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What is Earth Art?

What is Earth Art?

You’ve most likely seen photos of Earth art without even knowing what it was. And when you saw it, you probably assumed it was CGI. 

In our digital age, when almost anything imaginable is possible through computers, it’s hard to know what’s real or not. Earth art is unique and beautiful and sits right on that line. 

We’ll examine this genre and discover the inspiration and message behind the work. 

Let’s dive in!

The Spiral Jetty. Earth Art by Robert Smithson.

The Beauty of Earth Art

Earth art grew out of the Minimalism and Conceptualism movements active in the mid-20th century. It grew out of a desire to leave behind the mass marketing and consumerism of the 1960s and a need to leave behind the art market and create for other reasons.

Environmentalism drove many of the essential artists in the movement who saw beauty destroyed by capitalism and greed. They felt that drawing attention to the natural world might help preserve it. 

And they had a willing patron who helped the movement get off the ground in the 3M heiress Virginia Dwan. In fact, many of the most impressive pieces would never have existed without her patronage. 

Earth as Art

Earth art sought to take natural elements and manipulate them to produce art. Artists like Robert Smithson created what he called “monumental” works. This genre controlled the environment in large expressions of creativity. For example, one of Smithson’s creations involved a dump truck pouring a load of asphalt down quarry walls outside Rome.

Perhaps the most recognized piece by Smithson is also the poster child for Earth art. Spiral Jetty, a fifteen-hundred-foot spiral built in Utah’s Great Salt Lake, debuted in 1970. But, true to the spirit of Earth art, the piece disappeared with the rising lake level. Thirty years later, when the lake’s water level fell, the jetty reappeared, crusted in salt. 

Smaller, more ephemeral pieces by artists like Andy Goldsworthy had a different aim. Creating art that disappeared over time, Goldsworthy documented the works with photographs. One of his pieces, Pebbles, broken and scraped white by another stone, only existed until the camera snapped a photo. 

Earth artists explore our relationship with our surroundings and the natural world.
These artists push the boundaries of what we call art, whether monumental or microscopic. For some, cranes and airplanes are necessary tools of the trade. For others, saliva and ice are enough. 

Why Is Earth Art Important?

Earth art came at a time when people’s interaction with systems was changing. The massive protests of the Vietnam and Civil Rights eras brought with them a sense that change was possible. You just had to be bold enough to create it yourself. 

During this same period in America, artists had to participate in the increasingly commodified art world to survive. Creators like Andy Warhol fit perfectly into the cynical pop art genre. Earth art took a different approach bringing viewers out into the site-specific pieces. Inspired by performance art, these works required the viewer to experience the artwork in person. 

This focus on the natural environment and environmentalists’ involvement in the movement inspired change. Corporations polluting the environment without consequence began getting backlash for the wild spaces they destroyed.

What Is the Difference Between Earth Art and Environmental Art?

Environmental art grew out of the Earth art movement, and there’s some overlap, as to be expected. Environmental art focuses on the natural system and humanity’s place within that system. Beyond that, environmental artists often seek to change how we experience the world around us. 

Earth art was a reaction to the gallery system, and the primarily American artists fought back against stodgy ideas of art. However, environmental damage often resulted as they reshaped the land to fit their concepts. Cutting huge swaths of rock out of a mountain or pouring asphalt on a quarry alters the landscape forever.

Environmental artists hope that their pieces work in tandem with the environment. And in some cases, it does as they try to replicate the experience of being in nature or create work that takes 400 years to complete. Changing how we see art and how long it takes to view it is an integral part of the environmental art movement. 

Who Are Some Famous Earth Artists?

The Earth art movement only existed for a brief period, but a few artists in the genre stand out. From the monumental to the minute, the work created by these folks changed our concept of what art can be. 

Robert Smithson

Arguably one of the most famous Earth artists, his conceptual work defined the style. From his early days imagining earthworks at the Dallas/Fort Worth Airport to his seminal work Spiral Jetty, Smithson is everywhere. 

Additionally, his concept of Site and Nonsite helped artists classify their work. Site meant that the viewer should experience the piece at the actual location of the creation. Nonsite referred to artwork in a gallery, removed from the original site. 

Known best for his monumental creations, he conceived several genre-defining earthworks before his death in 1973 in a plane crash. Most of his pieces still exist in some form, but the impact of time and natural elements eventually changed the art. Smithson wanted it that way. 

Walter De Maria

Walter de Maria follows the monumental school of thought with his massive installations and sculptures. Through his art, he sought to express ideals of Minimalism and Earth art by creating experiences for his viewers. 

De Maria’s earliest pieces express a love of simplicity and impracticality. For example, Mile Long Drawing, created in 1968, consisted of two chalk lines extending for one mile in California’s Mojave Desert. And Vertical Earth Kilometer consists of a kilometer-long brass rod embedded in the earth; only the top is visible.

Another of his pieces, The Lightning Field, consists of four hundred steel poles embedded in a one-mile by one-kilometer field. Viewers must stay overnight in nearby cabins to experience the piece. A perfect example of Smithson’s Site concept, De Maria chose the New Mexico field for its frequent lightning storms. 

Andy Goldsworthy

Goldsworthy, a British sculptor and photographer, takes a different approach to his work than the previous artists. Instead of reshaping massive land structures, he works with nature to express harmony. Mostly known through his gorgeous photography, Goldsworthy spends time in nature creating intensely detailed art. 

His art exists for brief periods because he only uses natural materials. Pine needles, leaves, rocks, and sticks, are the tools he uses to create his most iconic pieces. 

Icicle Star and Moonlit Path only existed for a short time, while a permanent structure, Storm King Wall, takes on political overtones. And in 2010, he created Rain Shadow. This piece required him to lie on the ground as the rain began and wait until it stopped to get up and snap the picture. 

Goldsworthy believes that people leave behind a legacy in their environment, something he seeks to capture with his work. History, the passage of time, and decay all play important roles in his practice. 

Where Can I See Earth Art?

By its nature, Earth art is hard to see in person. While several important works exist because of the massive changes they made to the land, more nuanced pieces take time to find. You can find a vast collection of Eart art online, but for in-person viewing, these are a few of our favorites. 

Spiral Jetty

On the northeastern shore of the Great Salt Lake, Spiral Jetty exists in its current form by Rozel Point. Visitors to the site can expect to see the entire piece due to drought conditions which leave it fully exposed. There are no amenities in the area, but you can walk out into the water and experience the piece up close. 

The Dia Art Foundation administers the site after Smithson’s family donated it to them in 1999. 

The Lightning Field

In the high desert plains of New Mexico, you must experience De Maria’s installation in person. Visitors are encouraged to stay as long as possible to see the four-hundred metal poles. While lighting isn’t required for the full experience, you’ll appreciate how the metal attracts it.

The Dia Art Foundation also administers this site and offers reservations for overnight visits from May to October each year. Visitors can only spend one night and may reserve up to six spots.

From the Muse: Overnights sell out quickly here, so make your reservations soon!

Earth Art Serves a Purpose

Earth art served a vital function in breaking out of the gallery system that dominated the early twentieth century. Artists pushed back against established ideas of what art is and can be. And while their work isn’t without controversy, most of these artists encourage viewers to deepen their experience of nature through art. 

Access is often challenging, but if you live near a site, get out and see it in person. You’ll be glad you did.

Have you seen Earth art in person? Tell us about the experience in the comments below.

Outside Folk Gallery

You can explore folk, street, and outsider art in our personal collection at Outside Folk Art. We’re celebrating these creatives and giving voice to rising black, Native, immigrant, and working mother artisans. 

We’ll also be offering pop-up shows and collaborations with small museums, so be sure to follow us to discover the where and when!

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