A movement beginning in the 1960s that sought a direct engagement with nature, creating artworks in and with the landscape.
Land Art is often situated in nature and made from natural materials, including soil, rock, boulders and trees, sometimes along with man-made materials such as concrete, metal and asphalt. Many artists have cited huge, ambitiously scaled sculptures in remote or hard to reach places. Others have made highly ephemeral work which exists primarily through photographs, diagrams or written texts.
The Origins of Land Art
Land Art emerged in the late 1960s in the United States as part of a wider interest in ecology and the preservation of the environment, along with a rise in political activism and women’s liberation. Many artists made work as a protest against both the commercial art market and an increasingly industrialised and polluted urban society. A psychoanalyst in Art in America in 1969 described Earth Art as:
‘The manifestation of a desire to escape the city that is eating us alive, and perhaps a farewell to space and earth while there are still some left.’
Japanese-American artist Isama Noguchi’s 1941 design for Contoured Playground in New York has been cited as one of the first examples of land art, a playground for children composed of undulating, biomorphic forms. American artist Alan Sonfist’s pioneering work with nature was also considered highly influential; his Time Landscape, 1965, placed an urban forest in the centre of New York City, a project which took over 10 years to complete. Land and Earth Art also drew from Minimalism, Conceptual Art, Italian Arte Povera and the social sculpture of Joseph Beuys.
In 1968 the movement was cemented by the survey exhibition Earth Works, at the Dwan Gallery in New York. Organised by Robert Smithson, the work of Sol LeWitt, Walter De Maria, Michael Heizer and many others was featured. Not long after, Earth was held at Cornell University’s art museum in Ithaca, New York in 1969.
Land Art in the United States
The United States’ vast stretches of land offered seemingly limitless possibilities for American Land artists, who situated site specific interventions in its deserts, prairies and mountains. Perhaps the most famous is Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, 1970, a 1,500 foot long counter-clockwise coil built from mud, salt, crystals and basalt rocks in an abandoned site on the Great Salt Lake in Utah. His sculpture still exists today, sometimes visible, other times submerged by the lake’s flowing water. Walter De Maria’s powerful Lightning Field 1977 is situated in Catron County, New Mexico, comprised of 400 steel poles with pointed tips arranged into a 1 mile long grid, drawing attention to the site’s frequent lightning storms.
Land Art in the UK
In the UK, Hamish Fulton and Richard Long were among the most prominent artists who developed ideas concurrent with those in the United States. Both artists consider their body’s relationship to nature, sometimes with fleeting, ephemeral statements. Fulton’s Small Birds / A Continuous 101 Mile Walk Without Sleep / Country Roads Kent and Sussex England / Full Moon 10 11 November 1992, photographs and records in words a journey made across Kent and Sussex, using imagery and text to conjure up his experience in the visitors eyes. Long’s artworks are often situated in perilous or hard to reach places , such as A Line in Japan, 1979 and A Circle in Alaska, 1977, serving as records of his journeys across the world and making reference to the fragility of our existence.
The American cultural theorist, landscape designer and architectural historian Charles Jencks has also made a number of important contributions to British Land Art, namely through his large scale, sculptural environments, including Landform , 2001 at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, and the ambitiously scaled Cells of Life, 2010 at Jupiter Artland, both interactive spaces allowing visitors to directly engage with nature.