The case of land-art: Robert Smithson and Walter de Maria Character Analysis

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Land art is an artistic movement coined by Robert Smithson, an American artist of the late 1960s and early 1970s. The concept behind land art was that land art is the combination and creation of works of art with natural elements found in certain landscapes. The sculptures of land art were not placed in the landscape, but rather the landscape was a means of creation for the artwork. Land art is created and made with various materials, each with varying landscapes. With this new artistic movement, several artists believed that they would be able to change how the art would be viewed and experienced. The artists hoped to dismantle the institutions of galleries and move the viewing of art into a space of landscapes. What is particularly interesting about land art is that it is mostly created using natural materials. Depending on the type of sculpture the artist intended to make, it was mostly about the interaction between manmade art itself and the environment in which it was placed. Robert Smithson, in particular, was one of the most renowned land artists. One of his most famous works is the Spiral Jetty which can be found in Salt Lake City in Utah. Another famous land artist is Walter de Maria. He created his work using large metallic polls planted into the wide-open flat plane in the southwestern United States.

In this essay I will discuss the concepts of art and nature, looking at works from Walter de Maria and Robert Smithson. In the first part of my essay, I will specifically look at the work by Robert Smithson entitled Spiral jetty and do a visual analysis of the work while also analyzing extracts from his writings. Then in the second part of my essay, I will analyze two works from Walter de Maria. The first workpiece is in an installation entitled The Lightning Field, and the second work is entitled Earth room.

To begin, as was previously stated in the introduction, Robert Smithson was an American land artist and pioneer of the land art movement. Starting from the mid-1960s and onwards into the twenty-first century, he had a major impact on artists. Smithson worked with many mediums of art including drawing, sculpture, earthworks, and created films and several pieces of writing. His most famous work is the Spiral Jetty, made in 1970 in Salt Lake City, Utah. It is composed of rocks, crystals, and mud. It is a large installation, which can be best viewed from an aerial perspective, although it is also possible to view the work from land and one can physically interact with the installation. Smithson intended for people to walk on this piece of land art. The work is positioned on the shore of the lake, because of this the work of art is sometimes visible and other times submerged by water. Its creation took around three hundred huge trucks, several bulldozers, six hundred, and twenty-five people to be able to move seven thousand tons of earth and stones for the construction of the work. The full work measures out to be five hundred meters long and five meters wide. The spiral is a gigantic work created on a very large and open space. Because the location of this work lies in a remote area of the lake, it is quite inaccessible. Due to these extreme conditions, Spiral Jetty takes on an extraordinary dimension not only within the natural environment of the lake but also in terms of its size. The artist also took into consideration another aspect of the artwork: that of its color. The reddish hue which is most often observed as a part Spiral Jetty comes from the degree of concentrated salt in the water of the lake. The colorful compositions are due to natural phenomenons, therefore, modify the whole of the work and further enforce the idea of land art. Yet, what the artist argues, is that the natural modification and changes of the work is part of the process. Meaning that if the work gets degraded or altered in any way, shape, or form, it will still not hinder the work of art. Thus land art created by Smithson is in dialogue with nature. It is first shaped and created by humans, but then once the artist’s work is finished, nature can continue and contribute to the artistic process.

In Robert Smithson’s writings, entitled Cultural Confinement he discusses the idea that art should not be confined to an art gallery and he even compares museums to “asylums and jails”. Smithson describes the act of gallery expositions as such: “Confined process is no process at all. It would be better to disclose the confinement rather than to make illusions of freedom.” In this quote, Smithson refers to the illusion of freedom gallery and museum spaces created for the works of art. He suggests the confinement not only comes from the physical confinement of the artwork being exhibited in an enclosed space, but he also says that the spaces themselves are advertised in a certain manner which gives the viewer an illusion of only viewing art in those particular spaces. To him, that is also another form of confinement because the viewer is only able to experience art in certain institutions and has a very limited view of how art can be exhibited and viewed. Thus this is where his main idea of cultural confinement stems from. But when Smithson talks about Cultural confinement, he expands on the relationship artists have with the institutions and how that affects their work. He describes Cultural Confinement as the following:

“Cultural confinement takes place when a curator imposes his own limits on an art exhibition, rather than asking an artist to set his own limits. Artists are expected to fit into fraudulent categories. Some artists imagine they’ve got a hold on this apparatus, which in fact has got a hold on them. As a result, they end up supporting a cultural prison that is out of their control. Artists themselves are not confined, but their output is. Museums, like asylums and jails, have wards and cells – in other words, neutral rooms called “galleries”. A work of art is when placed in a gallery loses its charge, and becomes a portable object or surface disengaged from the outside world […] They are looked upon as many inanimate invalids, waiting for a crisis to pronounce them curable or incurable. The function of the warden curator is to separate art from the rest of society. ( Smithson, Cultural Confinement 1972)

Smithson explains his point quite clearly when elaborates on the point of confinement and defends the position of the Artist. He insists that these art institutions reduce the artist’s power and control over how the artwork is designed to be viewed by the artist because the institutions most times have more power over the artist. By creating specific spaces in which art can be viewed by an audience, it detaches the artwork from the real world, and in a certain way, the artwork depends on the museums, galleries, and curators for the experience. He says that when an art piece is put into a museum space, it somehow loses its value. The art becomes an object in which the power is not always directly given to the artist when it is being exhibited, rather the curator and directors of the space become the ones in charge of conveying the experience to the viewer. Thus, this restricts the experience of the art is only exhibited in institutional spaces and the only way the public can interact with this art is through those confined and controlled institutions. And society has only deemed art as viewable in those particular spaces and it loses its purpose and interaction with culture and society.

What Smithson tries to push forth with his ideas on Land Art is that Land Art is completely removed from the institutionalization of these confining spaces. It pushes the boundaries of exhibition and installations within a particular space and instead works around and with the space to create a work of its own, in a space of its own. It encourages interaction with the viewers and with the space in a way that those spaces cannot offer and give the power directly to the artist. Land Artists truly believed that they could dismantle the institutions of museums and galleries because they advocated for an art in which the artist had the power to literally curate and art space with nature in the way that they truly desired.

Moving on to the next work of art, I will talk about is the lighting field by Walter de Maria. Walter de Maria was an Italian artist who’s carrier flourished in the late 1970s. His most famous works include that of the lightning field which was created in a large open plane in New Mexico, United States. His work consists of four hundred giant stainless steel rods positioned in various spots in the field. The reason why there are the metal rods in the plane is to attract lightning during a thunderstorm and it creates an electric lighting show. What is interesting about this installation is that throughout the majority of the year the artwork remains unchanged by nature, only a field with metal poles, and it is not until uncontrollable changes in weather that conditions become perfect to create the piece of art. The fact that the storm is necessary creates the dialogue between nature and man-made artwork which captures the essence of land art. However, even though storms do not always occur, the installation itself remains a work of art because the appearance of these massive poles puncturing the earth is already an astonishing sight to behold. Similar to Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, how nature interacts with the artwork in the lightning field demonstrates the communication nature and manmade artistic structures interact with one another. This communication reflects on a greater theme of man’s relationship to natural phenomenon. With this artwork, Walter de Maria was to enhance natural phenomenons and make them into a work of art. Moreover, it is also interesting to see the space itself

The scale in which this installation was created and the conditions necessary to actualize the lightning would not have been possible in a museum or gallery. It seems as if this land artist was also trying to convey a similar message Smithson evoked in his writings on Cultural confinement. In the lightning field, the open plane and the weather become the conditions and metaphorically create the space of the exhibition, while still leaving the power to nature and the artist to be free in their expression. Walther de Maria was also inspired by the words of Robert Smithson and desired to create an artwork that was removed from art institutions. Both Smithson and de Maria desired to install art in isolated natural spaces because they believed it would change the way people viewed art. Land art also was the point that broke the boundaries of traditional art with the help of nature. Walter de Maria wanted to bring this idea further. He did so by creating a permanent sculpture named: Earth Room. Earth Room is an installation in which de Maria filled an entire room with one hundred and ninety-seven cubic meters of earth into a room which is approximately one hundred and forty tons of earth. The experience of viewing this dirt sculpture has been described as a very peaceful and serene experience. The smell of the Earth Room, more specifically of the dirt has also been said to be a very important part of the sculpture. The Earth Room is definitely an artwork to experience in real life because it is a very particular experience film and photography cannot completely capture, because it relies so heavily on the sensory experience. The installation was only supposed to last three months, but it somehow becomes a permanent exhibition in the museum on Wooster Street in the middle of New York City. Although de Maria never exposed the meaning or significance behind his work, one may say that the motivation behind putting massive amounts of natural material in one specific space could be a critique of art institutions. As previously mentioned, land artists were known to criticize institutions such as galleries and museums for the fact that they confined art into particular spaces and isolated art from society. Robert Smithson called this cultural confinement. Land art is also known for having installations that are astonishing in size and usually take up a large amount of space. In Earth Room, Walter de Maria combines those two concepts into one space. De Maria used curated his artwork into a gallery space yet the content of the sculpture is similar to land art because of the material used, dirt, and the massive amount of the material used is the same concept as land art. Except for here in this space, the dirt is not left in nature, but rather it has been moved into an internal space thus confining nature into a particular space. The earth is filling and covering space. One may see this work as a critique of art institutions but it can also be seen as another way of installing land art. Land art is primarily installed in large open spaces or simply in a natural environment. De Maria is perhaps trying to move these concepts of land art into an urban space like New York City, a very dense and populated space. The only place to experience nature in New York City is in man-made parks such a Central Park. Perhaps de Maria was trying to bring the simplicity of nature, the dirt, into an urban space. Furthermore, the dirt is completely sterile, it has no growth of any sorts, no vegetation, no small insects living in the dirt. It is completely lifeless, while one knows that the material, the dirt, is one of the primary sources of life for plants and other living creatures. This installation is a beautiful paradox of the ideas Smithson previously criticized art institutions for doing. The paradox of the location in which it is installed, the city in which it was chosen to be in, the paradox of the material itself. All of it seems to be created with a purpose yet it remains so minimalist.

To sum up the main ideas, Land Art has been a movement which was initially started to break the boundaries of the art institutions. Specifically, Robert Smithson started to criticize the idea that we primarily tend to think of art in the indoor realm, for example, museums, galleries, homes, etc.. And there are even efforts to create art in outdoor spaces. Murals and sculptures, for example, have been used to decorate certain spaces. But even when these artworks are put outside, they remain framed and bolted into a concrete slab. This framing helps divide these objects from the lesser objects we find in our everyday life that surround us. And what they say by doing this is, that they tell us it is special, authentic, rare, and valuable. This is specifically what land artists such as Smithson and de Maria were doing. They were questioning this separation and framing of art. So what they did was that they left the city and decided to make art into the world. Sometimes it involved putting new material into the world like de Maria’s lightning field. And of course, humans have been making dramatic art into landscapes since prehistoric times, across different cultures. But what was different about land art was the approach they took with it. They knew that their installations were semi-permanent and were susceptible to change through time and eventually decay. Smithson said, “ The relation of a non-site to a site is also like that of a language to the world: it is a signifier and the Site is that which is signified.” Many artists of the 1970s were trying to escape these terms and break free from the museum or gallery. Making work in and with the landscape was a way to do just that.


Cite this paper

The case of land-art: Robert Smithson and Walter de Maria Character Analysis. (2020, Sep 16). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/the-case-of-land-art-robert-smithson-and-walter-de-maria/



What did Walter De Maria say was the essence of land art?
Walter De Maria believed that the essence of land art was to create a relationship between the viewer and the natural environment. He also emphasized the importance of the site-specificity and the use of natural materials in creating these works.
What is the history of land art?
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, a number of artists began to move away from traditional forms of art making, instead choosing to create artworks using materials found in nature. These artists, who came to be known as land artists, used the landscape as their canvas, often creating large-scale works that could only be fully appreciated from the air.
What is the main idea of land art?
The main idea of land art is that art can be created from anything in nature, whether it be rocks, trees, or dirt.
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