Exhibit of the week: Ends of the Earth: Land Art to 1974
A new show at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles challenges conventional ideas about what land art is, or was.
Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles Through Sept. 3
Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty has been targeted for excavation, said Dana Micucci in Art & Antiques. In a show that “may appear to be too far-reaching,” MOCA is challenging conventional ideas about what land art is, or was. The high points of the movement are obvious enough. In the late 1960s and into the 1970s, artists like Smithson, Michael Heizer, and Walter De Maria adopted the wide-open landscape of the West as their canvas, using bulldozers, dynamite, and other muscular means to create monumental works that in their scale and graphic minimalism recalled Stonehenge or Native American burial mounds. Smithson’s 1,500-foot-long spiral of rocks—occasionally still visible when Utah’s Great Salt Lake is unusually low—remains “perhaps the most famous” of all earthworks. Images of it evoke a particular moment in time “when revolution was transforming American society on all levels.”
Don’t give a handful of macho Americans all the credit, said William Poundstone in ArtInfo.com. In a “Geffen Building–size rewriting of art history,” MOCA makes a case that both the French new realist movement and Fluxus—Yoko Ono’s collective—trod similar ground first. If the point of land art was to liberate art from museums and galleries, “Fluxus had already been there,” with “happenings,” mail art, and even the use of photography to document site-specific works that audiences might not otherwise see. So what if Fluxus’s output was “anarchic, funny, and ephemeral”? Land art might not have adopted the same spirit, but it was hardly an isolated rebellion. Heizer’s not even represented here, because he despises group shows. In his place, this show has Ono, Joseph Beuys, sculptor Isamu Noguchi, and “plenty of other artists you’ve never thought of in the earthwork way.”
Mostly, the revisionism works, said Christopher Knight in the Los Angeles Times. There are obvious challenges in trying to mount a museum survey of art that can only be fully understood out in the wild, but the curators were clever. A partial re-creation of the movement’s first New York gallery show, from 1968, “undercuts common claims that land art sought to escape the art market.” The inclusion of a 1969 film undermines the myth that the movement was an anti-technology return to nature. And various modest-size works have been reconstructed, as well, including Hans Haacke’s Grass Grows (1969), a mound of earth topped with living grass. Clearly, monumentalism wasn’t essential to the movement. It was instead a search for art’s boundaries.