A canvas has boundaries; it has limit to it. And for earthwork, it was the very openness and feeling that there were no boundaries that made it so exciting. VIRGINIA DWAN
One of the most mysterious art movements of the 20th century also happens to be one of the most spatially expansive. While so much of the presiding order was blowing up in the 1960s—the inmates taking over the asylum—the artists who pioneered what would be later known as land art, or earthworks, were radically transforming not only how art was made (bulldozers instead of brushes) but its place, size, scope, value, and relationship with its viewing audience. Young renegade artists such as Robert Smithson, Michael Heizer, Walter De Maria, and others were escaping the confines of the city and its attendant commercial gallery spaces for the enormous landscape canvases of the West, breaking and reshaping the earth into art productions that blended sculptural minimalism with pharaonic maximalism, and extreme isolation with absolute public inclusivity. These pieces were all-encompassing full-surrounds, works that melded with and marveled at nature, and were hubristic in their intentions. The movement quite literally took over the world (or at least large swaths of the United States).
But for all of the grand-scale visions, land art remains to this day a damningly elusive genre. For most, it exists in the form of a few iconic photographs of its most signature masterpieces: Smithson’s Spiral Jetty on the Great Salt Lake in Utah (1970); Michael Heizer’s fissured mesa Double Negative near Overton, Nevada (1969-70); Walter De Maria’s grid of 400 stainless-steel poles begging for conductivity in The Lightning Field on a New Mexico plateau (1977). These serve as visual footnotes along the windy road of contemporary art. Part of the reason behind this obscurity is due to location and proximity. If artists today complain that most viewing happens via e-mailed jpeg rather than feet in the gallery, try getting that same audience on a plane to Las Vegas or Albuquerque and then renting a car to drive for three hours into the desert to experience a work. Luckily, this fall, art historian, documentary director, and erstwhile museum curator James Crump offers a thrilling and revealing look at the creators and myths of land art with his film Troublemakers. Through archive footage and extended interviews, Crump masterfully captures the why and how of these sacred terrestrial forms. Quotations include De Maria: “Earthquakes are the best way of shaping a sculpture”; Smithson: “Nature has a way of tampering with its seemingly solid ground”; and artist Carl Andre: “My idea of a perfect sculpture was a road.” Crump also brings the outer world to the inner circles, positioning the movement in light of metaphysics, science fiction, growing ecological concerns, a trend toward “anti-people” art, and even the invention of the airplane and the exploration of outer space.
One of Crump’s key eyewitnesses to the earthworks scene is legendary gallerist and art patron Virginia Dwan. Dwan’s eponymous New York gallery, on West 57th Street near Fifth Avenue, fostered, developed, and often subsidized these hyper-ambitious ventures. Dwan, at age 83, remains one of the saviors and champions of the art form. I spoke with her this past June to hear a little more about the artists who brought her along in cars and planes to create these massive, quixotic wonders on the edges of the creative map.
CHRISTOPHER BOLLEN: You started the Dwan Gallery in Los Angeles in 1959 and then moved across the country to New York in 1965. What was the impetus for going east?
VIRGINIA DWAN: New York was the center of the art world, and I wanted to see the gallery in that situation.
BOLLEN: Today that kind of move wouldn’t be surprising. New York and Los Angeles almost share a circuit. But I’m wondering if, back in 1965, that sort of jump felt like starting over? I imagine the New York art world was very closed and restricted then.
DWAN: I already had strong connections with New York, because I was taking work on consignment from New York dealers. So I already knew a great many of the dealers and the artists here. It wasn’t cold for me. Also, I opened with [Edward] Kienholz’s The Beanery, and that’s such a controversial piece that I think that brought people right away. It was a room-size work that one walked into. It was a bar with Kienholz-type figures sitting and drinking and talking—all life-size characters in a life-size setting. The exhibition was covered in Time, Newsweek, and Life, so it had huge recognition right away.
BOLLEN: So how did you move from Kienholz to a whole set of young, up-and-coming land artists? Not that they came pre-packaged as “land artists” from the start.
DWAN: With the exception of Michael Heizer, they were all known to me early on. Charles Ross was showing his prism work in the gallery, and Robert Smithson was showing his minimal forms. Walter De Maria actually had his solo exhibition a bit later, he showed the Bed of Spikes [1968-69], five beds of stainless-steel spikes sticking up. I didn’t know Michael Heizer until I was preparing for my “Earthworks” show , and somebody called and told me to look at his work. Heizer had already made land art before any of the others and was deeply into it. But he was very young and working out West, so I wasn’t aware of his work until he came and showed it to me.
BOLLEN: So this core group of artists came to you rather naturally. It wasn’t that it was being pushed as this new genre or manifesto in the art world.
DWAN: I don’t think anybody pushed it as such, but I think the four land artists I showed all worked within a few years of each other. And they were standard bearers, I suppose, for land art. They each did very separate things. Apparently, later in California, a lot of artists started working in that medium and there was something of a rush of earthworks. But I wasn’t involved with that.
BOLLEN: So what were the logistics when these artists came to you and said, “Virginia, I want to turn a huge swath of land into a sculpture. Could you help me do it?”
DWAN: Robert Smithson came to me and said he would like to do that kind of work, and I went with him and a number of other artists to search for land to do this, actually. We kept finding impossibilities right and left. But we’d drive out—Smithson’s wife, Nancy Holt, did most of the driving.
BOLLEN: Would you just venture out in a certain direction and hope to hit on something, or was there some kind of plan as to what was available?
DWAN: Smithson used to get quarter maps. It’s four acres or something, and would show all the highs, lows, stores, and buildings of any sort. So he had a pretty good idea in advance what we were out looking for.
BOLLEN: And what exactly were you looking for?
DWAN: Land that was available!
BOLLEN: Cross-country road trips are not a necessary ingredient when it comes to being an artist’s dealer. You were intimately involved with these projects.
DWAN: Yes, very much so. I enjoyed it. And I found the work challenging because it was art that existed on the land rather than mere concepts in a gallery or photographic documentation, or any of the paraphernalia that can be used to indicate that. The art was on the land. I remember when I went to a gallery in Paris at one point, they had drawings of earthworks set in different places. I asked the person sitting at the gallery desk where these works were—where in France they could be found. She looked at me in horror as if I’d asked something completely insane. She said, “Well, of course, these works don’t actually exist. They’re concepts.” We were already at the stage of concept works in Paris. They had skipped over land art and weren’t actually going out and doing it at all. What I want to emphasize is that the work of these artists we are speaking about does exist. People should go to the works and experience them. Because just having an idea or picture in mind is absolutely not the experience that’s necessary. Certainly for me, even just landing in Albuquerque or Salt Lake City or Las Vegas was immediately part of the experience. And then you’d get in a car from the airport and take these very long trips—in Michael Heizer’s case, it was three hours by car to get to his work. And then there’s walking around and into the piece and seeing it from different angles. The kinetic experience of being a part of it physically was very important for me.
BOLLEN: What was one of the first land art pieces you worked on?
DWAN: Good question. I don’t remember what was the first. But one of the two would be Heizer’s Double Negative. I remember driving with him out to his work site in Overton, Nevada, and up to the mesa. A mesa is just a flat space. Out there is sky and mesa, and later when I was visiting it with another friend, I had great difficulty finding it. I didn’t know where it was at all. But suddenly there’s a hole in the ground. If it were sticking up from the ground, that would be another story, but this is a hole. Heizer had cut into the mesa.
BOLLEN: I’m guessing to make that cut, Heizer used a large team of laborers and a lot of construction machines. I wonder, even though this is an isolated site, do you recall what any of the locals thought about this? All this manpower and effort to cut a hole in the mesa. I guess I’m wondering if there was a Who are these artists? reaction?
DWAN: I don’t know. We went ahead and did what we were really excited about. What everybody else was thinking is unknown to me. They probably gathered together in a bar in Overton and discussed the possibility. But I don’t think most people realized what we were even doing actually. There’s a lot of mystery involved in these pieces. And you can observe that because people in the art world even today think they can’t get to these pieces or that they aren’t available to be seen or whatever. But take Walter De Maria’s Lightning Field in New Mexico, which can be visited by appointment. I went down not long ago, and it’s a small town. You eat in a place that advertises good pies. And finally a cowboy came and picked us up in his truck and drove us to Lightning Field and left us at a log cabin. We spent the late afternoon walking around the work and the next day as well. We were able to see it under all those different conditions and lights. Now, Lightning Field was created after I closed the gallery. Walter and I didn’t see each other much after that—Dia Foundation were responsible. Double Negative was a little bit different. I believe Heizer leased the land, and I paid for the cost of building the piece.
BOLLEN: What about Spiral Jetty?
DWAN: I went out a couple of times with them and paid for their expenses, and we walked around the piece. Actually, in James’s documentary you can see me. I’m that little skinny person there. [laughs] Well, besides skinny Smithson. And I did pay for the building of Spiral Jetty, but it was so cheap compared to how it is now.
BOLLEN: Was there a feeling on your part that these were leaps of faith to fund and help produce?
DWAN: Well, it wasn’t for selling. Actually, we once did have an offer on Double Negative. Things could be sold actually—everything could be for sale. But we had very few buyers. I think it was Heizer who said that the point was to have a bigger canvas, and I’ve used that expression quite a bit. But I was thinking today that a canvas has boundaries; it has limit to it. And for earthwork, it was the very openness and feeling that there were no boundaries that made it so exciting. For me it wasn’t a leap of faith. I was thrilled. I myself had lived in the San Fernando Valley many years ago, when it was a much wilder place, and we used to go walking in the wild areas. So that early experience had a lot of similarities for me to the places that this work was being done.
BOLLEN: How did critics respond to these works initially? Did they actually go and see them?
DWAN: We did take a group out to see some of the land art that was already built. At one point there was a piece by Walter De Maria outside of Las Vegas that has probably since grown over. It was graded onto the land, a series of roads that you walked along. It was a mystery, as Walter so often was. I remember Calvin Tomkins coming out from The New Yorker as well, and he and I never did find that work without Walter being there. We did find Heizer’s Double Negative. And then Tomkins went on to see the Christo work in Colorado. Christo was not one of my artists, which I don’t think he made clear in his article. So I was getting calls saying how wonderful it was that I worked on that. I said, “No, I didn’t do that!”
I went with Smithson and a number of other artists to search for land. We kept finding impossibilities right and left. Virginia Dwan
BOLLEN: What were the personal relationships like among the artists? Was there camaraderie or competition among them?
DWAN: They all got along very well at times and very poorly at other times. There was competition. But at other times they enjoyed sharing their thoughts. Heizer and De Maria, before he died [in 2013], decided between the two of them that they would not participate in the land art show in California [“Ends of the Earth: Land Art to 1974,” the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, 2012]. The reason being that they felt people should go out and experience the land itself. So they were often talking and sharing ideas and, in the case of this exhibition, slamming doors.
BOLLEN: They were slamming doors together.
DWAN: I think they had a love-hate relationship because they both had a lot in common. But inevitably one would get more publicity than another. Of course, Smithson’s gotten so much attention through the years. One of the reasons is not only that his work is quite wonderful, but the fact that he was a writer himself.
BOLLEN: Did you have any expectations about land art transforming the future of art and how art was perceived?
DWAN: I don’t know if I expected anything, really. Of course, many artists have realized since then that art doesn’t have to be on canvases and galleries. It can be on water or sand or earth or bricks, in the ocean or between mountains. Everything was suddenly thrown open and available. I think that had an enormous impact on the art world. People tend to view land art as something that happened at a certain historical moment—like minimal art, which I was also very much involved with. But it still goes on. It’s very much alive. The work is out on the land and open to the public. It’s just that they have to make a little effort to get to it. Making the effort is quite a pleasure in itself.
BOLLEN: Were these works intended to be permanent, to exist forever?
DWAN: Yes, that’s what was hoped. And I think that De Maria’s Lightning Field, Heizer’s City [1972-ongoing], and Charles Ross’s work in New Mexico [Star Axis, 1971-ongoing], all three will last for a millennium.
BOLLEN: There are comparisons between land art and the pyramids of Giza or Stonehenge in terms of their monumentality and timeless forms. But I feel like these works could only be devised in a particular time and place—they are products of America, in a way that they wouldn’t work in Europe, and they seem entwined to a period undergoing so much political and social tumult.
DWAN: I think the uprisings, the crowds of people looking for equality, the flights to the moon, all of that went together and influenced the work. What’s happening in the larger world always influences art. When I first started the gallery in 1959, one of the first things I learned was that most people assume artists know one thing and one thing only—that they were idiot savants. I found very quickly that most artists were very informed and very aware of what was happening in the world around them. So all of those things go together, especially for earthworks. And at that time there was such an intense interest in American art. So there was a great deal of attention paid to where it was going.
BOLLEN: Do you see any connection between land art and pop art?
DWAN: There’s a definite connection in terms of objects at hand—dealing with objects or material at hand. Pop art was very much enamored with popular imagery, and popular imagery was of course available and at hand. And land art was also using what was at hand.
BOLLEN: The artists we’ve been talking about so far are all men. I know there were women earthwork artists, like Nancy Holt—
DWAN: Nancy did her work later.
BOLLEN: Exactly. And these large-scale projects that involve working and shaping the land could arguably be perceived as macho or testosterone-driven. You were a woman gallerist supporting and representing these male artists, and I wonder if you ever got the feeling of it being a boy’s club.
DWAN: I guess the word masculine would be better than macho, from me. I think women were just coming into their own at that point. Certainly women have made definitively important work since then. But at that time the artists who came to me with their projects were all men. Quite honestly, even as a woman dealer, I really wasn’t interested in masculinity or femininity as such. What was important to me was the value of the work itself. If a woman had come along, somebody like Lee Bontecou or Louise Nevelson, and said, “I’m working on the land,” I would have gone to see it.
BOLLEN: I hope this isn’t too personal a question, but I’ve always been curious about Robert Smithson’s death in 1973. He was only 35 and died in a plane crash while surveying land for a work in Amarillo, Texas. Do you remember where you were when you received the news?
DWAN: I remember very vividly. I was here in New York. Nancy called me and—I feel unhappy thinking about it—she said that Bob had died. I said, “Oh, Nancy, what will we do without Bob?”
BOLLEN: It must have been a shock.
DWAN: Well, he was a very good friend.
BOLLEN: Was it a risky flight?
DWAN: No. It was a normal, small plane, a Cessna I think. And he was planning the work that was to be done right there in Texas. He had drawn Amarillo Ramp and discussed it enough times with Nancy that she and Richard Serra went ahead and built it. Bob wasn’t there to see it, of course.
BOLLEN: The gallery closed its doors in 1971. Why did you shut it?
DWAN: I could no longer psychologically handle the needs of 12 artists. I cared about all of them, and what was happening with their careers. I’m just not a person who can do that indefinitely. And tax-wise I was concerned because they gallery wasn’t making money; it was losing money.
BOLLEN: You’ve seen James’s documentary. Did anything about it surprise you?
DWAN: I was surprised at how old I looked. [laughs] And I do think it’s unfortunate that two of my four artists are dead and he couldn’t interview them to get down their personalities. But it’s a lovely film. I hope it will encourage people to go out on the land and see the reality of those works for themselves.
CHRISTOPHER BOLLEN IS INTERVIEW‘S EDITOR AT LARGE. HIS SECOND BOOK, ORIENT, IS OUT NOW.