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In 1997, my mother and sister brought me to visit a “huge” exhibition by Michael Heizer at Fondazione Prada in Milan. I was 13 and, of course, I was astonished by the fact that a man could dedicate his entire life to “moving” and altering sections of landscapes, transporting them into a museum. Once I entered the exhibition, I read a sentence by the curator of the solo show, Germano Celant, comparing Heizer to an antique builder of pyramids and ziggurats. In that moment I started to realize the importance, the bravery and the intelligence of these actions and thoughts.

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Landscape art is explainable by words, but, as really anything else in life, once you have the chance to actually see it, live it, and enjoy it, then you realize how it really works. The environmental intervention is realized in a defined context. As Celant theorized in the 70s, art uses the environment to create itself, but, as in a tangible exchange, the environment creates art too. 


Richard Long, Hoggar Circle  the Sahara, 1988.


In 1969 Gerry Schum directed a movie titled “Land Art”, featuring works by Walter De Maria, Robert Smithson, Michael Heizer, Dennis Oppenheim, Richard Long, Barry Flanagan and Marinus Boezem – artists that will later become the key protagonists of this artistic movement. From that moment on, the term Land Art, together with the term “Earth Works” – coined during an exhibition at the Dwan Gallery in 1968 – labeled all those massive artistic operations and actions. By invading natural territories, they overcame the classic space of art, and even that of urban art. 


Robert Smithson, Spiral Jetty, Great Salt Lake (Utah), 1970.


Land Art approach was opposed to the cold, traditional attitude associated to classic materials and tridimensional objects, belonging to art and architecture. Land Art artists wanted to represent the other side of the American reality: the one related to nature, and not only to the mass productive world of the city and its urbanity. As a consequence, Land Art mainly developed in the wild spaces of United States and Mexican countryside. Especially in Arizona, Texas, Nevada, New Mexico, where the experimental gesture of using earth, water, land, rocks as mediums was almost immediate and “ordinary”. 

Landscape artists aimed at using nature as the main subject of intervention, and not at creating independent works of art to be installed into natural venues. They were using the space and some genuine materials of the surrounding as physical means for the creation of the work, through huge scale movement, thus obtaining impressive results. From an aesthetical point of view these works were minimal. However, the anti-form and the flowing approach towards the materials that have been used – gravel, earth, sand, tar, rocks – could sometimes result artificial and highly processed. 

Heizer, Smithson, De Maria and Oppeheim were the first movers to realize large scale pieces into natural landscapes. But then, artists as Morris, Christo, Serra, Alan Sonfist and Turrell started to leave important traces too. At a first glance, after a Land Art intervention, it seems like an alien landed on the earth to leave a fragment of its existence. 


Michael Heizer, Tangential Circular Negative Line Sculpture”, Europe.


Heizer started to plan his works in 1967, when he developed his big cubic excavating project in Sierra Nevada. This was the first of four interventions around the four cardinal points. In 1966, Robert Morris created a huge grass ring for the Dallas airport and, in 1971, he managed to develop “Observatory,” a project for the Netherlands: an installation all made of concentric rings. Christo worked on big scale interventions too, elaborating his personal approach of wrapping up natural landscapes and monuments, as he did on the Little Bay coast in Australia, in 1969. Again, between 1973 and 1979, Walter De Maria realized the incredible “The Lighting Field”, an elegant, minimal and brilliant installation on a plain in New Mexico: 400 metallic poles, all about different highs, are organized inside a rectangular area. The dialogue between earth and sky is surreal and almost supernatural; the light and reality perception keeps changing during the different daylight hours, and, during night, if a person can have the chance to sleep there, the atmosphere is magical, especially during a storm. The poles in fact became as lighting conductors.

“I think earth is the material with the most potential because it is the original source material… I found that, in using it, I could actually have a fairly complete vocabulary. it brought up all kind of things about the prehistoric or preliterate past, and referred to a lot of tradition about art that were more interesting than looking at works of art in the Louvre or the Metropolitan Museum”,
M. Heizer. 


Walter De Maria, The Lightining Field, 1977.


Cover image: Michael Heizer, Rift, 1968.

Written by Rossella Farinotti


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