Touching the Earth: A Survey of Female Land Artists

Ask almost any art student to list some of the world’s best land artists, and they’re sure to rattle off names like Richard Long, Walter de Maria and Robert Smithson – and not without reason; each of these artists were influential players in the land art movement of the 1960s-70s. But it’s less often you’ll hear the name of Smithson’s wife, Nancy Holt, the revolutionary female artist whose large-scale installations thwarted gender stereotypes within the movement, or Agnes Denes, the artist who grew and harvested a two-acre crop of wheat next door to the World Trade Centre, or Ana Mendieta, the Cuban-born performance artist who documented haunting and ephemeral silhouettes upon the earth’s surface.

The women of the land art movement thoughtfully sculpted, cultivated, marked and documented the landscape, contributing greatly to the art form as we know it today – yet their names pass by, often unspoken. The power of these artists lies not in their dominance of the landscape, but in their ways of working in conversation with it.

Alternatively known as earth art, environmental art and earthworks, the land art movement refers to a historical phenomenon that existed primarily in North America during the 60s-70s, born of the cultural, social and political concerns of the time. The Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement, second-wave feminism, political anxieties around the Cold War and the nuclear age, as well as the release of Rachel Carson’s Silent Springs and NASA’s first image of the earth as a whole, were just some of the factors influencing public opinions at the time.

To the public eye, the quintessential land artist was American, white, male and with an air of what art critic Suzaan Boettger describes as “western, cowboy bravado”.

Meanwhile, there was disorder amongst the art world. Some were arguing that art had become exclusive, capitalist and sterile, with galleries and museums isolating art from the bigger conversations of the world outside. As art critic and historian Barbara Rose wrote in 1969: “A dissatisfaction with the current social and political system results in an unwillingness to produce commodities which gratify and perpetuate that system. Here the sphere of ethics and aesthetics merge.” In response, land artists began breaking free from the confines of interior spaces, relocating their work sites to the vast, unpredictable and ever-changing canvas of the natural world.

The intention of the land art movement was to expand upon the reduced, rectilinear forms of minimalism amongst nature, and on a much larger scale. Utilising materials derived largely from the landscape, land artists sought to create site-specific installations that pushed the boundaries of genius loci, temporality, documentation and public participation.

To the public eye, the quintessential land artist was American, white, male and with an air of what art critic Suzaan Boettger describes as “western, cowboy bravado”. Working primarily amongst the backdrop of the desert, many of the first male land artists created large-scale works that required extensive earth moving, with eye-watering costs that were largely funded by donations or sponsorship from wealthy patrons. It was believed at the time that women were incapable of handling such enormous installations, or the mechanical equipment required to create them.

Beneath the surface, however, women were hard at work making art with the landscape. In 1978, the art critic April Kingsley wrote: “Women seem to be making most of the really innovative moves in this art form at the moment.” Artists such as Nancy Holt and Agnes Denes were creating large scale installations that equalled those of their male colleagues in size, but whose intention was to offer new ways of thinking and seeing amongst nature, rather than demonstrating man’s control over it. Paula Johanson and Michelle Stuart were exploring ways of capturing the ecological history of a place through the use of plants, rocks and seeds, and in Cuba the exiled feminist artist Ana Mendieta was etching the silhouettes of female deities into the pockets of cliff faces. Mother Nature had become the vehicle from which the female land artists could ask questions, challenge perceptions, and explore the great questions of life on earth. 

Though their work was integral to the history of environmental art, many of the women working within the sphere of land art have drifted into the background, just as the passing of time gradually erases all mark making from the surface of the earth. Below are just a handful of the women artists who changed the face of the land art movement as we know it today, their names synonymous with revolution.

Nancy Holt, detail of Stone Enclosure: Rock Rings (1977-78) Western Washington University, Bellingham, Washington, USA. Photograph: Nancy Holt. © Holt/Smithson Foundation

Nancy Holt (1938-2014)

Nancy Holt is responsible for breaking down gender stereotypes within the arena of large-scale, site-specific land art installations. Previously documenting the works of her colleagues, Richard Long, Michael Heizer and her husband, Robert Smithson, Holt became interested in devising new ways of experiencing a place through the creation of viewing platforms.

After the death of Smithson in 1973, she began to create her own installations, many of which still stand today. Holt’s first work, Hydra’s Head (1974), created a series of pools dug along the the Niagara River to reflect the stars of the water snake constellation above. In her most famous installation, Sun Tunnels (1976), Holt expanded upon her interest in astronomy and the cosmos, installing four eighteen-foot concrete cylinders in the Utah desert to follow the sun lines of the summer and winter solstices. Inside the cylinders themselves, Holt had perforated the constellations of Capricorn, Columba, Perseus and Draco, allowing the patterns to shine upon the floor of the cylinder inside, or as Holt referred to it: “bringing the sky down to the earth”.

Stone Enclosure: Rock Rings (1977-78) builds upon her interest in way-finding, with the structure designed around the celestial map of the north star. Made entirely from million-year-old schist stone that was quarried by local masons by hand, Rock Rings consists of two ten-foot-tall rings, one enclosed within the other, with two entryways and six viewing holes within. When aligned, the openings follow the direction of northeast to southwest, east to west, and southwest to northwest.

Nancy Holt, Stone Enclosure: Rock Rings (1977-78) Western Washington University, Bellingham, Washington, USA. Photograph: Nancy Holt. © Holt/Smithson Foundation
Nancy Holt, detail of Stone Enclosure: Rock Rings (1977-78) Western Washington University, Bellingham, Washington, USA. Photograph: Nancy Holt. © Holt/Smithson Foundation
Agnes Denes, Wheatfield – A Confrontation: Battery Park Landfill, Downtown Manhattan – Aerial View, 1982. Copyright Agnes Denes, Courtesy Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects, New York.

(The featured image at top of post is also of Agnes Denes’s Wheatfield – A Confrontation: Battery Park Landfill, Downtown Manhattan project.)

Agnes Denes (b.1931)

Hungarian-born Agnes Denes is celebrated for her work exploring ideas of science, philosophy, linguistics, psychology, poetry, history and music. Throughout her career, Denes has also been concerned with socio-political ideas, and was one of the first artists to explore ecological concerns within her practice.

Denes is best known for her environmental intervention, Wheatfield – A Confrontation (1982), a transgressive work in which she prepared, planted, cultivated and harvested two acres of golden wheat on a previously rubble-strewn site near Wall Street and the World Trade Centre (now the site of Battery Park City). The process of the work, which included Denes introducing 200 truckloads of topsoil and an irrigation system, took place over four months, and resulted in the harvest of more than a thousand pounds of grain which then toured as part of “The International Art Show for the End of World Hunger.”

Denes is also known for her ecological regenerative projects, such as the reclamation earthwork, Tree Mountain – A Living Time Capsule, a regenerative work in Western Finland, that is also the world’s first man-made virgin forest. The site is legally protected from logging for the next four hundred years. 

Agnes Denes, Tree Mountain – A Living Time Capsule – 11,000 Trees, 11,000 People, 400 Years, (420 x 270 x 28 meters) Ylöjärvi, Finland, 1992-1996. Digital print depicting the artist’s original design (1983) and view of the actual site (2001) 22-1/2 x 31-1/2 inches. Copyright Agnes Denes, Courtesy Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects, New York

Ana Mendieta  (1948-1985)

Exiled to America at the age of 12 after her father was captured as a political prisoner for his role in the Bay of Pigs invasion, Cuban-born Ana Mendieta and her sister moved between refugee camps and foster homes before being reunited with their family in Iowa some years later. Ana studied art at the University of Iowa – experimenting with mixed-media, performance art, sculpture, painting, film and drawing.

Her works were dark and haunting, exploring themes of pain, loss and death, as well as ritual, religious ceremony, identity and feminism. Mendieta is best known for her series of “earth-body” sculptures – an avant-garde and unconventional style that fused together elements of land, body and performance art. Her series, Silueta, (1973-1980) explored the female silhouette within the landscape, dressed in twigs, flowers, mud and grass.

Mendieta maintained a strong connection with her homeland, and in 1981, she was among the first exiles to return to Cuba. The Rupestrian Sculpture series was created during her return, a collection of carvings of indigenous Taíno divinities, Iyare (Mother), Maroya (Moon), Gunaroca (The First Woman) and Bacayú (Light of Day), that she etched into the caves of a national park outside of Havana.

Ana’s short career tragically ended when she fell from the window of her home apartment. Posthumously, she has become a symbol of female suffering and the face of the feminist group, WHEREISANAMENDIETA?  

A solo exhibition of the works from Ana Medieta, titled La Tierra Habla (The Earth Speaks), will be on show at Galerie Leong & Co, NYC, from October 17-November 16, 2019.

Ana Mendieta, La Venus Negra [The Black Venus] 1981. © The Estate of Ana Mendieta. Courtesy of Galery Lelong & Co.

Ana Mendieta, Bacayu (Esculturas Rupestres), [Light of Day (Rupestrian Sculptures)], 1981. © The Estate of Ana Mendieta. Courtesy of Galery Lelong & Co.

Michelle Stuart  (b.1933)

Since the 1960s, Michelle Stuart’s artistic career has spanned across the mediums of large-scale earthworks, installations, sculptures, photography, mapping, collage and drawing. Interested in the historical stories of place, astronomy, botany and her travels to ancient archaeological sites, Stuart’s body of work is a documentation of the earth’s changing surfaces, recorded through the use of organic materials including wax, plants, seeds and graphite.  

Stuart’s subtle works speak to the connection between human life and the mysteries of the universe. Her first earthwork, Stone Alignments/Solstice Cairns (1979), is reminiscent of pre-historic rock formations, with stones carefully arranged in a circle atop the Rowena Plateau, overlooking the Columbia River, to align with the sun’s path during the summer solstice.

She has also explored the connection between physical landscapes and memory through a series of paper scroll rubbings, which document the intricate marks of land formations and the changing topography of the earth’s surface. Of the process, Stuart says, I am “making something manifest that you couldn’t really see otherwise.”

Michelle Stuart, Stone Alignments/Solstice Cairns, 1979. © Michelle Stuart. Courtesy Galerie Lelong & Co., New York 

Patricia Johanson (b.1940)

A pioneer of bioremediation art, Patricia Johanson’s body of work includes the rebuilding of damaged landscapes, the revitalisation of wasted areas through the installation of large-scale minimalist sculptures, and the restoration of parklands and forest ecologies.

A painter, sculptor and architect, Johanson became interested in creating land art installations that would enhance the viewer’s experience of natural spaces. In Cyrus Field (1970), Johanson used marble, cement and redwood slabs in their natural state to create a maze of lines that led audiences throughout the changing pockets of a forested area.

She has also designed a number of large-scale environmental park projects across the world. In addition to artistic outcomes, these works also fulfilled practical functions, such as flood and erosion control and wildlife habitat. The restoration of the degraded Fair Park Lagoon (1981) in Texas involved a collaboration between Johanson and a team of engineers, city planners and scientists. The previously rank lagoon was drained and replenished, indigenous plantings were established to create microhabitats for wildlife and a twisting sculpture in the form of the Delta Duck-potato (Sagittaria platyphylla) and the Spider Brake Fern (Pteris multifida) was installed to break up the watercourse and provide pathways for viewers to enjoy the space.

Her efforts are perhaps best summed up in the preface to Caffy Kelley’s book, Art and Survival: “For over forty years, Patricia Johanson has patiently insisted that art can heal the earth. Her designs satisfy deep human needs for beauty, belonging and historical memory, while also answering the needs of birds, insects, fish, animals, and micro-organisms. Her art reclaims degraded ecologies and creates conditions that permit endangered species to thrive in the middle of urban centres.”

Patricia Johanson, 1981 installation at the Leonhardt Lagoon at the Fair Park, Dallas, Texas. Photographed in 2016. Courtesy of Alamy Photo.
Patricia Johanson, 1981 installation at the Leonhardt Lagoon at the Fair Park, Dallas, Texas. Photographed in 2016. Courtesy of Alamy Photo.