Earthworks and beyond: Contemporary Art in the Landscape

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A perceptive and accessible survey, now updated and expanded, of the influential Land Art movement.

This invaluable volume now includes the most recent and most interesting efforts by artists--often in collaboration with architects and city planners--to transform ravaged landscapes and desolate cityscapes into pleasure-giving parks and artworks. After an enlightening introduction tracing the historical roots of art in the landscape, the opening chapter deals with such innovative...

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Overview

A perceptive and accessible survey, now updated and expanded, of the influential Land Art movement.

This invaluable volume now includes the most recent and most interesting efforts by artists--often in collaboration with architects and city planners--to transform ravaged landscapes and desolate cityscapes into pleasure-giving parks and artworks. After an enlightening introduction tracing the historical roots of art in the landscape, the opening chapter deals with such innovative artists as Robert Smithson, Nancy Holt, and Christo, who in the 1960s began to free their art from the confines of tradition by constructing monumental sculptures in the environment. The following chapters discuss their predecessors, peers, and successors, including Constantin Brancusi, James Turrell, and many others. The final three chapters explore the increasing involvement of artists in land reclamation and urban design, featuring projects by Mel Chin, Maya Lin, Martin Puryear, and others.

Other Details: 210 illustrations, 80 in full color 224 pages 8 1/2 x 8 1/2" Published 1998

of the environment, one in which nature is altered and often debased by human action. Although he did not speak for all the artists of his generation, he articulated ideas that would become increasingly important in the late twentieth century. He recognized that we are physically and culturally bound to the earth and that the classic metaphor of nature as a primordial garden was obsolete for a landscape that bore so many scars of disruption. Implicit in Smithson's writing and in his sculpture was a challenge to develop a more realistic and empathic relationship with transmuted nature. Revealing how other artists have responded to this challenge is the main business of this book.

My approach here is in equal parts reportorial and interpretive; as befits a contemporary subject, my observations are intended more to advance than to conclude critical debate on the subject. From a discussion of the American avant-garde, which confirmed the widespread reengagement with landscape in the late 1960s, the commentary moves out to the contemporary English response, back to traditions and twentieth-century antecedents, and forward to sited sculpture and the application of landscape art to the improvement of public spaces. A final chapter looks at the role of artists in the larger debate about environmental practices. For the most part, I focus on American and British artists, a parochialism that may be excused by the fact that I am most familiar with Anglo-American cultural history. But this leaves out as much as it includes: the park projects by the French sculptor Jean-Pierre Raynaud; the photographic manipulations of landscape by the Dutch artist Jan Dibbets; and the plaza and cemetery designs by the Italian Arnaldo Pomodoro, for example.

Behind this text are several basic presumptions. The first is that a people's relationship to landscape is one of the most significant expressions of culture, in many respects equal in importance to the relationship to the sacred. Indeed, the two are not so dissimilar: Ralph Waldo Emerson spoke for many in his own generation and ours when he wrote that "the noblest ministry of nature is to stand as the apparition of God." The grandest achievements of nineteenth-century American landscape painting - by Frederic Church, Thomas Cole, and Albert Bierstadt, among others - spring from this philosophical ground. Witness, too, the William H. Jackson photograph and the Thomas Moran painting of the Mountain of the Holy Cross, a peak in Colorado with deep, snow-filled crevices in the shape of a cross near its summit. These are reverential depictions of the symbol of the Passion made manifest in nature, according with the notion that the landscape itself has sacred qualities and reveals the Divinity.

The landscape is rich with man-made forms that have been offered in tribute. Prehistoric remains are merely the best known: Stonehenge, for example, whose purpose we imagine to be a pagan decoding of terrestrial and astronomical mysteries. In seventeenth-century France, the imposition of Cartesian geometry on the landscape--as at Vaux-le-Vicomte or Versailles--expressed all the bravura of an age that believed that in simple geometric shapes lay the key to the intelligible order of the universe. And in eighteenth-century England came that most remarkable episode in British intellectual history, when many of the nation's greatest thinkers - from prime ministers to poets - were engaged in the formation of gardens and vast landscaped parks that conformed to an arcadian ideal. The landscapes at Stowe, Stourhead, and Castle Howard are only three among the almost innumerable creations of that era.

The efforts of our own time must seem mundane by comparison, as they are seen without the romanticizing haze of temporal distance. Yet the human imagination is no less vivid or powerful than before. The contemporary works derive a great poignance from a purpose similar to that of their antecedents: to reveal the world to us anew, to combine symbolic form with the landscape in the creation of differentiated and evocative places. Some of the most remarkable of these works are arguably sacred or at least transcendent in intention, in that they assert a nonanthropocentric view of the world: they are attempts to reconcile humans with the natural environment and its implicitly sacrosanct character. At their best, they are carefully construed physical environments for the sensuous apprehension of form, while at the same time they seek to reveal the extraordinary in both the landscape and the human spirit. These are consecrated spaces for a willfully secular era.

My second presumption is a corollary of the first. It is that the entire history of form building in the landscape is the foundation for this contemporary work. Indian mounds and cliff dwellings in this country, temple gardens in Japan, Roman and Renaissance villas in Italy, as well as the creations referred to above, compose a vocabulary of forms and attitudes that is unavoidably influential. The last century in this country has witnessed a considerable enlargement of this repertory, from picturesque public parks, suburbs, golf courses, and cemeteries to the utilitarian landscape of highways, telephone poles, and roadside advertising. While few of the contemporary projects are direct counterparts of these antecedents, echoes do reverberate across the years: historical references are nearly universal, and this is all for the best. A certain allusiveness cannot help but enrich the content and effect of a contemporary work, while it remains unmistakably of our own time.

A third underlying presumption is that in the last several decades the distinctions between sculpture and other forms of artistic activity have blurred. This is particularly pronounced in the case of art in the landscape, which only sometimes has the formally distinct character of conventional sculpture. At other times it has the impalpability of empty space or the evanescence of performance. With the even more recent appearance of artist-designed parks and collaborations between artists and architects has come a still more pronounced merging of intentions, so much so that in the final chapter, I take up the impact of sculpture on the contemporary practice of landscape architecture.

The last of my presumptions merits a text all its own, for it concerns a signal feature of our culture. Americans are afflicted with a profound ambivalence toward nature, manifest in a seemingly irresolvable conflict between the impulse to exploit the landscape with ever more sophisticated tools and the urge to nurture and protect such little as is left of the natural world, not only for its beauty, but also for its morally and spiritually uplifting effects. As long ago as the early 1780s, Thomas Jefferson complained that rapacious farming practices were destroying the quality of the soil. Even then, repeated cultivation of tobacco without crop rotation was depleting the soil of essential nutrients, resulting in ever greater exertion on the part of its producers and ever dwindling returns. Poverty and malnourishment were its rewards. Tobacco growing, Jefferson asserted, "is a culture productive of infinite wretchedness." There is some irony in this observation, for Jefferson was one of the most ardent promoters of the agrarian ideal, with all its links to contemporaneous British ideas of creating a rural Elysium. "Those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God," he wrote, "if ever He had a chosen people; whose breasts He has made His peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue."

Jefferson's ideal agrarian world was not composed of solitary individuals; it was a society of small landholders whose political and social interactions were facilitated, even perfected, by their rural residence. His attitude was distinctly antiurban, but still modestly gregarious. Henry David Thoreau, on the other hand, revered nature as an escape from society altogether - urban and rural alike. "I wish to speak a word for nature, for absolute freedom and wildness, as contrasted with a freedom and culture merely civil--to regard man as an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of nature, rather than a member of society." As artists began their headlong rush into the landscape in the late 1960s, it was perhaps Thoreau who was their most obvious guide, in his apparent extremism and his rejection of the world "merely civil."

Yet as this art has developed, it has moved away from the romantic and rejectionist postures of Thoreau toward the more pragmatic, socially engaged attitudes of Jefferson. The latter's early recognition that the landscape was in need of protection and restoration has been followed by several overlapping episodes of vigorous conservation. One of these, in the latter half of the nineteenth century, gave rise to the National Park System, which, together with the phenomenal spread of the urban and wholly public park, might be considered America's most distinguished contribution to the history of landscape design. Another episode occurred in the 1930s with the establishment of the Civilian Conservation Corps and the consequent growth of the state park system. A third, still more vigorous and controversial, began in the 1960s and continues even now. The preservation of wilderness areas, the passage of the Strip Mine Reclamation Act, and the Alaska Lands Bill are among its major accomplishments, although recent efforts to weaken the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species acts, along with the burgeoning resistance to environmental regulation in the form of the deceptively named "wise use" movement, all threaten to roll back these gains. Some degree of environmental concern, however, seems finally to have won a place in contemporary culture. This conservationist impulse finds a parallel in the efforts of artists who use their work as a means of restoring environmental devastation in both the city and the country.

If contemporary artists draw on an impulse that is rooted in a rich and diverse tradition, they find in Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, designers of Central Park in Manhattan and Prospect Park in Brooklyn, their most eloquent forebears. By the mid-nineteenth century, these men had recognized the social benefit of improved environmental design and outdoor recreational spaces in urban and rural areas. There is hardly an aspect of the beneficent environment in America--from single urban parks and metropolitan and national park systems to planned communities and college campuses--that does not owe its success, at least in part, to Olmsted in particular. His work reflects a more widespread shift among his contemporaries away from the antiurban pronouncements of Jefferson and Thoreau to an engagement with the ever more pressing and distinctly urban problems that accompanied industrialization. To the extent that contemporary artists seek to improve the environment through land reclamation or the creation of parks, they are the inheritors of the reformist spirit of the mid-nineteenth century.

Yet the fundamental ambivalence that characterizes our national attitude toward nature is never far from any of the works I will discuss here. Indeed, some combine the reverential desire to reveal all the grandeur and mystery of the earth with the inevitable desire to use and abuse it. This is just one of the complexities of recent art in the landscape. Some works appear to be willfully modern, in the sense of employing a reductive and frankly nonallusive vocabulary, yet they speak with an ancient voice. Conversely, some are deliberately historicist, but look entirely contemporary. Some are vast and very palpable, but seldom seen except in photographs. Some are so discreet in form or utilitarian in function that they remain unrecognized as art. Originally thought to be radical and anti-urban in character, many of these works are now celebrated for their socially constructive and distinctly pro-urban motives. And while thus emphatically of this world, they frequently aspire to the quality of a revelation. Such is the character of recent art in the landscape that it resounds with paradox.

"John Beardsley's book now presents a critical evaluation of the evolution of works that incorporate and/or alter the landscape itself. This thoughtful volume is very well illustrated and provides a context for understanding the achievements of a highly diverse range of artistic endeavor... Highly recommended." --Artforum

Author Biography: John Beardsley, who lives near Washington, D.C., is also the author of the highly acclaimed Gardens of Revelation: Environments by Visionary Artists.

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Editorial Reviews

Booknews
Looks at the roots of this unusual artistic movement of the 1960s, some of the more famous pieces such as Smithson's and Pierce's , and numerous other pieces covering 30-plus years of work. The author places the artists in their historical context and discusses the environmental and public-policy implications of their work. Includes over 200 color and b&w photographs. Appends ten artist's statements and the locations of selected works. Annotation c. by Book News, Inc., Portland, Or.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780896594654
  • Publisher: Abbeville Press, Incorporated
  • Publication date: 9/1/1984
  • Edition description: 1st ed
  • Edition number: 14
  • Pages: 144

Read an Excerpt

Introduction

In the early 1980s, when the first edition of this book was written, it was clear that landscape was reappearing as one of the most consequential subjects in art-a position it had not enjoyed since the mid-nineteenth century. It was also evident that landscape was emerging in a different guise. While some artists continued to represent its image in painting and photography, others--starting especially in the late 1960s--chose to enter the landscape itself, to use its materials and work with its salient features. They were not depicting the landscape, but engaging it; their art was not simply of the landscape, but in it as well.

The first works of this kind--by Michael Heizer, Robert Smithson, Walter De Maria, and Robert Morris--have come to be known as "earthworks" or "land art." Their physical presence in the landscape itself distinguishes them from other, more portable forms of sculpture. But the involvement with landscape goes deeper than that: most of these works are inextricably bound to their sites and take as a large part of their content a relationship with the specific characteristics of their particular surroundings. Although most of them could have been made in any one of a number of similar locations, these are not discrete objects, intended for isolated appraisal, but fully engaged elements of their environments, intended to provide an inimitable experience of a certain place.

What was less clear at the time of the first edition was how dramatically the forms of this new art would proliferate and how significant they would come to seem. Adapting the scale and ambition of earthworks to the challenges of the urban space, some civic-minded sculptorsare now shaping a new kind of public landscape, strong both in sculptural form and in symbolic allusions. Questioning the environmental impact of earthworks, other artists have favored a lighter touch, opting for ephemeral projects with a meditative, ritualistic character. Elaborating on the inchoate environmental aspirations of some of the first earth artists, still others have become ecological activists and social critics, pressing for the remediation of cultural practices that have inhibited ethical stewardship of the earth. What began as a relatively isolated episode in the great deserts of the American West has expanded into a wide-ranging phenomenon--now more commonly known as "environmental art"--with ambitions to articulate, even to shape, the contemporary relationship to nature.

What was also less apparent in the early 1980s was how dramatically the basic concept of nature was being rethought. What was once assumed to be vast and inexhaustible has come to seem fragile and imperiled; what was once thought to be independent from culture--an inviolate other--has now come to be recognized as a cultural creation. Inhabited landscapes are clearly shaped by human action, but the survival of wilderness has also come to be seen as the consequence of deliberate choice. Even the larger health of the planet seems to hinge on cultural attitudes, as examined in books like The End of Nature (1989), Bill McKibben's gloomy assessment of the impact of fossil-fuel consumption on global warming. Artists have played their part in transforming the perception of nature, signaled initially and perhaps most forcefully by Robert Smithson in his 1967 essay, "A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey." Armed with a Kodak Instamatic and a mordant wit, Smithson recorded a landscape of belching pipes, pumping derricks, used-car lots, and unfinished highway construction. He saw the city as a place of "monumental vacancies that define, without trying, the memory traces of an abandoned set of futures."

Bearing marks of erosion and sedimentation along with signs of seemingly random human interventions, the landscape was perceived by Smithson as a place in constant metamorphosis, revealing entropy--the law of thermodynamics that measures the gradual, steady disintegration in a system. Smithson presented a particularly contemporary vision of the environment, one in which nature is altered and often debased by human action. Although he did not speak for all the artists of his generation, he articulated ideas that would become increasingly important in the late twentieth century. He recognized that we are physically and culturally bound to the earth and that the classic metaphor of nature as a primordial garden was obsolete for a landscape that bore so many scars of disruption. Implicit in Smithson's writing and in his sculpture was a challenge to develop a more realistic and empathic relationship with transmuted nature. Revealing how other artists have responded to this challenge is the main business of this book.

My approach here is in equal parts reportorial and interpretive; as befits a contemporary subject, my observations are intended more to advance than to conclude critical debate on the subject. From a discussion of the American avant-garde, which confirmed the widespread reengagement with landscape in the late 1960s, the commentary moves out to the contemporary English response, back to traditions and twentieth-century antecedents, and forward to sited sculpture and the application of landscape art to the improvement of public spaces. A final chapter looks at the role of artists in the larger debate about environmental practices. For the most part, I focus on American and British artists, a parochialism that may be excused by the fact that I am most familiar with Anglo-American cultural history. But this leaves out as much as it includes: the park projects by the French sculptor Jean-Pierre Raynaud; the photographic manipulations of landscape by the Dutch artist Jan Dibbets; and the plaza and cemetery designs by the Italian Arnaldo Pomodoro, for example.

Behind this text are several basic presumptions. The first is that a people's relationship to landscape is one of the most significant expressions of culture, in many respects equal in importance to the relationship to the sacred. Indeed, the two are not so dissimilar: Ralph Waldo Emerson spoke for many in his own generation and ours when he wrote that "the noblest ministry of nature is to stand as the apparition of God." The grandest achievements of nineteenth-century American landscape painting - by Frederic Church, Thomas Cole, and Albert Bierstadt, among others - spring from this philosophical ground. Witness, too, the William H. Jackson photograph and the Thomas Moran painting of the Mountain of the Holy Cross, a peak in Colorado with deep, snow-filled crevices in the shape of a cross near its summit. These are reverential depictions of the symbol of the Passion made manifest in nature, according with the notion that the landscape itself has sacred qualities and reveals the Divinity.

The landscape is rich with man-made forms that have been offered in tribute. Prehistoric remains are merely the best known: Stonehenge, for example, whose purpose we imagine to be a pagan decoding of terrestrial and astronomical mysteries. In seventeenth-century France, the imposition of Cartesian geometry on the landscape--as at Vaux-le-Vicomte or Versailles--expressed all the bravura of an age that believed that in simple geometric shapes lay the key to the intelligible order of the universe. And in eighteenth-century England came that most remarkable episode in British intellectual history, when many of the nation's greatest thinkers - from prime ministers to poets - were engaged in the formation of gardens and vast landscaped parks that conformed to an arcadian ideal. The landscapes at Stowe, Stourhead, and Castle Howard are only three among the almost innumerable creations of that era.

The efforts of our own time must seem mundane by comparison, as they are seen without the romanticizing haze of temporal distance. Yet the human imagination is no less vivid or powerful than before. The contemporary works derive a great poignance from a purpose similar to that of their antecedents: to reveal the world to us anew, to combine symbolic form with the landscape in the creation of differentiated and evocative places. Some of the most remarkable of these works are arguably sacred or at least transcendent in intention, in that they assert a nonanthropocentric view of the world: they are attempts to reconcile humans with the natural environment and its implicitly sacrosanct character. At their best, they are carefully construed physical environments for the sensuous apprehension of form, while at the same time they seek to reveal the extraordinary in both the landscape and the human spirit. These are consecrated spaces for a willfully secular era.

My second presumption is a corollary of the first. It is that the entire history of form building in the landscape is the foundation for this contemporary work. Indian mounds and cliff dwellings in this country, temple gardens in Japan, Roman and Renaissance villas in Italy, as well as the creations referred to above, compose a vocabulary of forms and attitudes that is unavoidably influential. The last century in this country has witnessed a considerable enlargement of this repertory, from picturesque public parks, suburbs, golf courses, and cemeteries to the utilitarian landscape of highways, telephone poles, and roadside advertising. While few of the contemporary projects are direct counterparts of these antecedents, echoes do reverberate across the years: historical references are nearly universal, and this is all for the best. A certain allusiveness cannot help but enrich the content and effect of a contemporary work, while it remains unmistakably of our own time.

A third underlying presumption is that in the last several decades the distinctions between sculpture and other forms of artistic activity have blurred. This is particularly pronounced in the case of art in the landscape, which only sometimes has the formally distinct character of conventional sculpture. At other times it has the impalpability of empty space or the evanescence of performance. With the even more recent appearance of artist-designed parks and collaborations between artists and architects has come a still more pronounced merging of intentions, so much so that in the final chapter, I take up the impact of sculpture on the contemporary practice of landscape architecture.

The last of my presumptions merits a text all its own, for it concerns a signal feature of our culture. Americans are afflicted with a profound ambivalence toward nature, manifest in a seemingly irresolvable conflict between the impulse to exploit the landscape with ever more sophisticated tools and the urge to nurture and protect such little as is left of the natural world, not only for its beauty, but also for its morally and spiritually uplifting effects. As long ago as the early 1780s, Thomas Jefferson complained that rapacious farming practices were destroying the quality of the soil. Even then, repeated cultivation of tobacco without crop rotation was depleting the soil of essential nutrients, resulting in ever greater exertion on the part of its producers and ever dwindling returns. Poverty and malnourishment were its rewards. Tobacco growing, Jefferson asserted, "is a culture productive of infinite wretchedness." There is some irony in this observation, for Jefferson was one of the most ardent promoters of the agrarian ideal, with all its links to contemporaneous British ideas of creating a rural Elysium. "Those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God," he wrote, "if ever He had a chosen people; whose breasts He has made His peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue."

Jefferson's ideal agrarian world was not composed of solitary individuals; it was a society of small landholders whose political and social interactions were facilitated, even perfected, by their rural residence. His attitude was distinctly antiurban, but still modestly gregarious. Henry David Thoreau, on the other hand, revered nature as an escape from society altogether - urban and rural alike. "I wish to speak a word for nature, for absolute freedom and wildness, as contrasted with a freedom and culture merely civil--to regard man as an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of nature, rather than a member of society." As artists began their headlong rush into the landscape in the late 1960s, it was perhaps Thoreau who was their most obvious guide, in his apparent extremism and his rejection of the world "merely civil."

Yet as this art has developed, it has moved away from the romantic and rejectionist postures of Thoreau toward the more pragmatic, socially engaged attitudes of Jefferson. The latter's early recognition that the landscape was in need of protection and restoration has been followed by several overlapping episodes of vigorous conservation. One of these, in the latter half of the nineteenth century, gave rise to the National Park System, which, together with the phenomenal spread of the urban and wholly public park, might be considered America's most distinguished contribution to the history of landscape design. Another episode occurred in the 1930s with the establishment of the Civilian Conservation Corps and the consequent growth of the state park system. A third, still more vigorous and controversial, began in the 1960s and continues even now. The preservation of wilderness areas, the passage of the Strip Mine Reclamation Act, and the Alaska Lands Bill are among its major accomplishments, although recent efforts to weaken the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species acts, along with the burgeoning resistance to environmental regulation in the form of the deceptively named "wise use" movement, all threaten to roll back these gains. Some degree of environmental concern, however, seems finally to have won a place in contemporary culture. This conservationist impulse finds a parallel in the efforts of artists who use their work as a means of restoring environmental devastation in both the city and the country.

If contemporary artists draw on an impulse that is rooted in a rich and diverse tradition, they find in Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, designers of Central Park in Manhattan and Prospect Park in Brooklyn, their most eloquent forebears. By the mid-nineteenth century, these men had recognized the social benefit of improved environmental design and outdoor recreational spaces in urban and rural areas. There is hardly an aspect of the beneficent environment in America--from single urban parks and metropolitan and national park systems to planned communities and college campuses--that does not owe its success, at least in part, to Olmsted in particular. His work reflects a more widespread shift among his contemporaries away from the antiurban pronouncements of Jefferson and Thoreau to an engagement with the ever more pressing and distinctly urban problems that accompanied industrialization. To the extent that contemporary artists seek to improve the environment through land reclamation or the creation of parks, they are the inheritors of the reformist spirit of the mid-nineteenth century.

Yet the fundamental ambivalence that characterizes our national attitude toward nature is never far from any of the works I will discuss here. Indeed, some combine the reverential desire to reveal all the grandeur and mystery of the earth with the inevitable desire to use and abuse it. This is just one of the complexities of recent art in the landscape. Some works appear to be willfully modern, in the sense of employing a reductive and frankly nonallusive vocabulary, yet they speak with an ancient voice. Conversely, some are deliberately historicist, but look entirely contemporary. Some are vast and very palpable, but seldom seen except in photographs. Some are so discreet in form or utilitarian in function that they remain unrecognized as art. Originally thought to be radical and anti-urban in character, many of these works are now celebrated for their socially constructive and distinctly pro-urban motives. And while thus emphatically of this world, they frequently aspire to the quality of a revelation. Such is the character of recent art in the landscape that it resounds with paradox.

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Table of Contents

1 Monument and environment : the avant garde, 1966-1976 13
2 The ramble 41
3 Tradition and antecedent 59
4 Beyond earthworks : the public landscape 89
5 Beyond earthworks : the new urban landscape 127
6 The greening of art 159
Afterword : the global landscape 203
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