The early 1970s bore witness to one of the more fascinating and revolutionary movements in contemporary art: Land Art, or “Earthworks”. Land art was a direct response to the more artificial and plastic art installations of the 1960s. Artists no longer wanted their works to exist in the commercial and sterile space of the museum. Instead, land artists worked with the environment, using natural materials such as bed rock, water, soil, and other organic media to transform physical landscapes into works of art.
The beauty of these pieces lied in their ephemeral nature. Unlike works of art enclosed in museums, land sculptures were completely subject to the changes and fluctuations of their environment. Some of them, especially those composed in desert ecosystems, no longer exist due to the effects of erosion. Those that still exist today have changed a great deal since their inception. Years and years of wind, rain, and fluctuations in temperature have caused these sculptures to not only morph into new designs, but become part and parcel of their ecosystems.
Of the land artists, no one was more popular or influential than Robert Smithson. A New Jersey native, Robert Smithson was one of the foremost leaders of the land art movement and he worked tirelessly to promote its many virtues. His fascination with New Jersey’s urban decay and industrial areas led him to question the dynamic relationship between human beings and the spaces they inhabit. In his art, Smithson took these dilapidated industrial sites and used organic materials to create massive, archetypal sculptures that were infused with historical meaning, such as spirals, mounds, and circles.
Smithson’s most famous work of art was the Spiral Jetty, a 1,500-foot-long coil of mud, basalt rocks, salt crystals, and water located on the northeastern shore of the Great Salt Lake, in Utah. There are many times of the year when the sculpture cannot be seen because it is submerged in water. It took about 6 days for Smithson to construct.
Unfortunately, Smithson died in 1973 from injuries sustained during a plane crash. His death was a huge loss for the land art movement, and the absence of his influence and presence led to the decline of public interest in land art. Although the movement may have faded away in the 1970s, it has recently experienced a growth in interest and popularity as global climate changes and growing commercialism force us to meditate on the ways in which we interact with the world around us.
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