Land Art Today, Beyond Cowboys With Bulldozers

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I’m standing in a fallow field on the edge of the San Luis Valley, in south-central Colorado. To the east, beyond a windbreak of tough old trees, the Great Sand Dunes rise against the mountains, where for millenniums this same wind has piled up this same sandy soil.

Tourists venture to this stretch of alpine farm country, poor and scattered with sparse towns, for the rugged beauty, and for the sandhill crane migrations — and now, maybe, for art: This desolate plot four hours from Denver is a brand-new earthwork.

Its creator, the French artist Marguerite Humeau, 36, thinks a lot about extinction. She sees “Orisons” as an act of healing. The name means “prayers” in Old English, and sounds like “horizons.” At 160 acres, according to the information panel at the end of the dirt road, it’s “one of the largest earthworks created by an individual woman artist to date.”

“Orisons” comprises many small things: steel and rope hammocks in the abstract shape of cranes’ wings; benches of adobe bricks; dozens of diminutive kinetic sculptures based on the seeds of the hardy plants that cover the field. They clack and whistle in the stronger gusts. But the land itself is the work.

Earthworks is a broad subgenre of the even broader category of outdoor sculpture and performance known as land art. “People still think of land art as primarily an American phenomenon, with a few select male white artists doing big projects in the southwest,” said Miwon Kwon, an art historian and professor emeritus at the University of California, Los Angeles. The survey she curated with Philipp Kaiser at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles in 2012, “Ends of the Earth,” challenged these and other preconceptions.

Land art is at a crossroads. Michael Heizer, the cowboy-hatted stalwart of earthworks, began the charismatic megasculpure, “City,” in 1972; the complex of cast concrete and bulldozed mounds crisscrossing Nevada’s desert is almost finished. Meanwhile, new projects, and fresh looks at historical ones, indicate a readiness for a holistic understanding of land, in which this sprawling, misjudged genre has a role — from high-concept landscaping by Humeau or Sam Van Aken, who planted an orchard of rare heirloom fruit trees on Governors Island; to intricate critiques of property law and power by Cameron Rowland and Kevin Beasley; to “Groundswell,” a survey at the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas of women making land art since the ’60s.

“The Marlboro Man scenario, or the archetype of the artist in general as a heroic, stressed-out, angst-ridden figure, has been challenged extensively,” Kwon said, “even if it lingers in certain sectors. But that was a product of its own historical and cultural and political moment.

“I don’t think that negates the work that was done in the 60s and 70s,” she added. “We just understand those ambitions differently now.”

“Orisons” is a mystical experience, because the place itself is mystical — the drama of human failure set against the valley’s sandblasted beauty.

The field’s owners, the Jones family, tried to raise cattle and crops, but for the last two decades they’ve redirected this parcel’s allotment of precious aquifer water to their nearby land. They’ve given Humeau the run of the unforgiving tract for two years, then they’ll see.

“Orisons” bears the circular scars of an old center-pivot irrigation system of the kind that still waters hay or potatoes in other fields. Humeau highlighted some of the area’s ruins with metallic blue paint: a crossbeam in a disused livestock paddock, the exposed sheath of a dry well.

“There is a smell of death,” said Humeau.” If you think of the land as a body, it’s been perforated and water has been extracted, and it’s totally depleted. And not only the aquifer, but also the soil.” Humeau’s sculptures, jabbed into the exhausted ground like acupuncture needles, mark places where the artist, in consultation with agronomists and geomancers, senses pain, or hope.

Humeau developed the piece with help from her London studio; Black Cube, a “nomadic art museum” with headquarters in the Denver area, input from valley residents and an offering of water from a member of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe of Towaoc, Colo.

She recounted advice she got from a local artist: “You’ve got your vision and what you want to do, but just remember that it’s the valley, and you’re going to have to let go. There’s only so much you can control.”

Land art lends itself to experiencing vast, intertwined systems, where the human world meets the beyond-human — down to the kangaroo rat burrows Swiss-cheesing “Orisons.” Jody Pinto, 81, is one of the 12 artists in “Groundswell,” curated by Leigh A. Arnold at the Nasher. Pinto defines the genre as “your body in the land.” This relationship can take ecological, sculptural, legal, even urban forms. “It’s not out there,” on some remote plain, like Robert Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty” unfurling theatrically into Utah’s Great Salt Lake, she said in a phone interview. “It’s where you live.”

In fact, it’s striking how many “Groundswell” artists work within city limits. Some, like Pinto and Mary Miss, 79, practice urban design.

In the ’70s, Pinto excavated 19th-century wells and cisterns in vacant lots in Philadelphia, then fitted them with ladders and sculptural bundles as an invitation for passers-by to explore. Organizing in the Women’s Movement, and advocating for rape survivors, informed her works’ sense of collaboration. Three decades later, when she designed the Santa Monica esplanade, she consulted with wheelchair users, bodybuilders, and other stakeholders on details as small as the angle of the backrests on the concrete benches.

Mary Miss grew up in the southwest. “I never really thought of my work as land art,” she said in a telephone interview from her loft in Manhattan. Rather than “the big mark, the big object,” she said, her work seeks to connect people to the land. She remembers watching from a moving car as barbed wire traced the roadside: “This delicate mark in the landscape.”

In 1973, Miss made an elegant sculpture somewhere even more desolate than Colorado’s high desert: Battery Park landfill. On a field of debris from the World Trade Center construction site, Miss installed a sequence of wooden panels cut with gradually descending holes, as if pierced by an invisible tunnell heading underground.

That sculpture, “Battery Park Landfill,” was temporary; but in 1984, when developers transformed the area into Battery Park City, Miss contributed “South Cove.” The curling boardwalk, sloping toward the Hudson River, recalls “Spiral Jetty,” faintly, in land art’s context — but Miss wasn’t thinking in those terms. “I wanted people to smell the water, hear it, get their feet wet at a high tide.”

The artist Agnes Denes, 92, told me something similar. “I want to guide humanity in a subtle way without preaching to them, without pushing philosophy down their throats,” she said, busy in her stuffed SoHo studio. “You become one with my project. It changes you as a human being. All of a sudden you have different thoughts. You are a little bit better. You believe in yourself more, you trust yourself more. ”

Denes was at the forefront of what she calls not land art, but environmental art. “Groundswell” will include documentation of several of her projects, including 1968’s “Rice/Tree/Burial” in which she chained trees, buried haikus and planted half an acre of rice in Sullivan County, N.Y. Her work “Tree Mountain,” realized in Finland, covers 28 sloping acres with gently spiraling forest. She’d love to plant a bigger, star-shaped forest in Queens, capping the former Edgemere Landfill — before it turns into condos.

Which is what happened where one of the most provocative works of land art once rustled in the breeze: “Wheatfield: A Confrontation.” In 1982, Denes spread a thin layer of soil and planted two acres of wheat on Battery Park landfill. Imagine standing waist high in golden grain, a stone’s throw from the sheer edge of Manhattan’s grid. Today, standing in a featureless crossroads in Battery Park City, a couple of blocks from “South Cove,” the sense of confrontation remains: “Wheatfield” feels like a challenge unmet.

From Lower Manhattan, it’s a short ferry ride to Governors Island, where the arboreal artist Sam Van Aken established “The Open Orchard” in 2022. The 102 fruit trees were made by grafting together scores of heirloom cherries, peaches, almonds, and other fruit that once dotted the metropolis.

“I would like to say that I just magically cooked it up,” he says of the idea. Denes was especially influential. You can see Lower Manhattan through the branches, now studded with green fruit. When the fruit ripens, you may pick it.

Emphasizing social engagement and historical revision, contemporary land art barely resembles the first generation of big, formal earthworks — at least physically. It still very much concerns the systems humans overlay on the earth.

You wouldn’t call this sculpture or performance — but land art’s precedent feeds symbolic, conceptual approaches to land as diverse as Kevin Beasley’s in New Orleans, where he bought and gradually transformed an overgrown lot in the Lower Ninth Ward into an urban food garden; or the Indigenous artists New Red Order’s study of the Mississippian mounds flattened to develop St. Louis.

Cameron Rowland, a MacArthur fellow whose ready-made sculptures and essayistic titles vivisect the ongoing legal legacy of slavery, upends the concept of “property”: collectors can lease Rowland’s work in five-year increments, but not own. The artist started “Depreciation” in 2018, setting up a nonprofit to purchase and manage an acre lot from a former plantation in South Carolina; the land had been given to former slaves, but then rescinded. Rowland’s piece takes the form of a restrictive covenant, inverting the kinds of laws used to exclude Black people from white neighborhoods. The arrangement intentionally devalues the land to $0.

This year, the Dia Art Foundation announced their stewardship of the work under a 25-year agreement. Founded in 1974, the nonprofit organization has ushered into the 21st century a portfolio of land art that includes “Spiral Jetty” and Nancy Holt’s “Sun Tunnels,” and funkier classics like Walter De Maria’s “New York Earth Room” — along with land art’s echoes of manifest destiny.

“The intent on our end coincides with that of the artist,” said Jordan Carter, one of the Dia curators stewarding Rowland’s piece. “The institution is implicated in our history of real estate. But our ways of working are not without their own critiques of Western expansion.” This company sharpens Rowland’s critique of the very idea of property, and the unjust thickets of laws that shore it up, from the desert to the beach.

Looking after Rowland’s “Depreciation” saddles Dia with its upkeep, but unlike other sites in their care, “Depreciation” offers no sculpture to visit. Instead, there are two framed sets of documents (currently on view at Dia’s Chelsea gallery). The address on Edisto Island, about an hour south of Charleston, is public. But Rowland’s text states that “8060 Maxie Road is not for visitation.”

Having made the trip to “Orisons,” and the ghost of “Wheatfield,” and a handful of other land art pilgrimages, I confess I thought I might visit Maxie Road, too. I got no further than Google Maps. “We have to ask ourselves,” said Carter, “why do I have this desire to survey and occupy this land when the work is not predicated on that?”

What could frame the problematic power of land art better than a fallow acre you could visit, but shouldn’t?

“The land art that was done before is about artistic selfishness, wanting more space,” Denes said. Artists are approaching the future of land art, and the future of land, with more humility.



POST AUTHOR: Travis Diehl

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