Land art is to be understood as an artistic protest against the perceived artificiality, plastic aesthetics and ruthless commercialization of art at the end of the 1960s in America. Exponents of land art rejected the museum or gallery as the setting of artistic activity and developed monumental landscape projects which were beyond the reach of traditional transportable sculpture and the commercial art market. Land art was inspired by minimal art and concept art but also by modern and minimal movements such as De Stijl, cubism, minimalism and the work of Constantin Brancusi and Joseph Beuys. Many of the artists associated with land art had been involved with minimal art and conceptual art. Isamu Noguchi’s 1941 design for Contoured Playground in New York is sometimes interpreted as an important early piece of land art even though the artist himself never called his work “land art” but simply “sculpture”. His influence on contemporary land art, landscape architecture and environmental sculpture is evident in many works today.
The movement began in October 1968 with the group exhibition “Earthworks” at the Dwan Gallery in New York. In February 1969, Willoughby Sharp curated the “Earth Art” exhibition at the Andrew Dickson White Museum of Art at Cornell University, Ithaca, New York. The artists included were Walter De Maria, Jan Dibbets, Hans Haacke, Michael Heizer, Neil Jenney, Richard Long, David Medalla, Robert Morris, Dennis Oppenheim, Robert Smithson, and Gunther Uecker. The exhibition was directed by Thomas W. Leavitt. Gordon Matta-Clark, who lived in Ithaca at the time, was invited by Sharp to help the artists in “Earth Art” with the on-site execution of their works for the exhibition.
‘Land Artists’ have tended to be American, with other prominent artists in this field including, Carl Andre, Alice Aycock, Walter De Maria, Hans Haacke, Michael Heizer, Nancy Holt, Dennis Oppenheim, Andrew Rogers, Robert Smithson, Alan Sonfist, and James Turrell. Turrell began work in 1972 on possibly the largest piece of land art thus far, reshaping the earth surrounding the extinct Roden Crater volcano in Arizona. Perhaps the most prominent non-American land artists are the British Chris Drury, Andy Goldsworthy, Richard Long and the Australian Andrew Rogers.
Some projects by the artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude (who are famous for wrapping monuments, buildings and landscapes in fabric) have also been considered land art by some, though the artists themselves consider this incorrect. Joseph Beuys’ concept of ‘social sculpture’ influenced ‘Land art’ and his ’7000 Eichen’ project of 1972 to plant 7000 Oak trees has many similarities to ‘Land art’ processes. Rogers’ “Rhythms of Life” project is the largest contemporary land-art undertaking in the world, forming a chain of stone sculptures, or geoglyphs, around the globe – 12 sites – in disparate exotic locations (from below sea level and up to altitudes of 4,300 m/14,107 ft). Up to three geoglyphs (ranging in size up to 40,000 sq m/430,560 sq ft) are located in each site.
Land artists in America relied mostly on wealthy patrons and private foundations to fund their often costly projects. With the sudden economic down turn of the mid 1970s funds from these sources largely stopped. With the death of Robert Smithson in a plane crash in 1973 the movement lost one of its most important figureheads and faded out. James Turrell continues to work on the Roden Crater project. In most respects ‘Land Art’ has become part of mainstream public art and in many cases the term “Land Art” is misused to label any kind of art in nature even though conceptually not related to the avant-garde works by the pioneers of Land Art.
Land Art can be found in virtually every country in Europe and America. In Africa it’s a growing form of art with Strijdom van der Merwe from South Africa in the forefront. One of the Land Art in South Africa objects grounded in ancient history is ‘Mama Africa’ which is part of a privately owned botanical garden near Robertson in the Western Cape. This man made Earthwork is 3 meters high, 16 meters long and 7 meters wide.