In the early 60s and 70s, a group of artists migrated from New York to the vast expanses of the American Southwest. Taking the colossal, open terrain of the desert as their canvas, they set to work making some of the most iconic art of their age. Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, a coil of mud and crystal, circles out on to the shores of Utah’s Great Salt Lake, whilst Walter De Maria’s Lightning Field, a sprawling grid of stainless steel, spans a square mile of New Mexico. And for his seminal work, Double Negative, Michael Heizer excavated 240,000 tons of rock out of a canyon in Nevada, and slashed two gaping gauges into the side of the rockface.
These land artists, as they became known, are the subject of a new documentary by the art historian James Crump, whose last foray into film focused on the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. Through a combination of rare archival footage and satellite shots of their work, Crump charts the rise of this revolutionary group, and attempts to understand what drew these artists—who, working in SoHo and the Lower East Side, were very much part of the established, metropolitan art world—to these desolate spaces. “They were in search of a bigger canvas,” he concludes.
Robert Smithson, Spiral Jetty, 1970
Crump first wanted to make the film years ago when, living in the Southwest, he too was stirred by the same unmarked spaces and remarkable intensity of light that inspired the land artists before him. But it was later, when he scored an interview with the notoriously inaccessible Heizer for another project, that his idea took shape. “The film in some way started gestating,” he reflects. “It’s interesting to see how things gestate and evolve in your mind.”
When he finally did start work on the project, roughly 13 months ago, it seemed like the perfect time because of the renaissance land art is experiencing: “It is more relevant than ever. Not just in the aesthetics, but in the ideology behind it, the inspirations. It is on the tip of everyone’s tongue. Some of these artists are getting tremendous attention, and artists like Heizer and De Maria are represented by Gagosian gallery.”
Walter De Maria, Desert Cross, 1969
For Crump, a veteran of the art world, this renewed interest is significant because it offers an antidote to the contemporary art market, which is too speculative and too motivated by money. “I thought it would be interesting for a younger generation of artists to discover the pieces that drove these artists into making works that could never necessarily be commodified, or owned, or moved around, or placed in museums or commercial galleries.”
By working in communion with the elements, and constructing pieces so gargantuan in scale that they defied ownership, the land artists re-imbued their work with an element of autonomy. Their art was to be challenging, and mysterious, and their audiences would have to have to journey to see it. “They wanted to control the reveal of the work,” says Crump. “Back in the 60s it was even more difficult, before global positioning systems and aerial photography. It was dangerous in some cases.”
Michael Heizer, Double Negative, 1969-70
So committed were these artists to their ambitions, and convinced of the importance of their art, that there is a thread of solipsism that unites their work. They wanted to build pieces that defied human concepts of size, and mortality. “There is a narcissistic aspect in wanting to produce something that is going to survive 500 years. These artists all had outsized ambitions, huge egos, and massive confidence in taking risks,” says Crump. In their defiance of convention, and elevated sense of self, the land-artists were trouble-makers.
But, Crump warns, it is important not to take the term too seriously. Instead, their work should be viewed in convergence with the wider cultural context in which these artists emerged. It was a time when Americans were confronted with bombed-out images of Vietnam, the apocalyptic treat of nuclear war, the emergence of space travel, and political assassination. “I think that the term trouble-makers shouldn’t be taken literally. I think for me it’s a kind of critique of what’s going on in culture generally. Troublemakers means stirring up the waters and challenging things.”
Nancy Holt, Sun Tunnels, 1976
In his film, Crump sought to visually capture some of the political and artistic grandeur of the land-artists. “I wanted to do something expansive and beautiful and cinematic,” he says. “I set out for myself the goal of producing something that is truly immersive and truly experiential, and I wanted to do justice to the sites that we were shooting.”
Physically, though, it was challenging. He and his team spent days hanging out of helicopters, and filming in the blistering heat. Their shot of Double Negative was fraught – a rare day in the desert that was clouded by thunderstorms; the pilot had to perform a series of intricate manoeuvres in the driving rain.
Michael Heizer, Displaced/Replaced Mass, 1969
It’s probable that land artists would have approved of the extreme conditions Crump worked in, and admired the lengths he went to to get his shots. But, as Crump himself is keen to stress, as dazzling and compelling as his film is, it is impossible to capture the breathtaking, bizarre experience of seeing a piece of land art in the flesh. “I think it’s important to know that the experience, and the feeling, of stepping on to the sites is never going to be replaced, at least in my lifetime, by any sort of medium.”—Isobel Thompson
Walter De Maria, Hamburg, Germany, 1968
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Credits: © David Maisel. Art © Holt Smithson Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York. Courtesy Institute, Venice, CA; © Gianfranco Gorgoni. Courtesy Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles; © J. Paul Getty Trust; © Holt Smithson Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York; © Gianfranco Gorgoni. Courtesy Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (2008.R.6); © Angelika Platen. Used by permission.