Into the Wild: The American Desert and the Lie of Land Art / Meital Raz

Instead of using a paintbrush to make his art, Robert Morris would like to use a bulldozer[i] (Robert Smithson)

In January 1968, at the height of the blood-soaked Vietnam War, when student demonstrations and the Civil Rights Movement are gaining momentum, and the second wave of feminism is beginning to raise its head, Michael Heizer, a rising star in the art world, left New York and set out to the Mojave Desert in the southwestern United States equipped with pickaxes, shovels, and building materials. When he arrived at El Mirage Lake in Arizona, Heizer decided to execute a number of artworks he had planned. In El Mirage, a dry flat lake approximately six and a half kilometers in length, he created nine monumental artworks to which he gave titles such as Windows, Gesture, Field, and Compression Line. The series consisted of cubical wood constructions that were buried in the ground following intensive excavation.

At the beginning of April, Heizer returned to El Mirage with Walter De Maria, who surpassed Heizer and created even bigger works. De Maria’s two spectacular works were minimalist in nature, consisting of simple shapes sketched in white chalk. In Desert Cross he drew two pairs of lines that created a cross one and a half kilometers wide and three hundred meters long; in Parallel Lines, also known as Mile Long Drawing, De Maria drew two parallel lines extending over the entire length of the river.

In the same year Robert Smithson with his wife, artist Nancy Holt, artist Carl Andre, and gallerist Virginia Dwan scouted industrial areas in New Jersey in search of potential sites to install artworks that he called “non-site”. They did not find any suitable sites, and Dwan suggested holding an exhibition at her gallery, one of the lively hubs in New York at the time. The exhibition, entitled Earth Works, opened at the Dwan Gallery in October. Ten artists participated in it, showing works in different mediums in which earth elements constituted a leitmotif. Smithson, the star of the exhibition, built his first non-site – geometric shapes from natural materials he brought into the gallery, a kind of indoor-outdoor; Claes Oldenburg installed a Plexiglas cube filled with earth and worms; Robert Morris also built an installation made from mounds of earth, oil, and wire; Walter De Maria presented a six-meter high painting; Michael Heizer positioned huge photographs in light boxes documenting his work process in the Nevada desert; Sol LeWitt presented documentation of a work he created in Holland; Herbert Bayer presented documentation of a work he created in Colorado a decade earlier in 1955; Dennis Oppenheim, Stephen Kaltenbach, and Carl Andre presented documentary materials and models for future projects they planned to execute in nature.[2]

The exhibition at the Dwan Gallery received extensive coverage and enthusiastic reactions, researchers and art critics were enthralled by the new genre, which went on to be called Land Art.[3] They underscored the subversive act of going out of the studio and the new aesthetic that challenges accepted art forms. In her seminal article, Sculpture in the Expanded Field, Rosalind Krauss refers to the first land artists as having created a new relationship between sculpting language and expanse. Krauss indicates land art as heralding postmodernism since it undermines traditional cultural codes, whether by using unconventional materials or by challenging the role of the museal space.[4]

One of the striking characteristics of the artists who exhibited at the Dwan Gallery (and a year later in another critically-acclaimed exhibition, Earth Art, at the Cornell University Gallery) was the fact that almost all of them went out into the desert to create their works, especially the deserts in the southwestern United States. “The desert is less ‘nature’ than a concept, a place that swallows up boundaries”, Smithson wrote. “When the artist goes to the desert he enriches his absence (…) The slush of the city evaporates from the artist’s mind as he installs his art”.[5] Smithson urged artists to come out of the studio and go into the American desert, which in his view symbolizes the diametric opposite of polluting urbanization, a place where the artist is free from the fetters of the industrialized world, and free to create experimental works. This outlook was largely grounded in the Romantic tradition that viewed nature as an offshoot of divinity, as an untamed and primal expanse detached from culture and humankind.[6]

However, not only romantic impulses drove and motivated the first land artists to go out into the wilderness. In the 1950s the American desert transformed from a primordial expanse that cast its spell on the first American settlers, into a highly charged area – geographically, ecologically, and politically. The establishment of numerous industrial plants and mining quarries, which sparked ecological debates over their polluting effect, the first nuclear tests that began in 1945 in the New Mexico desert, and the mounting presence of the American military in these areas – all brought to the surface feelings of paranoia concerning a nuclear catastrophe and produced new representations of the desert. In the early 1960s artists, filmmakers, and writers went out into the American deserts and created works charged with apocalyptic contexts.[7] Although the works of the first land artists in the desert were essentially romantic and idealistic, they also sought to intervene in nature and the landscape, at times even aggressively.

Thus, by the early 1970s the majority of land artists went out into the western deserts to create artworks, with Michael Heizer, Walter De Maria, and Robert Smithson the most prominent among them. Heizer, who is identified with sculptural works addressing emptiness and displacement, was one of the most prolific artists to create in the desert. Following his early series in El Mirage, he returned to the western wilderness several times. In April 1968 he created Nine Nevada Depressions in Northern Nevada and the Mojave Desert, a series of works created in the course of two years at nine different sites and joined together with a trench extending over 840 kilometers, which entailed massive plowing. In 1970 Heizer began working on one of his most well known works, Double Negative. The enormous work, about 457 meters in length, is located in a remote tract of land in the Mormon Mesa region about eight kilometers from Las Vegas. Like most of Heizer’s works, Double Negative is based on excavation and construction techniques, and consists of two matching trenches which were excavated into the mountain and distort its natural appearance by creating vast empty spaces.[8] One of Heizer’s most ambitious and protracted projects, City, was conceived in 1972 and is scheduled to be executed in Nevada in the coming years. The work, which only few have seen, consists of architectural complexes made from stone, sand, and concrete, and founded on Native American construction traditions.

In his short life, Smithson, who died in an airplane crash, completed just one work in the American desert, but it unquestionably became the undisputed poster child of land art. In April 1970, Smithson traveled to the northwest shore of the Great Salt Lake in Utah near Rozel Point, and began working on Spiral Jetty, a kind of spiral extension made from mud and basalt rocks, about a half kilometer long and four and a half meters wide. In a documentary film tracing the work process, Smithson underscores the symbolic qualities of the crystal lake with its reddish hues which he associated with themes of death, but also the actual contexts of the region, with its landscape of abandoned machines and cranes scattered everywhere, which to his mind resembled a modern prehistoric site.[9] In his numerous writings, Smithson attests to Spiral Jetty as expressing the essence of his perception of non-site:

I did a large spiral, triangular system that sort of just spun out and could only be seen from an airplane. I was sort of interested in the dialogue between the indoor and the outdoor (…) I developed a method or a dialectic that involved what I call site and non-site (…) as a result I went and instead of putting something on the landscape I decided it would be interesting to transfer the land indoors, to the non-site which is an abstract container.[10]

Robert Smithson, Spiral Jetty, 1970

The last member of the trio of desert Land Artists is Walter De Maria, a minimalist artist who until 1965 worked primarily in small dimensions, mostly in wood and metal. His earth works were always simple in form but complex in experience. In 1969, a year after his first chalk works in El Mirage, De Maria returned to the desert and created Las Vegas Piece, which was made using a bulldozer to create four square cuts one and a half kilometers in length. In the mid-1970s, De Maria went to the deserts of New Mexico where in the course of five years he searched for a location for one of his ambitious works, Lightning Field. He installed the work only in 1977 in a remote area in western New Mexico. The work is comprised of four hundred polished stainless steel poles installed in a grid array measuring over one kilometer. During the day the poles are almost invisible, but at sunrise and sunset they are naturally illuminated. Like Double Negative, Lightning Field became one of the iconic land art works since it is one of the only ones to survive the years and was not intended to be temporary.[11] Lightning Field, too, is shrouded in an aura of inaccessible mystery, only six people are permitted to see the work at any given time, and it is open to visitors for six months of the year.

Walter De Maria, Lightning Field, 1977

De Maria, Smithson, and Heizer were among the pioneers who went out into the desert, and they were followed by other artists who attempted to compete with the dimensions of the ambitious works, including James Turrell who in 1977 purchased an inactive volcano in the Arizona desert and transformed it into an architectural monument of light and space (Roden Crater),[12] and Donald Judd who with the assistance of the Dia Art Foundation purchased thousands of acres of land in Marfa, a small town on the Mexican border. Until 1979 most of Marfa belonged to Judd, and in his hands it was transformed into an active artistic space that primarily housed his own works and those of his friends. Judd – like most of his land art contemporaries – had had his fill of the art world that according to him was primarily driven by money. He expressed his chagrin with contemporary curators and art critics like Rosalind Krauss and Michael Fried who sought to find a common denominator for all the artists of the period. “Art is a peripheral activity, almost outside of the society of the United States”, Judd wrote in 1975, “I felt that I had to leave that society to be an artist”.[13]

The first land artists gained considerable attention, however even back in the 1960s quite a few critical voices were heard as well. Sidney Tillim associated the new genre with the “picturesque” category, and claimed that it was an undeveloped form of the Romantic tradition. According to him, land art works do not create a new aesthetic space, and are nothing more than useless decorative objects.[14] Curator Michael Auping claimed that “Earth Art, with very few exceptions, not only doesn’t improve on its natural environment, it destroys it”.[15] David Hickey compared land art with documentary journalism, and emphasized its sensationalist aspect and photogenic sex appeal. “Earth Art and its unpackageable peers cannot hurt the market, but extensive magazine coverage can, since not as much object art will get exposure”.[16] Artist and art critic Daniel Buren was one of the harshest critics of land art, and stated in his essays that “it is doubly reactionary: this individual search for greater freedom is based on a return to nature which itself rests on a double illusion”.[17]

So, were the first land artists a group of revolutionaries who subverted artistic conventions and challenged the industrialized world that was afflicted by economic interests? One of the main criticisms leveled against the early land artists was their naïve perception of landscape and nature. For Heizer, Smithson, and De Maria, nature exists in a totally separate sphere from political and cultural processes. This view delimits nature in a frame consisting of everything that is not culture, and relates to it in mythologizing terms. These artists believed that remote wilderness regions, especially the desert, are pure symbolic expanses of spiritual transformation. They were accused of holding a romantic view that perpetuates the objectifying structure of nature, which was in fact created by the capitalist system. This is a system that enables celebration of these romantic practices, but proposes nothing more than a superficial solution for crucial ecological issues.

The first land artists blurred the complexity of ecological issues in favor of an idealistic perception of nature, and the American desert was one of its direct manifestations. Smithson, Heizer, De Maria, and their contemporaries went out to isolated, inaccessible areas, built vast monuments, and turned them into quasi-religious pilgrimage sites. They were accused of environmental insensitivity, arrogance and perpetuating the extravagant American way of life. In the numerous images documenting their desert works they are presented as Holliwoodesque stars sporting faded jeans and cowboy boots with a cigarette dangling from the corner of their mouth.[18]

The spectacular motivations of the first land artists were perceived as one of the banes of the genre. Their works were considered aggressive, masculine and colonialist since they glorified the white man’s triumph over nature and the American obsession with size. As proof, Spiral Jetty was created from 6,650 tons of imported stone and earth, and Double Negative required excavation of 240,000 tons of stone that created extensive waste. However, the monumental impulses of the land artists can be explained as part of the changes that occurred in the medium of sculpture in those years, with Rosalind Krauss’s essay representing its climax. Sculpting in the 1960s established a new relationship with space by means of physical experience. For the land artists the body mediates between the viewer and the work. The monumental presence of the sculptural objects accentuates the experience of the body in the space, transforming the sculpture into a living and experienced space. This perception is manifested in an article by Calvin Tomkins of The New Yorker who in 1972 accompanied Virginia Dwan on a visit to Spiral Jetty, which few had the privilege of doing:

(…) When I took off my shoes and tried to wade out I sank to my knees in the mud (…) The water was rust-colored, warm, and smooth as glass (…) In the late summer, as the water in the lake evaporated, heavy concentrations of salt made a whitish sludge all along the edges of the spiral (…) the Spiral Jetty was thus an organic work of art, responding like a tree or a plant to the changing seasons (…) The journey, the landscape and the immediate environment of the work are all determinants in its total meaning.[19] 

Robert Smithson and Richard Serra walking on the Spiral Jetty

The development of aerial photography in the 1950s was also closely connected to the establishment of monumental land art. Smithson was himself an avid flier (he died in an airplane crash while searching for a site for a new work), and was employed as an art consultant at the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport. In an article he wrote in 1969, Smithson sings the praises of aerial mapping technology and emphasizes the importance of aerial photography as establishing a new experience of the landscape which, according to him, resembled looking at a map.[20] Since by its very nature land art was temporary and eventually vanished, all that remains of it is primarily documentary materials. The artists were well-aware of this fact and invested substantially in documentary photography. Aerial photography served them as a means for perpetuating the spectacular nature of the works and preserving their iconic status – would Spiral Jetty have attained world glory if not for the famous aerial photograph taken in 1970 by Gianfranco Gorgoni?

The land artists never denied their monumental motivations, Heizer even suggested that this is what typifies American Art, “It was a question of an American sensibility, things were being done that felt uniquely American – a lot of them had to do with size – size and measurements”.[21] On another occasion he stated that “My idea was to make American art (…) as long as you’re going to make a sculpture, why not make one that competes with a 747, or the Empire State Building, or the Golden Gate Bridge?”[22] At the same time, he repeatedly emphasized that his attitude toward landscape is not romantic at all: “It had nothing to do with landscape or the romanticism of the West, I was looking for material. The West isn’t romantic to me, I’m from there”.[23] In his book on land art, John Beardsley contends that the criticism leveled against spectacular land art – especially Heizer’s – is perhaps justified, but we should bear in mind the connection between his aggressive works and the new role he designated for sculpture, not only as a medium that inhabits the space. Heizer’s works were perceived as radical, as undermining artistic conventions, but he did not define himself as defying or challenging the art world.[24]

Another outcome of the spectacular motivations of the land artists was the high cost entailed in producing the works. Heizer, Smithson, De Maria, and others are identified with rejection of the capitalist world that, according to them, is driven by economic considerations, but in order to implement their ambitious works in the desert they needed money, and a lot of it. The aerial photographs, the building materials, the difficult access to the isolated areas all required considerable financial backing. All the more when it came to using the uninhabited land in the desert, more than half of which was government owned. A group of philanthropists and collectors soon identified the genre’s potential and began supporting the artists and purchasing land for them. Thus, what began as an underground, anti-commercial experiment, turned into a lively marketplace of economic and marketing interests. Virginia Dwan, gallerist and heiress to the 3M mining and manufacturing conglomerate, and tycoon Robert Scull who made his fortune from his father-in-law’s taxi business, were two prominent patrons who supported the early land artists, financed most of their works, and even joined them on their trips into the desert.

Another source for the commercial success of land art was the public foundations that invested considerable financial resources in producing the costly works. Public patronage of the arts was still in its infancy and grew extensively over the years. The Ford Foundation was the first to support artists in 1950s, and many others went on to join it, flooding the American art market with a great deal of money, including the Dia Art Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). The immense public support in the US had far-reaching effects on shaping the face of art and the unprecedented flourishing of numerous art institutions. Public support was primarily directed toward young avant-garde artists due to their aura of youthful rebelliousness, the bon ton of the time.[25]

Although the land artists were afforded artistic freedom, and their patrons did not directly interfere in their work, the immense financial support frequently clashed with their idealistic values. Many in the art world reacted harshly to what they perceived as the hypocrisy of the early land artists; in 1977, when Walter De Maria installed Vertical Earth Mile at the Documenta in Kassel at a sum estimated at $250,000 financed by an oil company, British artist Stuart Brisley responded by excavating a pit next to De Maria’s work and living in it for two weeks. Historian Bryan Appleyard wrote that the extreme conditions and primitivist atmosphere amounted to “giving the finger” to expensive and aesthetic American art.[26]

One of the most comprehensive exhibitions of early land art mounted in the past decade addressed the criticism leveled against artists such as Smithson, De Maria, and Heizer, and admitted that there are several contradictions in their naïve attitude. American land art, claim curators Philip Kaiser and Miwon Kwan in the comprehensive exhibition catalogue, was indeed commercial, but this is not a deficiency, on the contrary – it is precisely the vast financial support that challenged definitions of commercialism, production conditions, presentation, and dissemination of this kind of art. According to them, land art developed at a momentous turning point in contemporary art at which avant-garde art practices gained extensive commercial and curatorial support, and resulted in artists professionalizing their practice.[27]

Despite the harsh criticism, today there is no dispute that the early land artists were groundbreakers in every aesthetic and critical criterion, but they were mistaken in thinking that art is a practice detached from culture and humankind. For them the desert became a means to undermine the values of the corrupt capitalist world. In the 1960s this romantic outlook was already considered archaic and outdated; the beginnings of an understanding were already emerging that nature is not merely an objectified symbolic and ideological space, but a complex system intertwined with political, social, and technological processes.


Michael Heizer, Double Negative, 1970



[1]   Robert Smithson, Towards the Development of an Air Terminal Site (1967), in Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings, Jack Flam (Ed.), Berkley: University of California Press, 1996, pp. 52-60.

[2]   Virginia Dwan, Changing Boundaries, in Ends of the Earth: Land Art to 1974, Philipp Kaiser and Miwon Kwon (Eds.), New York: Prestel Publishing, 2012, pp. 93-95.

[3]   The term “Land Art” was first coined in a short documentary film produced by filmmaker Gerry Schum and aired on German television in April 1969. The term is more widespread in Europe than the US, where the term “Earthworks” became rooted, especially due to the exhibition mounted at the Dwan Gallery. Over the years and with the expansion of the genre into a wide range of practices, additional names have emerged, such as “Environmental Art” and “Ecological Art”.

[4]   Rosalind Krauss, Sculpture in the Extended Field, October, Vol. 8, 1979, pp. 30-44.

[5]   Robert Smithson, A Sedimentation of the Mind, (1967), in Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings, Jack Flam (Ed.), Berkley: University of California Press, 1996, pp. 100-113.

[6]   The roots of the Romantic tradition can be found in eighteenth-century literature and art. Romanticism underwent several changes in the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Two prominent theoreticians who can be attributed to the Romantic perception of land art are Lucy Lippard and Suzi Gablik. For further reading, see:

Suzi Gablik, The Reenchantment of Art, London: Thames and Hudson, 1991.

Lucy Lippard, Undermining: A Wild Ride Through Land Use, Politics, and Art in the Changing West, New York: The New Press, 2014.

Ibid., Overlay: Contemporary Art and the Art of Prehistory, New York: Pantheon, 1983.

[7]   One of the first to create a work in the desert in the early 1960s was Swiss artist Jean Tinguely, who in response to nuclear tests and the horrifying scenes of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, presented Study for an End of the World No. 2 in Nevada in 1962, which was funded by American television network NBC. The work was a sculptural installation featuring a mound of garbage collected from the Las Vegas city dump, and blown up in a controlled explosion. The work, which received extensive coverage, was executed in the presence of numerous journalists and looked like a huge nuclear explosion.

[8]   Whereas most earth works were a temporary and one-time creation, Double Negative still stands to this day. The work was donated by Virginia Dwan to the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, in 1984, and visits to the site are free of charge.

[9]   Ben Tufnell, Land Art, London: Tate Publishing, 2007, p. 41.

[10] Robert Smithson, Earth, (1969), in Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings, Jack Flam (Ed.), Berkley: University of California Press, 1996, pp. 177-189.

[11] Although Spiral Jetty was intended to be a temporary work, it has not completely disappeared – in periods of low-tides and drought it floats up to the surface, which happened in 1999 for example.

[12] In this case, too, few have visited the site. In 2015 Turrell allowed a limited number of people to enter the site, and charged an entry fee of about $6,500, which was donated to help preserve the work.

[13] Donald Judd, Imperialism, Nationalism and Regionalism (1975), in Judd, Complete Writings 1959-1975, Halifax: The Press of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, 2005, pp. 221-222.

[14] Sidney Tillim, Earthworks and the New Picturesque, Artforum, Vol. 7(3), 1969, pp. 43-44.

[15] Michael Auping, Michael Heizer: The Ecology and Economics of Earth Art, Art Week, No. 8, 18.6, 1977, p. 1.

[16] David Hickey, Earthscapes, Landworks and Oz, Art in America, Vol. 59(5), 1971, p. 48.

[17] Daniel Buren, Critical Limits, (1970), in Buren: Five Texts, Laurent Sauerwein (Trans.), New York: John Weber Gallery, 1973, p. 45.

[18] Thus for example, in the documentary film that was released in October 2015, Troublemakers: The Story of Land Art, directed by James Crump, a large collection of photographs from that period is presented, especially of Robert Smithson and Michael Heizer.

[19] Calvin Tomkins, Onward and Upward with the Arts, Maybe a Quantum Leap, The New Yorker, 5.2, 1972, pp. 55-57.

[20] Robert Smithson, Towards the Development of an Air Terminal Site, pp. 52-60.

[21] Julia Brown, Michael Heizer: Sculpture in Reverse, Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles: Exhibition Catalogue, 1984, pp. 1-10.

[22] Douglas McGill, Illinois Project to Turn Mined Land into Sculpture, New York Times, 3.6, 1985, p. 44.

[23] Ibid., p. 44.

[24] John Beardsley, Earthworks and Beyond: Contemporary Art in the Landscape, New York: Abbeville Press, 1984, p. 17.

[25] For further reading on public support for American art from the late twentieth century, see:

Gilane Tawadros, The New Economy of Art Value, Patronage and Emerging Business Models in Contemporary Visual Art, London: Design & Artists Copyright Society, 2014.

Mira Banay, The Making of a New ‘Differential Space’: Permanent Site-Specific Art in America and the Dia Art Foundation (1974-2006), Berlin: Dietrich Reimer Verlag GmbH, 2014.

Gary O. Larson, The Reluctant Patron: The United States Government and the Arts 1943-1965, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1983.

[26] Bryan Appleyard, The Pleasures of Peace: Art and Imagination in Post War Britain, London: Faber & Faber, 1989, p. 271

[27] Philipp Kaiser and Miwon Kwon, Ends of the Earth and Back, in Ends of the Earth: Land Art to 1974, Philipp Kaiser and Miwon Kwon (Eds.), New York: Prestel Publishing, 2012, pp. 17-31.