Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 7, 1999
Jeffrey Kastner and Brian Wallis, eds. Land and Environmental Art (Themes and Movements) New York: Phaidon, 1998. 304 pp.; many color ills.; many b/w ills. Cloth $59.95 (0714835145)
Thumbnail

Among European publishers of books on environmental art, largely American, there seems to be a consensus that the representation of projects encompassing such extensive terrain demands oversize display. The sizes of printed pages, illustrations, and often fonts, are jumbo, sheets are thick, pages in great number, overall, the tomes hefty. Thus Gilles Tiberghien’s Land Art, published by Editions Carres, Paris, in 1993, and in an English translation by Princeton Architectural Press in 1995, measured 12 by 10.5 inches and weighed five pounds. Now weighing in at four pounds (back pages are in lighter, uncoated stock), identical height and just a quarter-inch narrower is a British contender, Land and Environmental Art, edited by Jeffrey Kastner and with a survey by Brian Wallis.

Although both books illustrate and discuss numerous artist’s works, both jackets feature one by Michael Heizer from the late 1960s on the cover, the photograph large and bled to the edges, an intimation of the expansive images within. The Kastner cover additionally lists 113 names, from Lawrence Alloway to Octavio Zaya—with Stephen Jay Gould, Jack Kerouac, and Uvedale Price in between—and displaying its encompassing perspective. The inclusiveness of this compendium of sparkling photographs and previously published texts by artists, critics, scientists, and essayists is practically encyclopedic.

Yet if only the editors had taken a leaf from an encyclopedia about “user-friendly” organization of masses of data! Or make that simply “nonfrustrating.” Suppose you want to know more about Heizer, for instance, whose cowboy boots standing before tiny trenches and recessed boxes cut into a rainy New York City sidewalk are seen on the book’s cover. Impatient to scan three large dense pages of artist’s names in the front table of “Works,” you turn to the Index, and find several references. Many appear in sections titled “Integration” and also in “Interruption.” You don’t learn about his cover piece, but the ones that are there are described by crisp images and clear captions of a few sentences. But even if familiar with Heizer’s work—maybe especially if knowledgeable about Heizer’s work—there is no way you could have guessed at the outset to look for him in “Integration” or “Interruption.” A case could equally be made for grouping him with those works demonstrating “Involvement,” “Implementation,” or “Imagining.” The categories, briefly elaborated at the beginning of each section but not before then, are so nebulous that their inclusions appear arbitrary.

This poor attempt to impose intellectualized structure on disparate works corresponds to the intrusive, overdesigned graphics. Both strategies suggest that concerns of selling this rather earnest subject—whether it be abstract marks on desiccated deserts or renewal of ecological blight—with a flamboyant-looking package predominated over considerations of organizing the material in a readily comprehensible manner. The page styles range from those that feature a few words in huge letters (an isolated quote by an artist) on a deeply colored sheet to the pages featuring the two forefront essayists, crammed with small type spanning one or two broad columns with barely half-inch margins. These intimidating walls of texts are irregularly punctured by small illustrations a couple of inches square. If this discouraging design doesn’t evince the implicit secondary status of these introductions, the generalities the critics proffer as explanations of the practice of Land and Environmental Art demonstrate that they functioned as hired writers rather than informed initiators of this publishing project.

Thus another similarity to the Tiberghien tome is the authors’ lack of primary research on the subject. Both Wallis and Kastner, who wrote the Preface, determined the selection of artists’ works and critics’ texts (and presumably abbreviated those texts), and wrote the captions accompanying many of the photographs, appear to have drawn their information exclusively from secondary sources. They both tell essentially the familiar story of the beginnings of land art as artists’ rejection of commodification. Analytical material is slight; if the title implies a distinction between “land” and “environmental” art, not to mention from “earthworks,” those differences are not acknowledged in the texts. There are many descriptions like the following:

The decade of the 1960s that spawned Land Art was a period of longing—for a future that broke with a complacent present and for a past that transcended both. An awakening of ecological and feminist consciousness; the rapid integration of technology with everyday life and the resultant nostalgia for a simpler, more natural existence; a recognition of the personal and political power of the individual to intervene, for good or ill, within natural systems—all of these demonstrate an ambivalence about the direction of socio-cultural progress. (p. 12)

This romance of the sixties offers an emotional appeal, but is not persuasive to one seeking an understanding of the historical onset of ideas, and is thus wary of mushing together the desires of different periods. Close reading of the sixties suggests that earthworkers were not stimulated by longing or nostalgia but by an elaboration of the postwar sense of expansive possibility, in turn fed by an exceptionally strong economy and the emergence of a forward-thinking youth culture. The development of land art in the mid- to late-1960s as an extension of fine art sculpture preceded both popular ecological and the feminist consciousness that came to the fore in the early 1970s. Kastner refers too often to Irving Sandler’s Art of the Postmodern Era (Harper Collins, 1996) as a resource and displays his ambivalence about whether the first earthworks were “the apotheosis of formalism” (p. 15) or postmodern. But he does usefully sketch out the basic trajectory of environmental art from abstract mediation of our experience of terrain to remediation of ecological damage.

Wallis’s writing is more muscular, assured, and fluid, but his assignment to write a substantial historical overview of the onset and forms of land art was clearly hindered by the absence of a published history from which to produce a critical riff. This lack is compounded by the mistaken chronologies and interpretations in every major art history survey covering the genre. Thus, Wallis states that “The whole Land Art movement was, according to early accounts, a scrappy and faddish set of pranks carried out by a small group of self-described nature nuts” (p. 23) without adequately disputing that cliched critical reception, even though he contradicts this two pages later when he recounts that Smithson had argued in Artforum that “earthworks had little to do with conventional notions of landscape or nature” (p. 24). Wallis also states that the October 1968 Dwan Gallery exhibition “Earthworks” was “named after a dystopian science-fiction novel by Brian W. Aldiss” (p. 23). One wonders if he is aware that Smithson had written of artists’ “earth works” in the June 1967 Artforum and then in the December 1967 issue described encountering and purchasing the Signet paperback Earthworks on the way to his “Tour of the Monuments of Passaic.” This mistake may come from Tiberghien, a book glutted with them, which reproduced the jacket of the Doubleday cloth edition of Aldiss’s Earthworks as the image Smithson picked up in the bus terminal. That error is repeated here, as is a group portrait with figures misidentified as in they are in Tiberghien. (Apparently, none of the principals of this project read my detailed review of that misbegotten book in Art Journal (Summer 1996, pp. 95-98).

Perhaps Wallis’s belief that there were 14 artists in the Earthworks show when there were ten derives from Kastner’s own essay, which in the sentence following a description of the Dwan show wrote that “Alongside the Americans were . . .” several Europeans he named. (p. 14) But Richard Long, Jan Dibbets, Hans Haacke, Richard Long, and Gunther Uecker did not join the Americans until all participated in Earth Art at Cornell University in February 1969, the first museum exhibition to present made-on-site work. The failure to distinguish between the rosters of the two shows then does not allow recognition of ambivalent chauvinism and internationalism at play between the commercial and museum exhibitions, characteristic of the late postwar 1960s.

Wallis’s sophisticated analytical voice returns when he is discussing more recent works of art and artists, some of which he may have actually experienced directly. He is particularly good with the feminist contributions to land art and those of ecological activist environmentalism. Additionally both authors vaguely propose connections between the emergence of land art and implicit politicized engagement with the “socio-cultural currents of the time” (p. 13). This is a useful intuition, but one that needs to be documented and elaborated. Given the disadvantage of not having a researched history of land art for reference, these essays offer basic frameworks for the melange of photographs documenting a still unsettled history.

Suzaan Boettger
City University of New York

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.