Land Art: here today, gone tomorrow?

Major installations in the American West by artists such as Robert Smithson and Michael Heizer could soon disappear

Green issues are now high up the political agenda, from worries about global warming to research into sustainable fuels. One related topic that is galvanising conservationists is the fate of a number of iconic works of Land Art which are under threat from energy and real estate development.

The use of nature as a medium to create monumental works of art emerged in the late 1960s and early 1970s as a protest against the materialism of the art world. Artists such as Robert Smithson, Michael Heizer and Walter De Maria sought to create works that could not be contained by a museum or placed in a collector’s home.

Arguably the most iconic intervention in the US landscape is Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, 1970, a spiral constructed from basalt rock and earth which juts into the Great Salt Lake in Utah from its northeastern shore.

This summer, conservationists won a reprieve from the Canadian oil company Pearl Montana Exploration, which wants to conduct exploratory drilling into the lake bed. In co-operation with Smithson’s widow Nancy Holt, also a land artist, and the public policy group Friends of the Great Salt Lake, the Dia Art Foundation, which owns and has maintained Spiral Jetty since 1999, started a petition against the drilling. The state of Utah received thousands of complaints. “What we particularly object to is the potential visual impact that drilling might have on the work, as well as the equally important environmental impact it could have on the lake itself and its delicate ecosystem,” says Laura Raicovich, deputy director of Dia. “An oil spill could be disastrous for the lake, and therefore, the jetty.”

On 13 August, Utah’s Division of Oil, Gas and Mining returned Pearl Montana’s application for a permit to drill on the land near Spiral Jetty, stating that the company’s responses to questions on the project were “inadequate”. Although the company is allowed to refile its application, the state has said it must first “make the necessary investment and professional effort necessary to match the challenges presented ahead by this project”. Ms Raicovich says Dia is working with the state to negotiate the long-term preservation of the work and that the state is conducting an analysis to establish what the visual impact of drilling would be, among other considerations.

Still at risk

Other works remain at risk. On the opposite side of the Great Salt Lake from Spiral Jetty is Nancy Holt’s Sun Tunnels, 1976, four massive concrete cylinders which the artist aligned to frame the rising and setting sun during solstices. In May 2007, the oil and gas rights on a parcel of land directly adjacent to the work were offered for sale by the state of Utah, which said in a press release that it had researched the site, in consultation with the Utah State Historic Preservation Office, and found “no historic properties affected”. As we went to press, no bids had yet been made on the land.

Meanwhile in Nevada, Michael Heizer’s City, a massive complex of sculptures and earthen forms built by the artist next to his ranch in Lincoln County, is not yet finished but already threatened by development. Stretching one and a quarter miles across the desert, City is one of the largest works of art ever undertaken, and has occupied the artist for over 30 years. Recently, the US Department of Energy (DOE) revealed plans to build a railway running across Garden Valley, next to the work and the artist’s home. This would transport nuclear waste to a storage facility at Yucca Mountain in southern Nevada. First proposed in the 1980s, the Yucca Mountain project has been repeatedly stalled by legal challenges. Last month, the DOE’s application was processed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and it now has up to four years to complete safety studies and hold public hearings before the site can open. Around $9 billion has already been spent on the project. The DOE estimates that the railway will cost over $2 billion to build.

In-built destruction

Despite the developers, the most consistent threat to Land Art is nature itself. Many early examples are eroding as exposure to the elements slowly takes its toll. For most artists, this is part of the works’ natural evolution.

One of the first monumental sculptures is Michael Heizer’s Double Negative, 1969, two perfectly aligned trenches cut into the Mormon Mesa in Nevada. Around 240,000 tons of sandstone was displaced to create the ravines which span 1,500 feet and are each 50 feet deep.

The work was donated to the Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA) in Los Angeles by dealer Virginia Dwan. According to the artist’s wishes, MoCA does not perform any conservation on the piece. Meanwhile, the walls of the man-made canyon are slowly crumbling.

More from The Art Newspaper


20 Sep 09
14:14 CET


This public art issue is similar to Kelley Vs. Chicago Park District. The Council for Artists' Rights strongly disagrees with the 9/30/08 final ruling in (painter) Chapman Kelley Vs. Chicago Park District.On that day the Court ruled protection under the Visual Artists Rights Act(VARA)was denied for the Chicago Wildflower Works(WW)on two prongs, copyrightability, and site-specificity. According to the official court transcript, the Court declared "Accordingly, Wildflower Works could be considered either a painting or a sculpture under the Visual Artists Rights Act." VARA is an amendment to the copyright law and the Court's acceptance of the WW as a visual work of art makes it ipso facto an original.Therefore,it must be accepted as copyrightable on the basis of originality. In other words,if the WW had been ruled not to be a work of visual art, the copyright question could never be surfaced.The Court's discussion of comparing the WW works to the oval flower beds of Monticello and concluding,that the WW was not an original,but a mere copy of a previous work, is questionable.Those Monticello flower beds were never envisioned to be a work of art.And their creator never claimed to be an artist.Contrarily,the WW was conceived by Kelley and was initially and always intended to be a work of art. The WW looked liked most of Kelley's paintings that he created since 1963,images of them were entered as evidence.Those works won purchase awards in shows that were juried by nationally-recognized art experts and are included in museum collections.Examples of such work can be viewed at chapmankelley dot com. Kelley's work is in the Hirshhorn collection, the most prominent collectors of their time. They felt his WW was like his paintings.Judge Coar ruled that Kelley had legal standing to have his work in the park.We would expect Kelley to pursue an appeal and winning on both issues and logically,winning monetarily in proportion to the damage of his international reputation.

Submit a comment

All comments are moderated. If you would like your comment to be approved, please use your real name, not a pseudonym. We ask for your email address in case we wish to contact you - it will not be made public and we do not use it for any other purpose.


Want to write a longer comment to this article? Email


Share this