Exploring the West's land sculptures -- made by artists and industry

  • Spiral Jetty: Sometimes you see it, sometimes you don't.

    Steven R. Harris
  • The Roden Crater by James Turrell (under construction since 1979 in the Arizona desert).

    © Ted Soqui/Corbis
  • Workmen stand near the draped 340-ton granite rock that would become the centerpiece of Michael Heizer's newest installation, Levitated Mass. Heizer conceived of the work in the 1960s -- around the time of his Double Negative -- but wouldn't find the right rock until decades later

    © Ted Soqui/Corbis
  • Stills from the 1968 film Mono Lake, shot by Smithson, Heizer and Holt on a trip West.

  • Benches and dump trucks at the Bingham Canyon Mine near Salt Lake City, which fascinated Robert Smithson.

    Jonathan Thompson
  • ATK rocket garden on the route to Spiral Jetty.

    Jonathan Thompson
  • Bob Phillips, the foreman of the crew that actually built the Spiral Jetty, tells his story to a group of art historians and architects from Switzerland.

    Jonathan Thompson
  • Approaching Sun Tunnels, by Nancy Holt.

    Jonathan Thompson
  • A highway underpass on a back route to Michael Heizer's Double Negative mirrors the sculpture.

    Jonathan Thompson
  • Double Negative as it appears today.

    Jonathan Thompson
  • Spider encountered while the author was searching for Double Negative.

    Jonathan Thompson
  • Industrial West salt flats gas station

    Jonathan Thompson

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If there was a primordial soup from which land art emerged, it was the post-abstract-expressionist art scene of New York in the early 1960s. Carl Andre was making his "sculptures as place." Future land artists Heizer, Holt, Smithson and De Maria, along with Donald Judd, Richard Serra and Sol LeWitt, were not only pushing the boundaries of what is considered art, but also challenging our conventional, Cartesian ways of thinking about space. They were even doing some small-scale land art. All they needed was a catalyst for the next evolutionary step. They found it in the West's big desert spaces.

"It was the most terrific experience of my life, experiencing the Great Plains and the Rockies, but especially the desert," De Maria said of first seeing the Interior on a trip from New York to the Bay Area, where he'd grown up. Heizer, who was born in California, had deep roots in the desert: His grandfather was a Nevada tungsten miner and his father an archaeologist who did important work in the Great Basin. New Jersey-ite Smithson developed his own fondness for the region after he embarked on a Kerouac-style hitchhiking trip in the 1950s, with life-changing stops in Hopi and Canyon de Chelly.

In 1968 -- the same year that Edward Abbey published Desert Solitaire, his ranting love song to this abused and empty place -- Holt, Smithson and Heizer flew from New Jersey to Las Vegas. "As soon as I got to the desert, I connected with the place," Holt later wrote. "The openness, the expansiveness, was similar to the spaciousness I felt inside."

During that trip, the trio filmed their movie, Mono Lake. Smithson gathered rocks for his non-sites, collections of earth and rocks from specific places that were reconstructed as sculpture in galleries. Heizer did his first drawings and a series of trenches on dry lakebeds in the Mojave. He also did "dispersals," in which he'd fill a pickup with dirt and have someone drive it around really fast while he rode in the back, scooping dirt out onto his "canvas," which was the lakebed (the same method rural Westerners have been using for ages to dispose of their garbage). Holt embarked on a photographic study of Western graveyards because "they reflect how people thought about space out West; their last desire was to delineate a little plot of their own because there was so much vastness." Also in 1968, De Maria made his Mile Long Drawing -- actually two parallel lines, drawn in chalk -- on a Mojave lakebed.

The following year, Heizer moved huge rocks from the Sierra Nevada and put them in depressions he had carved in Silver Springs Lake bed near Reno (reversing the glacial transport of the same rocks millions of years earlier) to create Displaced-Replaced Mass. De Maria made his Las Vegas Piece, a bulldozer-etched, half-mile square in a valley about 100 miles north of Las Vegas. Then New York art patron Virginia Dwan commissioned Heizer to do a piece of his choosing. He disappeared into the desert, and in 1970 unveiled Double Negative.

"When I finished, I laughed," Heizer told The New York Times Magazine in 2005. "I knew I'd done it. There was no precedent in the history of mankind."

Later in 1970, Smithson and a crew of earth-moving contractors completed Spiral Jetty in the red water in Rozel Point on the northern half of the Great Salt Lake. Few people actually visited it, but photographs were widely disseminated. During these early years, Holt (who had been married to Smithson since 1963) abstained from the large-scale, drunken-redneck-with-a-bulldozer-fetish stuff her male counterparts relished. Instead, she created her own sort of land art, writing and burying poems in places like Arches National Park, then providing maps to the poems, in a sort of low-tech geocaching.

As is always the case with major art-world shifts, it's difficult, in retrospect, to comprehend the significance of any particular work. Yet these pieces were groundbreaking, so to speak. At a time when artists were spouting rhetoric about breaking free of galleries and institutions, as well as de-commodifying their work, Heizer, Smithson and De Maria were pretty much bulldozing gallery walls along with the contemporary convention that important art only happened in New York City. And most of the work continues to defy commodification, by virtue of its scale, if nothing else. It sits in the desert as if abandoned, available to anyone who will seek it out.

Double Negative and Spiral Jetty were both part of, and a response to, vast societal shifts. The land-art movement arrived on the heels of the first moon landing, and some art historians see it as a sort of return to the Earth, an attempt to find solid ground in destabilizing times threatened by nuclear apocalypse. At the same time, too, the environmental movement was blossoming.

Land art's relationship to the green movement is complicated. New York Times art critic Alan Gussow wrote, in the early ‘70s, that land artists "cut and gouge the land like Army engineers." Allen Carlson, an environmental philosopher, famously called most land art "an aesthetic affront to nature." And Suzaan Boettger, an art historian and author of Earthworks: Art and the Landscape of the Sixties, writes that Heizer's works "manifest no connection to the idea of nature or of the earth as a source of living being. Instead, the land was viewed as a flat, hard surface on which to boldly make one's mark."

Nor did the land artists' philosophy mesh with the ‘60s green Zeitgeist as embodied in the 1964 Wilderness Act. Smithson and company, while concerned for the land, were less interested in "untrammeled" spaces than they were in the interaction between man and nature. Smithson bashed "modern day ecologists with a metaphysical turn of mind who still see the operations of industry as Satan's work," he wrote. "The image of the lost paradise garden leaves one without a solid dialectic, and causes one to suffer an ecological despair. Nature, like a person, is not one-sided."

Such writings anticipate the Anthropocene theory, which has gained a lot of ground recently and posits that we have entered a new geologic epoch, in which every inch of the earth has been altered by humankind. Smithson often referred to humans as "geologic agents," a label confirmed by his and Heizer's blasting and bulldozing tons of earth around in the Western desert.

Smithson died in a 1973 plane crash in Texas while he was surveying his unfinished Amarillo Ramp, a ramped circle of earth and rock nearly 200 feet in diameter. His compatriots, however, kept the movement going. Holt built Sun Tunnels on a sparse piece of land West of the Great Salt Lake, completing it in 1976. De Maria's Lightning Field -- a one-kilometer-by-one-mile grid of 20-foot-tall stainless steel spikes near Quemado, N.M. -- was finished in 1977. Christo, with his huge pieces of fabric draped across buildings and landscapes, was also active in the West in the ‘70s, and is currently -- and controversially -- trying to drape a section of Colorado's Arkansas River. Since his works are designed to be ephemeral, however, they are seldom formally categorized as land art.

The most monumental land art dreams of the ‘70s remain unfulfilled, testament to the amount of time, energy and money they require. Heizer's been working on his massive City Complex in Nevada for more than three decades, but it's still not finished. The same goes for James Turrell's greatly anticipated Roden Crater in Arizona and Charles Ross' Star Axis in New Mexico. Land art is anything but dormant, however. This spring, Heizer oversaw the epic transport of a 340-ton rock from an inland quarry to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where it's perched over a big concrete trench. Levitated Mass, as it's called, opens June 24.

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