The Rise Of the Earthworks and Land Artworks

Subject: Art
Type: Evaluation Essay
Pages: 11
Word count: 2781
Topics: Art Comparison, American Culture, Art History

Abstract expressionism was the dominant art movement in the United State through much of the 1950s. In this movement, artists sought to express, through their art, their personal emotions. However, in the early 1960s, a new art movement emerged in its place, i.e. Minimal art. Minimalists rejected the premise of abstract expressionism, which they thought was “too pretentious, insubstantial and personal”. To them, art was not supposed to reflect the personal emotions and/expressions of the creator. Rather, they argued, “art should not refer to anything other than itself”. As such, their artworks sought to be inexpressive, entirely objective, and non-referential. 

But minimalist art was young in the early 1960s, and at that sage it kept close to the traditional art forms. Painting was an important part of the movement just as it had been in the previous movement, and there were sculptors as well. However, naturally, it would evolve, and just as important was what became to be known as ‘earthworks’ or ‘land art/artworks’. Land art was seen as revolutionary because it broke up the traditional forms, choosing to set themselves free from the indoor and gallery. Indeed, late 1960s minimalists – in many ways better than the early 1960s minimalists – perfectly chose the land as a space and form to create their artworks, and these artworks drew attention to and brought benefits to the environment and nature. The great minimalists, who emerged in this period include, Michael Heizer, Robert Smithson, and Richard Long.

This paper is a brief look at the emergence of land art. It explores how late 1960s art used land as a space and form for creating art. Particularly, it looks at the major land artists and their famous works: Michael Heizer and his Double Negative, Robert Smithson and his Spiral Jeffy, and Richard Long and his A Line in Ireland.

Land Art: Thematic Concerns

Land art came about when certain artists sought to escape the commercial and spatial confines of museums and galleries. The inspiration for land art came from “geometrical forms of minimal art and some time-based conceptual art”. The land artists also exhibited a spiritual attitude towards the planet, which turned into their concern for indigenous and ecological issues. 

Ecology refers to a vision of the interdependence of events in a regenerative system. In fact, this is the character of land art; seeking to create art that can be viewed and appreciated relative to all other things in a much wider space. The external environment provides a wide content to create and appreciate, and the natural environment is not only impermanent, but also regenerative. As to ecological issues, land art draw attention to ecological evolution in important ways. This is because these arts are expected to respond to the environment – rather than impose upon them – and in doing so reveal both the impermanence and regenerative nature of the natural environment. 

Some of these popular artists of this generation are Michael Heizer, Robert Smithson, and Richard Long. All these artists were revolutionary in their own rights, exhibiting the use of the external environment as a space and form for art. Despite certain differences between them – including what inspired their works, the material they liked to use, and the process of creating, among others – they showed certain similarities, including devotion to certain themes. One can find these common themes (e.g. impermanence) in these artists’ most known works: Michael Heizer’sDouble Negative, Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, and Robert Long’s A Line in Ireland.

Major Land Artists and their Artworks

Michael Heizer’sand Double Negative

The Artist

Michael Heizer was born in 1944 in Berkeley, California. He has lived and worked in New York and Nevada. Michael Heizer is among the first artists to start working in the external environment, i.e. outside of the gallery. This makes him a pioneer of the land art. Like his contemporaries, his works are revolutionary, taking experimentation (with medium, among others) to the extreme. He is, therefore, renowned for his extraordinary works, redefining sculpture in terms of material he used, sheer size and mass, as well as gesture and the working process. His sculptures are renowned their awe-inspiring characters, and his earthworks are made using earth-moving equipment. There is, for example, his colossal work, North, East, South, West, which is on permanent display at Dia. This work is made up of four geometric depressions, each of which is sinking as deep as 20 feet below the floor of the gallery.A good number of his since 1972. The City comprises of Heizer’s giant earthworks, drawing inspiration from the works are found in City, a vast location in Central Eastern Nevada where he has been working architectural ruins of the ancient times.Double Negative is one of his most popular works.

The Artwork: Double Negative

Heizer’s Double Negative

Heizer’s Double Negative

Double Negative, created in 1969,in Mormon Mesa of a remote Southern Nevada location. The work was created through subtraction. It consists of two large gaps that carved out of a mesa. The creation of this work involved bulldozing and blasting of 244,000 tons of rocks. There is a quarter mile space between the two relatively symmetrical and rectangle-shape slices. Each of those slices measures about 30 feet in width, 50 feet in height and together are 1,500 feet long. In the end, one sees two geometrically similar trenches. With conservation measures taken, the work has undergone its own slow erosion, and today looks more like a natural happenstance. As Lindquist puts it, it now has the look, “(from many viewpoints) of a native geological feature created not by human activity but solely through the entropic accretion of time and elemental change”. 

The work exhibits great proportions and scale. As such, it represents an enormous expansion of the-then minimalist works. Heizers contemporaries altered how viewers perceived the interior exhibition rooms’ spaces, but this work instead transforms how a view experiences constructed space in environments that are nonhuman. The works provokes great feelings in one viewing it. To begin with, the enormity of the work draws one’s attention to his/her relation to earth, and maybe the entire universe. Often, people ignore their miniature size in the grand scale of things. But this art, small as it also is in the grand scale of things, gets one to see how in comparison they are such miniature beings. This may have been Heizer’s intention all along; to get people to think about their relation to the earth. But also important, the art gets one to contemplate the relationship between earth and art – perhaps what art can do for earth. This particular work, for example, gets one to consider the environment. Minimalist work was after all aimed at drawing attention to the environment and nature. Double Negative, more so over time, as it has continued to erode over time, gets one see how important it is to conserve nature. Heizer himself did not entertain any illusions that the work would stay permanently. On the contrary, he conceded that the work would change over time, and may be eventually disappear entirely. In this regard, Heizer underscores “the triviality of man’s attempts’ to impose his will on the environment”.

Robert Smithson and Spiral Jeffy

The Artist

Robert Smithson is another one of the popular minimalists of the 1960s and 70s, and he is considered ‘one of the most enigmatic artists of the late 20th century”. He was quoted saying “Painting, sculpture and architecture are finished but the art habit continues”. This implies his minimalist view of art, i.e. away from the traditionally known art expressions. Indeed, Smithson interrogated and challenged the predominance of modernism and his works reflect this. The irony is that Smithson started his career as a painter. However, in the 1960s he stated to experiment with other media. His works were deeply informed by the subjects that interested him: geology, science and crystallization, and his works explored “process of accumulation and displacement with the goal of revealing contradictions in the visible world”.

Unfortunately, Smithson’s workwas cut short when he died in a plane crash in 1973. He was at the time working on another of his lad art in Amarillo, Texas. Even then, his works remain largely inscrutable. What is not inscrutable is the beauty of his works, the sheer imagination that inspired those works, and the effort that went into the creation process. Among his most celebrated works is the Spiral Jetty.

The Artwork: The Spiral Jetty

Smithson’s Spiral Jetty

Smithson’s Spiral Jetty

Smithson created the Spiral Jetty in 1970, at the Rozel Point peninsula of Great Salt Lake’s northeastern shore. Smithson worked for three weeks, with a team operating dump trucks, a front loader and a tractor. The result is mysterious and gigantic sculpture consisting of more than six thousand tons of black basalt rocks and earth formed into a coil shape. The coil was 1,500 feet long and 15 feet wide and it wound counterclockwise off the shore and into the water. Jones. For example, observes that Smithson’s Spiral Jettyis characterized by “mysterious marking of the landscape [that] deliberately resembles the prehistoric architecture of Neolithic Britain, the banks of Avebury and sarsens of Stonehenge”.

What makes the Spiral Jetty even more special is the context in which it was created. Smithson subscribed to the notion that nature was itself capable of manipulating art, and that art needed to respond to aspects of nature and time. It may be important to revisit Smithson’s artistic objective of expressing accumulation and displacement with the aim of showing contradictions. Indeed, Smithson apparently chose the Great Salt Lake location for the Spiral Jetty because of the way that lake’s unusual physical features would enable this sculpture to exhibit these elements. There was the lake’s reddish coloration of the water that resulted from microbes, and also the way that salt deposits crystallized on the black basalt rocks. The rocks themselves were molten lava of the area’s extinct volcanoes, and they were scattered along the peninsula. Smithson also had a longstanding preoccupation with enthropy, and as such he found appealing the fractured rocky landscape and the fact that the lake’s water levels fluctuated. All these in the end provided material for the sculpture. When Smithson created the sculpture, the water levels were low, and from 1972, it was submerged under the water, its levels now higher. Finally, regional droughts caused the lake’s water levels to fall, and the Spiral Jetty reappeared, now salt-encrusted and white.

Considered individually, there is a poetic sequence alongside the sculpture’s aerial footage. It indicates the spiral running along to eventually rest at the innermost coil. This sequence significantly influences how one views the work. Particularly, it influences how one views and experience the space shifts of the sculpture. As one follows the spirals towards the center, there is a certain inward concentration or contrition. In other words, one’s focus is turned outward. However, as one walks from the center outwards, there is a certain outward focus, so that one starts to focus on the horizons, the wide world and its possibilities. In this regard, Smithson achieves his objective of paradox in his works, i.e. the contradictions in single entities. In this case, the sculpture plays with one’s attention depending on the direction one is headed. Also important is the knowledge of the sculpture’s disappearance (in 1972) and reappearance (in 2002). One must acknowledge that the art has itself evolved under manipulation by nature. Because of these changes in material and look, the effect that it may have had on the original viewers (when it was first created), and the effect is has on viewers today are most likely not the same. There may an important theme here. Like Heizer’s Double Negative, Smithson’s Spiral Jetty may be emphasizing the theme of impermanence. Smithson himself argued that the sculpture responds to – rather than impose upon – the landscape. The difference is not the same, and ultimately influences how one would appreciate the work. Again, like Heizer in Double Negative, Smithson may be mocking man’s effort to impose upon nature, drawing one’s attention to his/her own impermanence. 

Richard Long and A Line in Ireland

The Artist

Richard Long is one of the most popular and best British land artists. He is one of the generations of artists, who emerged in the 1960s, and his works reflected his love for nature. He came to redefine and expand the possibilities of sculpture. For example, he took long solitary walks in the remote and rural parts of Britain, Asia, South and North America, and Australia. He saw walking as art (i.e. as sculpture), and he responded to the environments he visited by “manipulating or altering the landscape in some subtle way”. For example, he made simple marks on the ground (such as with circle sculptures) or created sculptures with the natural features he found on site (as he did with his stone sculptures). Often he mapped and documented his walks with image or text works, and even bringing many natural materials to the gallery. A Line in Ireland is one example of Long’s style.

A Line in Ireland

Long’s A Line in Ireland

Long’s A Line in Ireland

Long did A Line in Ireland in 1974, in a remote, exotic and uninhabited part of Ireland. The piece is a line of rocks, i.e. medium-size rocks that formed a distinct line on a bare ground, and it is raised slightly above the ground around, except for a few boulders up ahead and what seems to be some hills. The available literature does not say if Long created the line. However, the line seems to have been created by arranging the small rocks (i.e. organic material) by hand. There is a minimal use of the available free space. The line could continue, but it does not. It stops a few yards short. In the end, what one sees is a relatively straight line – as straight as a line or rocks could be. But perhaps the more interesting part of the piece is how it manipulates light to change its look. As a stationary piece, the lighting of its sides, changes with the change in the time of day, and its shadow would fall on different sides of it as well. 

Looking at the photograph of the ‘line’, one gets the feeling that it is not likely to be for a long time. In fact, compared to the rest of the characters in the photograph (including the boulders, the hills (distant as they are), the horizon and even the small plants around the line), the line looks like the most insignificant and impermanent character. However, despite that, it seems to be the most remarkable thing in the photograph. All the rest are expected, but the line stands out as the most unlikely. This explains why it wins most – if not all – of the attention of the viewer. There is the feeling that one needs to appreciate the sight before it is gone, precarious as it is. 


Every art movement has its time. However, the movements do evolve over time, and the same can be said of the minimalist movement. Although the premise was the same, the attention of the early minimalists differed in some way from those of the later minimalists. The minimalists of the early 1960s, for example, still produced the traditional art forms of paintings, sculpture and architecture. These traditional forms in a way suffocated their new (minimalist) ideas. However, those in the late 1960s were more radical, experimenting with new media. Land became one important medium, leading to the rise of land art. These artists (including Heizer, Smithson and Long, among others) became better at manipulating land as space for and form of art

The works analyzed here (Heizer’s Double Negative, Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, and Richard Long’s A Line in Ireland) shows one of the advantages of land as space for and form of art, especially in relation to other characters in an expanded space. But also important is how these works showed the relationship between art and earth, most especially how art can respond to – rather impose upon – the natural environment. Contained in this way of creating are the ecological themes of minimalists. All the works analyzed here contain that important implication; the need for mankind to respond to nature rather than impose upon it. Indeed, the three works have all, one or another, showed the value of such response. Subject to the environment and ecological elements, they have all evolved in important ways over time. But in doing so, they have also changed in important ways. Simply, they have become work in progress rather complete works. 

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  3. Elliott, Patrick. Richard Long: Walking and Marking, (UK: NationalGalleries of Scotland, 2008).
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  5. “Important Art by Michael Heizer.”The Art Story.Accessed September 13.
  6. Jones, Jonathan. Robert Smithson: the Epic Life of an American Enigma, The Guardian, Nov. 18, 2015.
  7. Linquist, Greg. “Descending into the Abyss of Double Negative”.Artseen(2003): p. 43
  8. “Michael Heizer Bibliography.” Gagosian.Accessed September 13, 2017.“Important Art by Michael Heizer.” The Art Story.Accessed September 13.
  9. Porwal, Tina. “The Ironic Exploration from Abstract Expressionism to Minimalism.”International Journal of Research- Granthaalayah1, no. 2 (2014): 38-47
  10. VanEenoo, Cedric. “Minimalism in Art and Design: Concept, Influences, Implications and Perspectives.” Journal of Fine and Studio Art 2, no. 1 (2011): 7-12
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