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Suzaan Boettger’s recent book is an attempt to write a comprehensive social art history of the short-lived movement known as Earthworks. It has many good features and a number of bad ones; all are inherent in the book’s founding premise, namely that such a movement existed in the first place.
The historical material that Boettger very ably presents is quite interesting. It includes detailed and well-researched accounts of important exhibitions, such as the Earth Art show at Cornell University in 1969 and the foundational EARTH WORKS exhibition at the Dwan Gallery in New York in 1968. She also handles the press very well, successfully marshaling convincing accounts of critical discussions in popular and art-world publications that attempted to define the meaning, both social and aesthetic, of the work she studies. The problem is that the interest this material has is mostly anecdotal. We all like gossip, we all want to know more about the people who make up our particular tribe, in this case the art world, and we all have a curiosity, both professional and innately human, to know the particulars of how important events in our collective history took place. Boettger’s account is lacking because, as artists and scholars, we also need a sense of Earthworks as a discrete category, something that anecdotal history cannot provide. This is why, even though the history that the author presents might seem to make the fact self-evident, I close her book questioning whether Earthworks was an art movement built around a core of ideas or just a strategy that allowed a group of young artists to make their name. Boettger does not suggest this, but the alert reader may well come to such a conclusion.
The missing element in Boettger’s presentation might be called theory, but this word doesn’t quite catch it. For me, the absence is a solid interpretation of the work. The biographical and anecdotal qualities of Boettger’s study makes it reader-friendly, as does her relatively fluent prose: the book is both personal and personable. But as part of the community of interested readers of art history, I want more. As an artist, I want something I can use; as a general reader, I want a reason to believe in the work.
Boettger does propose some interesting interpretations, although these do not explain how Earthworks exist and function within the broader history of postwar art. The best moment, for me, was her observation that many Earthworks are about death. From Claes Oldenburg’s brilliant Placid Civic Monument in New York’s Central Park to Robert Smithson’s neoprimitive tumulus in Emmen, Holland, to cite two familiar examples, the grave and the funeral mound are dominant themes in Earthworks. The idea is so attractive that it I am tempted to try it against everything, including Michael Heizer’s desert drawings, Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, Walter De Maria’s various Earth Room projects, Robert Morris’s pile of soil and assorted debris at the Dwan Gallery show, and Jan Dibbets’s lines in the woods for the Cornell exhibition. The less obvious the application, the more intriguing the notion.
Boettger explains what she calls an elegiac feeling in Earthworks as a direct response to the political crises of the 1960s, above all the Vietnam War. One doesn’t have to look at politics to find a reason. Death is a great enabling theme in art, one that every ambitious artist takes up, and the political realm is always in crisis. I do not mean to dismiss the importance of any particular historical moment, but I fear that there is a certain näiveté in Boettger’s embrace of the social. Works of art are quanta: it is impossible to determine their position and velocity at the same time. If you can observe a particular work’s motion through a dynamic and unfolding history and can see it as part of that flux, you cannot grasp what it really is. And if you want to know what a work of art actually is, you have to detach it from the buzzing background and hold it apart and still. Nothing can be accomplished by nailing art to the barn door of “social context.” Likewise for the artist, intentions and results never coincide, and biography and talent can in no way explain each other. An elegiac reading of Earthworks removes them from a contingent history, but Boettger seems to oscillate on this point; she tries to connect directly the theme of death to the Vietnam War, but then she also traces the movement’s origins to landscape painting, suggesting a transhistorical or generic source.
Astonishingly, throughout her book Boettger summons painting as a major source of support for her study. On the surface it seems unlikely that Earthworks resemble painting in any way. Boettger traces the elegiac feel to Guercino and the hoary old “et in Arcadia ego.” She connects Heizer’s Five Conic Displacements to the pictures of Franz Kline. Albert Bierstadt and Frederic Edwin Church are introduced as American originals and obvious sources for monumental interventions in the landscape. These observations are not convincing, and yet I believe that painting, specifically the work of Jackson Pollock, Helen Frankenthaler, and Morris Louis, are crucial for Earthworks. Boettger references painting constantly but makes no concrete argument for its relevance. This is another interpretive gap.
The presence of painting in the discourse of Earthworks might have made sense if Boettger had linked this art to important aesthetic debates of the period. For example, moving art from the gallery or museum into the wilderness may have been a response to the condition of theatricality that was so notoriously deplored by Michael Fried. A work with no audience except the desert fauna is surely antitheatrical. But is it successfully so? Can works of art achieve that condition by exaggerating the very qualities that Fried attacked? Boettger also observes that Earthworks often assume simple geometric shapes reminiscent of Minimalism. Is it possible that these Earthworks constitute a crossing of two incompatible traditions, recognizing that such an incompatibility is itself an aspect of the art discourse set in motion by Fried’s intervention?
Questions such as these might constitute a start, but instead of letting the artworks of the late 1960s and early 1970s talk among themselves, Boettger prefers to focus on the ways in which they failed to engage the larger society. She spends far too much time discussing the role that Earthworks did not play in the emerging environmental movement.
Overall, Earthworks: Art and the Landscape of the Sixties is an excellent demonstration of social art history at its weakest; it is depressing to realize that the book is probably also typical of much art history being done today. I fear that many forthcoming studies of Postminimalism and other related movements will try to draw similar connections between the art and political debates of a particular period—with the same lack of success. Social art history requires an acute sensitivity to the appropriateness of a contextualizing argument; it has to know when and how to bring the background forward. It is also the most teachable and most easily learnable method. Social art history is now widely practiced, but the skill required to make it work is less easily mastered.
Boettger’s greatest failure lies in her engagement with the concept of “place.” She makes the error—common enough, but surely one an art historian would know to avoid—of assuming that place precedes invention. Place does not determine the artist; rather, the artist creates a place. As far as art is concerned, “California” and “The West” do not exist at all until they are invented and depicted. Boettger claims that since De Maria, Heizer, Morris, and Smithson all either hailed from California or spent some time there that their work channels some kind of western vibe. At this point I have the impression that the material she has excavated, fascinating and important as it is, has been reburied under a mound of clichés. Of course, place can become an artistic convention, and artists can take advantage of that condition and the expectations it produces in the viewer. But what matters most about an artwork is how it reinvents place, how it makes a new place for itself in history through the way it uses old themes. For Boettger, the kind of place these artists invoke is something more like a stereotype than a theme.
For all of its inadequacies, I did enjoy the book: I like the art that it presents, and the biographical and anecdotal kind of social art history that Boettger practices has an intrinsic interest. Also, her discussions of Minimalist and Postminimalist sculpture in the beginning of the book are quite astute. However, her approach to the main object of study does not advance the discourse of contemporary art in general. If art historians are going to write about the recent past, and it seems that they increasingly will, that is the least we can expect from them.
Adjunct Professor, Faculty of Arts, University of Waterloo