it. Regeneration was an important topic which he addressed in numerous works including 7000 Oak Trees, 1982, in which he planned to plant 7000 oak trees throughout the city of Kassel.
Glasgow School of Art
The term Environmental Art is also often closely affiliated with Glasgow School of Art. In the late 1980s the school of Sculpture and Environmental Art was established, where the now-retired David Harding taught students to make art which was driven by ideas rather than one traditional medium. He encouraged them to make artwork out in the real world, in Glasgow’s empty, derelict buildings or unconventional public spaces rather than behind the closed doors of the art school, teaching them that the ‘context’ for making work was as important as the work itself.
Prominent artists to emerge include Douglas Gordon, Jim Lambie, Christine Borland, Cathy Wilkes, Lucy Skaer, Nathan Coley, Karla Black and David Shrigley, many of them Turner Prize nominees or winners. German curator Hans Ulrich Obrist famously described the city’s international success as ‘The Glasgow Miracle’, while Sarah Lowndes’ book Social Sculpture: The Rise and Fall of the Glasgow Art Scene, 2010 puts their practice into greater context.