Exhibition schedule: Geffen Contemporary at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, May 27–August 20, 2012; Haus der Kunst, Munich, October 12, 2012–January 20, 2013
Anyone who approaches Ends of the Earth: Land Art to 1974 at the Geffen Contemporary at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (MOCA), expecting to encounter the familiar collection of lush, awe-inspiring photographs of monumental Earthworks remotely situated in the American Southwest (concomitant with the usual array of drawings, models, and videos documenting these iconic projects) finds instead a hugely informative and compelling exhibition that considerably broadens her or his conception of this tendency that emerged in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Organized by Phillip Kaiser, MOCA’s senior curator, who has since left Los Angeles to become director of the Ludwig Museum, Cologne, in tandem with University of California, Los Angeles, art history professor Miwon Kwon, it is a revisionist and, for lack of a better term, academically oriented (cool, anti-romantic, concept-oriented) show that elucidates previously unexplored aspects of Land Art’s origins and reveals a myriad of misconceptions long surrounding the tendency. Remarkably, it is the first large-scale museum exhibition devoted to examining Land Art since Probing the Earth: Contemporary Land Projects, curated by John Beardsley at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in 1977. Beardsley’s exhibition, which focused on large-scale projects by American artists (as well as by assorted others, such as British artist Richard Long), represents the “institutionalized” view of Earthworks that Kaiser and Kwon sought to subvert by focusing their exhibition on the early, experimental phase of the tendency, which took place before its parameters were narrowed and the myths congealed.
Primary among the misconceptions surrounding Land Art is that it is an art of the outdoors. While innumerable projects were situated in the natural landscape, the two hundred pieces by one hundred artists included in the show testify that artists also produced work to be shown in interior spaces. Indoor installation pieces, among them Richard Long’s A Line the Same Length as a Straight Walk from the Bottom to the Top of Silbury Hill (1970), executed in natural white china clay; Lothar Baumgarten’s Conservatories (Guayana) (1969–72), a greenhouse-like structure that encloses kale from the artist’s hometown in the Rhineland together with an international genus of moth; Alice Aycock’s Clay #2 (1971), a grid consisting of sixteen shallow wooden boxes filled with wet clay that were allowed to crack and dry during the course of the exhibition; and a half-dozen other works were recreated for Ends of the Earth. While Land Art is generally held to be a sculptural practice, the exhibition demonstrated that artists involved with earth as subject created work in a wide range of media, including photography, film, video, photo-text, and drawing (the reference here being to works that are ends in themselves and not of a documentary nature). Much of this work is fundamentally anti-aesthetic, and in seeking to be true to the art-historical moment the show is replete with blurry black-and-white photographs and grainy films and videos shown on bulky old television monitors that evoke the earlier time. The heterogeneity of media is largely due to the considerable overlap of concern that existed among Land Art, Conceptual Art, and Body Art/Performance, which is evidenced throughout the show, from Lawrence Weiner’s text piece A 2″ Wide 1″ Deep Trench Cut Across a Standard One Car Driveway (1968) to Vito Acconci’s film Digging Piece (1970), in which he kicks his foot repeatedly to dig a hole in the sand.
Ends of the Earth also refutes the often widely held notion that the Land Art tendency operated outside the confines of the art system. While some work was ephemeral (involving a “dematerialization” of the art object), Land Art derived energy and impetus from exhibitions in galleries and museums, with dealers, like Virginia Dwan, and curators, like Willoughby Sharp, playing essential roles in its emergence and development. A few adjoining gallery spaces are devoted to reconstructing aspects of the pioneering 1968 Earthworks exhibition, which was held at the Virginia Dwan Gallery on 57th Street in New York and organized in collaboration with Robert Smithson. This show featured Smithson’s first Non-Site, as well as Claes Oldenburg’s The Hole (1967), a film made in conjunction with the artist’s anti-war Earthwork/performance Placid Civic Monument and Robert Morris’s Earthwork aka Untitled (Dirt) (1968/2012), a mound of dirt, grease, peat moss, various metals, and felt, which was recreated at the Geffen. Work originally assembled in Sharp’s Earth Art exhibition, held at the Andrew Dickson White Museum of Art at Cornell University in the winter of 1969, is also featured. At Cornell an international array of artists that included Long, Jan Dibbets, Hans Haacke, Gunther Uecker, Dennis Oppenheim, and others each produced work for both indoors and out, as was recorded by Sharp in a historic film.
Among the greatest revelations of Ends of the Earth was the fact that Land Art was not merely a North American, British, and European phenomenon, but part of an international exchange of ideas that circled the globe (in a pre-Internet world) seemingly with lightening speed. Work produced in North and South America, the United Kingdom, Eastern and Northern Europe, Israel, Iceland, and Japan are all given consideration. The exhibition also makes clear that although Land Art is often romanticized as being associated with late sixties “escape from the city” and “back to nature” (read: hippie, anti-establishment) movements on a global scale, much of the work was distinctly urban in nature or looked at the landscape as an industrial wasteland or militarized zone, rather than a bucolic Eden. For example, Argentine artist Carlos Ginzberg’s piece Tierra (Land) (1971) contained placards leading museum visitors to an upper-story window to discover a “hidden aesthetic experience” that consists of the word “tierra” painted on the ground of a vacant lot across the street, while Touching the Border (1974) by Tel Aviv-based artist Pinchas Cohen Gan involved the burying of lead pipes at the points where four Israeli citizens participating in the piece were stopped near each of Israel’s four borders.
Much space in the front portion of the exhibition is devoted to work by primarily European artists that preceded the emergence of Land Art as a widespread tendency in the United States, such as pieces by artists associated with Group Zero (Heinz Mack), Fluxus (Ben Vautier), and Nouveau Realisme (Yves Klein and Jean Tinguely). Remarkable to see in this context was a telecast from NBC’s David Brinkley’s Journal, which commissioned and then aired a report on Tinguely’s Study for An End of the World, No. 2 (1962), a monumental junk assemblage that blew itself apart near an atomic test site in the Nevada desert outside Las Vegas. Elsewhere in the exhibition, a gallery is dedicated to Wrapped Coast—One Million Feet, the Australian project of 1968–1969 by the one-time Nouveau Realiste Christo and Jeanne-Claude. Although glorious photographs of this project are available, its presentation in Ends of the Earth is understated, consisting of modestly scaled, mostly black-and-white images.
However, as might be expected, Robert Smithson’s film of Spiral Jetty (1970) is given pride of place, projected in large scale in a gallery of its own, with the text of the artist’s essay on the project, which the artist considered a work of art in its own right, printed floor to ceiling on an exterior enclosing wall (the essay first appeared in the book Arts of the Environment, edited by Gyorgy Kepes [New York: Braziller, 1972]). Important to note in this context is that Walter De Maria and Michael Heizer, with Smithson the pioneering figures of Land Art in the United States, are absent from the exhibition. The curators explain in the exhibition catalogue (p. 30) that both artists declined participation because their work is “out there” and presumably needs to be seen to be understood. The absence of Heizer is particularly unfortunate, as his 1,500-foot-long Double Negative (1969–70), located in the desert near Overton, Nevada, is in the Museum of Contemporary Art’s permanent collection (given as a gift by Dwan, who funded the project, in 1985) and was a starting point for the exhibition. His lack of representation represents a missed opportunity for cooperation between two of Los Angeles’s major art institutions, as the Whitney Museum’s Actual Size: Munich Rotary (1970), a monumental projection of his 1969 Munich Depression, was concurrently on exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where the artist’s Levitated Mass was installed in late June 2012. (Both Heizer and De Maria have considerable presence in the exhibition catalogue, although not on the website that accompanies the show.)
As a revisionist exhibition, Kaiser and Kwon did what they could in terms of including women artists, given the confines and prejudices of the art world of the time, with about one-fifth of the represented artists being female. While both Dwan’s and Sharp’s exhibitions featured only men, work by women artists are found elsewhere in the installation, a particularly happy moment in the show being the juxtaposition of Joan Jonas’s 1968 film Wind, showing people being blown about while performing simple choreographed actions in a snowy winter landscape, and Morris’s 1969 film Mirror, in which the artist holds in his arms a large mirror that reflects a snow-filled scene. Interestingly, the curators made the decision to gather together the work of numerous women artists in a single, albeit very large, back gallery. It is here that one finds the work of Aycock, Mary Kelly, Mary Miss, Nancy Holt, Agnes Denes, Michelle Stuart, Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Ana Mendieta, and Judy Chicago. Some of this work shares a concern with the relationship between the body and the earth. Chicago’s Atmospheres: Duration Performances (1967–71), a film transferred to video that features near-mythic images of nude women in landscapes in the midst of colored flames and smoke, is particularly noteworthy and among the most captivating works in the exhibition.
Another is the recreated Hog Pasture: Survival Piece #1 by Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison (1970–71), situated in a gallery nearby, in which a wooden container filled with dirt and planted with hog pasture mix extends below a light fixture of equal size. The piece is sensuously alive—the grass grows luxuriantly (trimmed by a live pig that visits the museum periodically), emits the sound of crickets and a fragrant odor, and is probably the source of the tiny bugs that accompany viewers as they move through the Geffen space. Forward-looking in its ecological concerns, this piece, which was specifically designed for display in a museum interior, testifies to the range, strength, and vitality of work that falls under the designation of Land Art.