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>> Landscape Painting in the Deutsche Bank Collection
>> Second nature: Landscape and Photography
>> Ernesto Neto: Journeys into Inner Landscapes
>> Land Art: Breaking of the Art Space

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Breaking Out of the Art Space:
Land Art and the Return to Nature



Concentric circles in frozen rivers, hills of earth piled in the prairies of the Midwest, mile-long sails of fabric along the Californian coast: Harald Fricke on the American Land Art movement, which has been creating monumental and archaic works of art in pristine landscapes since the mid-sixties to call attention to civilizational fears and the ecological exploitation of the world.



Film still from: "Rivers and Tides: Andy Goldsworthy working with Time", Germany 2000,
directed by Thomas Riedelsheimer
©2002 The Moving Image Inc., All rights reserved

In his short stories, the American writer F. Scott Fitzgerald repeatedly described a paradox of the 1920s. His characters are so locked into the everyday frazzle and hubbub of New York that they forget how small their city really is in comparison to the rest of the country. On the other side of the Hudson River lies an entire continent that was discovered and annexed in degrees over the course of centuries. This is why, even for the dandy that Fitzgerald was, real America begins beyond the Big Apple; that's where the free land lies, as it did in the time of the great natural philosopher Henry David Thoreau (1817-62), the land that New Yorkers caught in the daily survival grind never experience. For them, the city is the center of the world, even if it amounts to no more than a tiny appendage on a mammoth continent.


Aerial photograph: Robert Smithson, Spiral Jetty, Salt Lake Utah, 1971, © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2004

It took until the nineteen sixties for this imbalance to be felt in the art world, as well. Even at the high point of the art boom, with its galleries and various scenes ranging from Pop to Minimal Art, a significant number of artists suddenly realized that there was more out there than the same old parties, openings, and sales talk of New York. Suddenly, people like Walter de Maria, Michael Heizer, Dennis Oppenheim, and Robert Smithson were moving out into the wilderness of the Nevada desert. This was where the new art, Land Art, was to be born, a return to nature designed to draw attention to the problems of the times such as environmental disaster, poverty in spite of mass production, racial conflict, and social unease in response to the Vietnam war - everything seemed headed for the destruction of the planet, and Land Art sought to resist this by aligning itself along more archaic forms of expression. The goal was enlightenment - how could it be that America was in a position to explore outer space and put a man on the moon, yet knew nothing about the state of things in its own country?


Richard Long, A Circle in Huesca, 1994 Deutsche Bank Collection


It was also a matter of distancing oneself from the established tendencies in art. Minimal Art had forged its way into the collection of the Museum of Modern Art; from the mid-sixties on, it began acting in the same authoritarian manner and with the same claim to absolute validity that its chief proponents, including Frank Stella and Donald Judd, had rebelled against only a short time before. At the same time, Pop Art had lost part of its subversive power and had become a plaything of the wealthy New York society, who were now standing in line to have Warhol immortalize them in silkscreen. The new generation of artists wanted to break with both, to appear neither academic nor commercial. But how could this strategy be implemented in a lion's den? The only answer was to flee to the countryside, back to a nature that had long since become forgotten, as it had in the twenties in the artificiality of the New York environment.


Dennis Oppenheim, Annual Rings, 1968

Yet it was anything but paradise that awaited the artists out there. The birth of Land Art took place in a terra incognita: Dennis Oppenheim went north to the US/Canadian border, where he cut his concentric circles with a chainsaw into frozen rivers in the bitter cold; Walter de Maria used the Midwestern prairie to pile up enormous hills of earth into amorphous environments; Michael Heizer bulldozed deep furrows into the Nevada desert, as though the dried earth were a sheet of white paper; and Robert Smithson discovered an archaic world of the present day in the desolate industrial expanses of New Jersey, where bulldozers resembled the monuments of a declining culture (on this subject his publication: Learning from New Jersey and Elsewhere, 2003). From 1967/68 on, all these activities were tossed together and referred to under the common art historical term "Land Art." Yet to reduce these installations to landscape art is problematic. In the final analysis, the English word "landscape" carries a metaphoric connotation: the perception of landscape as an image of nature. The long tradition of American landscape painting testifies to this creation of an image: the paintings of the 1836-born Alexander Helwig Wyant portray the forests along the banks of the Tennessee as pristine natural beauty, while the painter Albert Bierstadt, who emigrated from Solingen to Massachusetts, depicted the Yosemite Valley as an untouched idyll, as the utopian reflection of the unlimited possibilities America still promised in the 19th century.

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