Land Art


Land Art was mainly developed during the late 1960s. It is also known as ‘Earthworks'. Land art was the revolutionary side of the artists, which were trying to escape from the traditional painting and sculpture, as well as their ecological concerns. According to Robert Smithson, this revolutionary approach, was also an attempt to escape from galleries and museums; this led to environmental consciousness and objection.

…The ecologist tends to see the landscape in terms of the past, while most industrialists don't see anything at all. The artist must come out of the isolation of galleries and museums and provide a concrete consciousness for the present as it really exists, and not simply present abstractions or utopias…[1]

This had as a result, for artists to create their art directly into the landscape. The work was made mostly with huge scale ‘sculptures' directly in nature, using natural materials. Land art is about ‘real life' and embodies the direct and instinctive relations with the landscape, the nature and the environment. It covers the approach of the location and the experience of the observer attaching special importance to the landscape. Land art works were mainly exhibited with written or photographic documentations. [2]

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Land art also provides the social and cultural conditions of that time. During 1968 there was a fundamental change of revolution in both continents, United States and Europe. In United States there was a pacifist and human rights expression, mainly caused by the Cold War and the American attachment in Vietnam. In Europe, one factor for that revolutionary change was the rebellious activities of the ‘Situationist Internanionale' (Guy Debord) in France. Also the warning of danger caused by the nuclear war (global extinction), had a result to emphasize the importance of ecological issues. The first images from space, published the same year, changed the way we perceive our world.

Land art reveals the clash positions of that period, in the direction of land and the environment. It desires a radical change and the recovery of the ecological disaster on land caused by the industrialisation. Through Land art we can reconsider our relationship with the landscape and with nature.

The massive unexploited land of America played a major role in the development of Land art in the United States during that period. Many American artists performed their works, using those unexplored deserts of the American landscape. Those deserts embodied a mainly American approach towards landscape. They also proposed the success of American culture and technology over nature. They rejected the historic fine art traditions of Europe and they started to reference towards the significant national American idioms.[3]

One main American artist is Robert Smithson, which he considers being the most important theoretical artist among all land artists. Many of his activities were located in the geological and culturally rich of Western America in desert locations.

Smithson was interested in natural history from an early age. The year 1964 was a crucial year for his career as he began to develop his themes and interests. Blood, decay, geological strata and theories about time and history, were some of the artists' interests that were developed through the paintings that he made on that period. In the same year he created a series of ‘crystalline' sculptures, like The Eliminator 1964. He also developed a friendly relationship with a number of artists, which were associated with Minimalism. One of them was Donald Judd. When he exhibited those sculptures, they were perceived as Minimalist. This was mainly because he was known for his connection with those artists and due to the fact that for this work he used industrial materials. But Smithson's work deals and represents the multipart conceptual ideas. This multipart conceptual ideas include crystalline growth, decompose and the dilemma of perspective. He rejects clarity, unlike Minimalism, in which objects are standing themselves and are symbolising the external. [4]

Smithson, as well as other artists, played their part in transforming the perception of nature. He has seen landscape as a place in continuous transformation, revealing entropy. He is associated with a natural landscape and he emphasizes the relationship between man and natural powers. Smithson also provides a powerful image for the contemporary position. In Smithosn's writings the concept that emphasizes much on his work is the principle of energy loss-entropy. In 1968 he started to think about the scale and how artworks can be positioned and viewed in the landscape. He explored these ideas in a series of works called Site and Nonsite. Smithson described this work as ‘an indoor earthwork'. In 1969 he started to produce his work directly into landscape, as he was interested in making art outdoors, away from galleries. He produced photographic work using mirrors. [5]

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In 1970 he made his major work on the landscape called Spiral Jetty, ('1) which was made at Rozel Point on Great Salt Lake, in Utah. Spiral Jetty was made from rocks, mud and precipitated salt crystals. Smithson documented the creation of the sculpture. He learned that Great Salt Lake in Utah carried micro bacteria that coloured the water red and he developed an interest in the symbolic possibility of a red saline lake. He created the spiral form, as he was inspired with the location, the natural characteristics and the historical contexts. Smithson linked the red salt water with blood. Through Smithson's own writings, Spiral Jetty is presented as a particular clear example of his association between artwork and location and he is emphasizing its entropic qualities.[6]

Michael Heizer was an American artist who was considered being very important to the development of land art. He felt that a sculpture needed to express the character and the scale of the great Western American landscape. He believed that artworks were valued as products and he provided the differences between those works of the urban marketplace and the works in the landscape. He stated that: ‘…the position of art as malleable barter-exchange items falters as the cumulative economic structure gluts. The museums and collections are stuffed, the floors are sagging but the real space exists…'[7]

Heizer used the desert spaces as a laboratory. His first landscape work began in 1967, and it was called North and South. Through out this work we can perceive his interest in void and negative spaces. He rejected European traditions, as he wanted to make art that was ‘American'. Heizer most famous and most debatable work is Double Negative ('2), built in 1969. It is located at the Mormon Mesa, near Overton, Nevada. This work was made at the edge of the sandstone cliff and it is composed of two deep cuts creating a huge channel. Double Negative is composed of space itself. Heizer said that:' In Double Negative, there is the implication of an object or form that is actually not there…' [8]

Heizer believes that the work is not about the landscape but it is about the sculpture. He also believes that the importance of his work in not in what ‘it rejected' but in what ‘it offered' instead. Heizer through his work kept his primary purposes for his art in the landscape.

In England the Land art started to develop as well in the late 1960s. England presented fewer opportunities for impressive gestures than United States. One main British artist was Richard Long. Long mostly gave emphasis to the simplicity on his work, giving the attention to his common skills and the materials he used. Walking was the principal form of Long. [9]

But beneath this simplicity we can perceive the conceptual and the imaginative aspects that highlight Long's art. He explored ideas about time, space and experience. From an early age he started also to explore the traditional subject of landscape. In 1969 he aimed to ‘create an open and exploratory environment' during his studies on the ‘Advanced' Sculpture Course at St Martins School of Art in London. Other artists shared the same interest with Long about landscape as a subject for contemporary art. During his studies he developed a very different way of reaching the landscape, as through his work, he involved space and scale. His achievement on that period was the work titled with: A Line Made by Walking, 1967. ('3) He simply walked along a line, across a field, in order to create a visible path in the grass. The path was photographed. We can split the work into two parts. Part one is the making of the work and part two is the documentation. After this work he continued to explore this conceptual aspect by creating two more works, Bicycle Sculpture 1967 and A Ten Mile Walk, England 1968. Because this kind of works couldn't exhibit into a gallery, Long started to use documentary materials such as texts, maps and photographs.

We can separate Long's sculptures into two categories. Sculptures that were made by walking in the landscape, and the documentation of it, and sculptures which were made in the gallery as a reaction to space and locality.

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This separation on Longs works (the work made in the landscape and the work made for the gallery space), can be compared with Robert Smithsons works Site and Nonesite . We can find many similarities and differences between artists in the two continents. Longs work is considered being practical opposing to the work of Smithson, which is considered being theorised. Both artists used natural materials in order to accomplish their motivations. Long was using in his work, forms such as lines and circles expanding the modernist development. On the other hand, Smithson, had the obsession with ‘ destruction, decay, decomposition and dissolution'. Both artists shared the same interest in order to find the place (landscape) to construct their works. Mapping was also a significant concern for Long, as well as for Smithson, not only for the documentation of their work but also to find a specific location. Equally through their works, they demonstrated cultural and artistic concerns. [10]

Land art emphasizes the importance between nature and culture. Through Land Art, artists provided that the landscape is one of the original places of cultural expression, like social and environmental are clearly marked.


Land Art: A Cultural Ecology handbook, ed. by Max Andrews, London: RSA, 2006.

Beardsley, J. Earthworks and beyond: contemporary art in the landscape, 3rd edn. New York: Abbeville, 1998.

Malpas, W. Land art, earthworks, installations, environments, sculptures, Kidderminster: Crescent Moon, 1998.

Tufnell, B. Land Art, London: Tate Gallery Publications, 2006.

[1] Land Art: A Cultural Ecology handbook, ed. by Max Andrews.p.22

[2] Tufnell, B. Land Art, London: Tate Gallery Publications, 2006, pp.12-19

[3] Tufnell, B. Land Art, pp.12-19

[4] Tufnell, B. Land Art, pp 35-42

[5] Beardsley, J. Earthworks and beyond: contemporary art in the landscape, 3rd edn. New York: Abbeville, 1998, pp. 19-23

[6] Tufnell, B. Land Art, pp 43-45

[7] Beardsley, J. Earthworks and beyond: contemporary art in the landscape, p.13

[8]Tufnell, B. Land Art p.51

[9] Beardsley, J. Earthworks and beyond: contemporary art in the landscape, pp.41-46

[10] Tufnell, B. Land Art, pp 32-35