Land Art, Earthworks or Earth Art is an art movement which emerged in America in the late 1960s and early 1970s, in which landscape and the work of art are inextricably linked. Sculptures are not placed in the landscape, rather the landscape is the very means of their creation. The works frequently exist in the open, located well away from civilization, left to change and erode under natural conditions. Many of the first works, created in the deserts of Nevada, New Mexico, Utah or Arizona were ephemeral in nature and now only exist as video recordings or photographic documents.
Land Art is to be understood as a protest against the artificiality, plastic aesthetics and ruthless commercialisation of art at the end of the 1960s in America.Exponents of Land Art rejected the museum as the setting of artistic activity and developed monumental landscape projects which were beyond the reach of 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 artist 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.
Alan Sonfist is a pioneer of an alternative approach to working with nature and culture that he began in 1965 by bringing historical nature and sustainable art back into New York City. According to the critic Barbara Rose writing in 'Artforum' in 1969 she herself had become disillusioned with the commodification and insularity of gallery bound art. In 1967 the art critic Grace Glueck writing in the New York Times declared the first earthwork was done by Douglas Leichter and Richard Saba at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture. The sudden appearance of Land Art in 1968 can be located as a response by a generation of artists mostly in their late twenties to the heightened political activism of the year and the emerging environmental and women's liberation movements.
The movement was 'launched' in October 1968 by the group exhibition 'Earthworks' at the Dwan Gallery in New York. In February, 1969, Willoughby Sharp curated the historic "Earth Art" exhibition at the Andrew Dickson White Museum of Art at Cornell University, Ithaca New York. The artists included in the "Earth Art" exhibition 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. Gordon Matta-Clark, who lived in Ithaca at the time, was invited by Willoughby Sharp to help the artists in "Earth Art" with the on-site execution of their works for the exhibition. Perhaps the best known artist who worked in this genre was the American Robert Smithson whose 1968 essay "The Sedimentation of the Mind: Earth Projects" provided a critical framework for the movement as a reaction to the disengagement of Modernism from social issues as represented by the critic Clement Greenberg. His best known piece, and probably the most famous piece of all land art, is Spiral Jetty (1970), for which Smithson arranged rock, earth and algae so as to form a long (1500 ft) spiral-shape jetty protruding into Great Salt Lake in Utah. How much of the work, if any, is visible is dependent on the fluctuating water levels. Since its creation, the work has been completely covered, and then uncovered again, by water.
Smithson's Gravel Mirror with Cracks and Dust (1968) is an example of land art existing in a gallery space rather than in the natural environment. It consists of a pile of gravel by the side of a partially mirrored gallery wall. In its simplicity of form and concentration on the materials themselves, this and other pieces of land art have an affinity with minimalism. There is also a relationship to Arte Povera in the use of materials traditionally considered "unartistic" or "worthless".
Land artists have tended to be American, with other prominent artists in this field including Nancy Holt, Walter De Maria, Hans Haacke, Alice Aycock, Dennis Oppenheim, Michael Heizer, Andrew Rogers, 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 artist Christo (who is famous for wrapping monuments, buildings and landscapes in fabric) have also been considered land art by some, though the artist himself considers this incorrect, as explained on his web page Joseph Beuys' concept of 'social sculpture' influenced 'Land art' and his '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 200 sq m/660 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 dried up. With the death of Robert Smithson in a plane crash in 1973 the movement lost one of its most important figureheads and petered 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.