Deep in the Nevada badlands, not far from the U.S. Air Force base that houses Area 51, a fantastical, monumental structure rises in a scrub-filled valley. Measuring one and a half miles long and a half mile wide, it’s built out of unfathomable amounts of dirt, gravel, and concrete, packed, groomed, and smoothed into a sinuous procession of mounds, berms, roadways, and basins. A sculpted vista bookended at either end by brutalist edifices resembling extraterrestrial highway interchanges, the place looks like a fever dream from the TV show Ancient Aliens.
City, as it’s called, is the handiwork of artist Michael Heizer, who constructed it over a period of 50 years at the cost of $40 million, marking it as a watershed achievement of a genre that Heizer helped to pioneer: Land art.
Not to be confused with outdoor sculpture, which uses nature as a backdrop for an object that could potentially be moved elsewhere, Land art (a term used interchangeably with Earth Art or earthworks) is site-specific—that is, linked directly to its location so that it can exist only there and nowhere else.
Emerging during the late 1960s and early ’70s, Land art was coeval with the nascent environmental movement as well as the larger countercultural ethos that played out in the art world as a rejection of the entire system for creating and distributing art. Since Land art shunned urban environments altogether, it was arguably the most radical expression of this idea.
Land art’s practitioners were inspired by mammoth ancient endeavors such as the Nazca Lines in Peru, the Great Serpent Mound in Ohio, and Britain’s Stonehenge, and for this reason, the genre owes as much to the distant past as to avant-gardism. Megaliths, geoglyphs, and tumuli provided templates for artists such a Heizer and many others, including Robert Smithson and his wife, Nancy Holt. Their undertakings often appear to have been shifted in time through a kind of archaeological futurism. It’s no accident that Heizer’s father was a professor at UC Berkeley who specialized in prehistoric megaliths, or that Smithson and Holt were both fascinated by ancient ruins.
Harvey Fite and Herbert Bayer
Land art proper arose as a 20th-century phenomenon, and in that respect, two artists, Harvey Fite (1903–1976) and Herbert Bayer (1900–1985), anticipated the practice decades avant la lettre.
In 1938, Fite, who taught at Bard College in upstate New York, purchased a 12-acre property in a nearby town that included woodlands surrounding an abandoned bluestone quarry. His original aim was to build a terraced sculpture garden featuring his figurative carvings, including a centerpiece called Flame. But as he turned the area into a sprawl of dry-fitted ramps, pedestals, and platforms, Fite realized that it had evolved into an artwork of its own. Keeping to its rough-hewn appearance, he replaced Flame with an abstract stele of raw rock. In the 1960s, he titled his work Opus 40, to represent the number of years he expected it would take to complete it. In 1976, just three years short of that mark, Fite was killed while working on the piece, which covered 6.5 acres.
In 1954 Bayer, an Austrian-born graphic designer, painter, photographer, and sculptor associated with the Bauhaus, created Earth Mound in Aspen, Colorado. This circular, grass-covered berm measured 42 feet across and surrounded a boulder, a small crater, and the eponymous hillock; a photo of it was included in gallerist Virginia Dwan’s seminal 1968 exhibition, “Earth Works.”
Land Art and American Exceptionalism
From its inception, Land art echoed aspects of the picturesque, which had a particular historical resonance in America. While Land art wasn’t exclusive to the United States, it flourished most prominently in the deserts of Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, and Utah, where the terrain reverberated with echoes of Manifest Destiny and the country’s expansion west. In their own ways, artists such as Heizer, Smithson, Holt, Walter De Maria, and James Turrell furthered a tradition of romanticizing the frontier, as the landscapes of 19th-century American painters like Albert Bierstadt had done before them.
Michael Heizer and Robert Smithson
Michael Heizer and Robert Smithson (1938–1973) played an outsize role in Land art’s development. Heizer (born 1944) made one of the earliest earthworks, North, East, South, West (1967), which comprised geometrically shaped holes dug in the Sierra Nevada. Similarly, his Double Negative (1969), located 80 miles from Las Vegas, involved cutting a pair of long, straight trenches into the top of a mesa; measuring 30 by 50 feet each, and displacing some 240,000 tons of sandstone, they face each other across a natural chasm in the mesa’s side.
Still, Smithson is credited with Land Art’s most iconic expression: Spiral Jetty, which juts from the northeastern shore of Great Salt Lake in Utah. Constructed in 1970 from 6,650 tons of mud, salt crystals, and basalt, Spiral Jetty consists of a 1,500-foot-long, 15-foot-wide ramp coiling counterclockwise into the water. It made Smithson a star—which irked Heizer, who claimed that Smithson had stolen his ideas.
But while Heizer was interested mainly in figure–ground relationships playing out on an epic scale, Smithson linked scale to time. He connected his work to the notion of entropy, the idea that all systems gradually decline into disorder. Spiral Jetty, for example, was immediately inundated by the lake and remained submerged for three decades, until lower water levels revealed it in 2002.
Smithson’s aesthetic was effectively dystopian, as his conceptual art project “The Monuments of Passaic” illustrates. Both an article in the December 1967 issue of Artforum and series of photographs taken with an amateur Instamatic camera, “Monuments” charted Smithson’s tour of various industrial and suburban locales in his native New Jersey, evoking a kind of ephemeral, postmodern wasteland that stood in ironic contrast to the standard definition of monument as a permanent marker.
Smithson also probed the dynamics of site specificity with two series, “Site/Non-Site” and “Mirror Displacements.” The former comprised bin-like structures filled with rocks, sand, broken concrete, and other materials Smithson gathered at various spots around New Jersey, accompanied by photos and maps of the same areas. In this work, Smithson elided the disconnect between found objects and their sources by tying the “timeless” space of the gallery to real-world locations. For “Displacements,” he photographed outdoor arrangements of mirrors in the United Kingdom and on the Yucatán Peninsula, which “displaced” their surroundings through reflections and refractions.
Walter De Maria
Two other figures—Walter De Maria (1935–2013) and James Turrell (born 1943)—were also crucial to Land art’s evolution.
De Maria rooted his work in the rigorous geometries of Minimalism. His very first earthwork, Mile Long Drawing (1968), consisted of parallel lines spaced 12 feet apart laid out in chalk for one mile in California’s Mojave Desert. In 1977, De Maria produced a trio of signature works: The Vertical Earth Kilometer, a solid brass rod one kilometer long and five centimeters in diameter, drilled down into the soil of a park in Germany until the top was flush with the earth’s surface; The New York Earth Room, in which 250 cubic yards of dirt were spread across a 3,600-square-foot Soho loft to a depth of 22 inches; and The Lightning Field, his most famous piece.
Standing in the New Mexico desert, The Lightning Field is a plein air installation of 400 stainless steel poles planted upright in a one-mile by one-kilometer grid. Though each pole measures two inches in diameter, they range in height from 15 to 26 feet, so their tips create a perfectly level horizontal plane despite the undulating topography. Despite its title, the piece is only rarely struck by lightning.
Turrell, meanwhile, came out of the California Light and Space movement, which transformed Minimalism’s emphasis on the object into ephemeral installations meant to be experienced as well as seen. Turrell used lights and scrims to conjure installations of intangible dimensions; another facet of his practice comprised a series of rooms that framed the sky with ceiling apertures exposed to the elements. These “skyspaces” reached something of an apotheosis with Turrell’s Roden Crater.
Set within a 400,000-year-old, extinct volcano in Arizona’s Painted Desert, Roden Crater is three miles across and rises to 5,443 feet. In progress since Turrell purchased the land it sits on in 1977, the project embeds several naked-eye observatories in the crater floor. Connected along an East–West axis by tunnels, these chapel-like spaces open to the sky track the movement of the sun, moon, and stars. The centrally positioned Crater’s Eye, for instance, is a rotunda topped by an oculus, like the Pantheon in Rome, and as with the Pantheon, the sun’s light moves around its circumference throughout the day. Likewise, the Sun & Moon Chamber is essentially a giant camera obscura throwing images of both bodies onto a marble slab as they pass across the sky.
Between Sky and Land
Both The Lightning Field and Roden Crater speak to mankind’s millennia-old fixation on the heavens. Other works share the same fascination.
Sun Tunnels by Nancy Holt (1938–2014), for instance, consists of four concrete cylinders, each weighing 22 tons and measuring 18 feet long by 9 feet in diameter. Located in Utah’s Great Basin Desert and created between 1973 and 1976, they’re laid out on their sides in an X formation aligned to frame the sun on the horizon during the summer and winter solstices. Spiraling across each tunnel, small holes cut through the walls cast projections of the constellations Draco, Perseus, Columba, and Capricorn into the interior whenever the sun or moon shines through.
Star Axis by Charles Ross (born 1937) is similar in scale and ambition to Roden Crater. Begun in 1976, it is an 11-story complex built of earth, granite, sandstone, concrete, bronze, and stainless steel and occupies a 400-acre site in New Mexico. Like Roden Crater, Ross’s work features numerous elements physically aligned with various astronomical phenomena—including a 147-step, nine-story stairway placed exactly parallel to Earth’s axis, and a 52-foot-high Solar Pyramid that casts shadows like a sundial.
Ana Mendieta and the Body in the Landscape
Land art emerged concurrently with Body Art, so it’s no surprise that certain artists merged them, most notably Ana Mendieta (1948–1985). Born in Cuba, Mendieta fled the island in 1961 with her family (who were wealthy and connected to the Batista regime) after Fidel Castro’s revolution, and much of her work reflects the feelings of pain and loss arising from their exile. She was also a trailblazing feminist artist who staged site-specific, outdoor performances featuring her naked body, finding parallels between landscape’s cycles of renewal and the archetype of women as givers of life.
Among Mendieta’s works, her best-known series, the “Siluetas” (Silhouettes), comprises 200 events staged and photographed in various locales in Iowa City (where she attended university) and Mexico between 1973 and 1978. They feature such acts as submerging her body in a creek, secreting it under coverings of grass or wildflowers, and inscribing her figure into the ground, creating contoured cavities or drawn outlines that she used for ritualistic acts. In one example, she wadded sheets into one of these hollows and then set them ablaze; in another, an impression was left on a beach to wash away with the tide.
Although the “Siluetas” evoked images of Stone Age fertility goddesses, they were also metaphorical erasures representing the way women are made invisible by male privilege.
Land Art in the United Kingdom
The United Kingdom was an important center for Land art, though British geography, history, culture, and custom differentiated it from its analog across the Atlantic. About the size of Virginia, Britain boasts a verdant landscape deeply layered by a past quite different from the “wild” West, where white settlers created a historical tabula rasa by ethnically cleansing Native Americans. In Britain, by contrast, the traces of successive occupations by Romans, Saxons, Vikings, and Normans were assimilated into geographic memory.
The British landscape is crisscrossed with footpaths, evincing the timeworn habit of hiking between shires. This custom is recalled by three British artists—Richard Long, Hamish Fulton and Andy Goldsworthy—who have made walking a central theme in their work.
The most renowned of the trio, Long (born 1945) began his perambulatory excursions in the mid 1960s, conducting and photographing them across the Sahara, Australia, Iceland, and the United Kingdom. In A Line Made by Walking (1967), Long repeatedly tromped back and forth through a grassy field in Wiltshire, England, leaving the eponymous result. He also created sculptures in situ out of rocks or other found materials and collected them for indoor works such as Slate Circle (1979), which is built with stones from a Welsh quarry.
Hamish Fulton (born 1946) is known for covering 30 to 50 miles a day on walks that have taken him from his home in Kent, England, to the Himalayas. Unlike Long, Fulton leaves no trace of his presence on the trail and brings nothing back to exhibit. Instead he produces photos, text pieces, and drawings that convey the memories, sensations, and experiences of his journeys.
A decade younger that Long and Fulton, Andy Goldsworthy (born 1956) follows Long’s example of making both site-specific and gallery-bound works. His efforts aren’t quite as stark as Fulton’s, as he often uses fugitive materials like twigs, leaves, snow, and ice to fashion delicate, transitory installations. He also constructs more permanent works that take shape as walls and cairns.
Sculpture into Land Art
As noted previously, traditional outdoor sculpture initially differed from Land art, though over time the former has adopted the site-specific strategies of the latter.
Richard Serra (born 1938) is particularly obstinate in adhering to site specificity for his outdoor work: He once insisted on having a piece destroyed instead of allowing it to be relocated. Spin Out, for Robert Smithson (1972–73) is typical of his approach. Dedicated to Serra’s close friend (who died in a small-plane crash while filming Spiral Jetty from the air), Spin Out comprises three massive steel plates half-buried within the sides of a bowl-shaped depression along a forested path in a Dutch park. Standing on their long edges, the rectangular plates extend toward one another as if they would converge. But they are offset from one another by several degrees, creating a broken juncture that metaphorically evokes a life cut short. (Spin out also recalls an earlier Smithson piece, 1970’s Partially Buried Woodshed).
Mary Miss (born 1944) and Alice Aycock (born 1946) also pioneered site-specific outdoor sculpture. Miss’s Perimeters/Pavilions/Decoys (1977–78) is an ensemble of five related installations on the grounds of the Nassau County Museum, situated on the former Long Island estate of the family of Gilded Age industrialist Henry Clay Frick. Each of the forms, which include three towers, an earthen embankment, and a subterranean courtyard, are meant to challenge the viewer’s perception of space while also echoing some existing features of the Frick Estate (such as an old fire tower, a bear pit, and a birdcage).
Aycock’s Maze (1972) consisted of five six-foot-high concentric wooden rings spanning 32 feet in diameter, installed on Gibney Farm near New Kingston, Pennsylvania. Three openings allowed viewers to enter the maze, with the intention of making then feel disoriented as they navigated toward the center of the structure. (According to the artist, Maze survived for three or four years, then disappeared.)
Land Art and Popular Culture
Since Land art is defined by its relationship to nature, it’s hard to imagine any associations between it and popular culture, though they do crop up in a couple of cases, most obviously in Cadillac Ranch (1974), located in Amarillo, Texas. The brainchild of three California artists—Chip Lord, Hudson Marquez, and Doug Michels—working together as the Ant Farm, the piece consists of 10 Cadillacs in single file, half-buried nose-first in the ground.
The vehicles are raked at a 60-degree angle corresponding to the slope of the Great Pyramid at Giza, and represent successive model years from 1949 to 1963, a period when the tailfin—that symbol of postwar American prosperity—achieved baroque proportions. Although initially installed with their original factory finishes, the Cadillacs have been repeatedly repainted to cover up graffiti over the years. A kind of avant-garde roadside attraction, Cadillac Ranch follows the entropic model of Smithson’s “Monuments of Passaic,” to parody planned obsolescence.
The projects of the husband-and-wife team of Christo (1935–2020) and Jeanne-Claude (1935–2009) could be described as pop-cultural artifacts in the own right. Though the duo are remembered for feats such as wrapping the Reichstag in Berlin, they also did environmental pieces.
But whatever their other significance, efforts like Valley Curtain (1972)—a 381-by-111-meter partition of bright orange fabric hung between two mountains in Colorado—were ultimately designed to be pharaonic media spectacles, whose aspirations were only somewhat subverted by the fact they were conceived as temporary arrangements. The same was true for another work, Surrounded Islands (1983), in which a group of islands in Miami’s Biscayne Bay were surrounded by 603,870 square meters of pink fabric suspended by booms fanning out around their shorelines.
Land Art Today
By and large, Land art’s mystique remains tied to its heyday during the late 1960s and ’70s, but there have been more recent efforts. Beginning in the late 1980s and early ’90s, Meg Webster’s grassy mounds and gardenlike installations revived an earthwork aesthetic based on environmentalism. In 1997 the collaborative group D.A.ST. Arteam created an installation covering one million square feet of the Sahara, displacing 280,000 square feet of sand. Titled Desert Breath, the piece features two lines of increasingly large elements—one made up of holes, the other of mounds—spiraling out from a pool of water at the center. Another collective, Postcommodity, created a line of giant balloons printed with eyeballs along the U.S.–Mexico border in 2015. Commenting on the controversy over immigration, Repellent Fence was appropriated from a product for warding off birds.
Land art’s influence has admittedly been limited, and the decades it has taken to complete City and Roden Crater, for example, explain why: Building such work is costly and difficult even under the best of circumstances. Land art is the most herculean of genres and can provoke awe in a way few other practices can. Like the ancient monuments that inspire it, Land art is a testament to what sheer ambition and the human spirit can achieve.