Art History Lab

Earth Art: Transforming the Environment Through Radical Creativity


Have you ever given thought to the relationship between art and the environment? Earth art, also known as Land art, is an art movement that emerged in the 1960s and 70s as a response to growing concerns about the environment.

It sought to engage with the natural world by shaping, transforming, and using organic materials found on-site to create works of art. This art form is a radical departure from traditional art that is made to be viewed in galleries and museums.

Earth art is designed to interact with the environment and the elements, making it an ever-changing, impermanent, and unique expression of art that cannot be replicated.

Definition and Origins

Earth art is an art form that is created by shaping the ground or using organic materials found in nature. This means that the primary materials used are rocks, dirt, sand, water, and plants.

The works are often located in remote areas, away from urban environments, and can range in size from a few feet to several acres. The artists who create these works aim to make a statement about the relationship between humans and the environment, inviting their audience to consider how humans shape the world around them and how the world shapes humans.

The earliest examples of earth art can be traced back to ancient cultures that created petroglyphs, or drawings, on rock surfaces. However, the modern earth art movement emerged in the 1960s in the United States in response to societal changes and concerns about the environment.

Artists were influenced by the growing civil rights and environmental movements, which emphasized the importance of social activism and the preservation of nature.

Historical Development and Influences

Earth art has its origins in the minimalism and conceptual art movements, which emerged in the 1960s. The artists who created earth art saw it as a continuation of these movements as it emphasized the use of unconventional materials and the deconstruction of traditional notions of art.

These movements aimed to make art more accessible by emphasizing form, simplicity, and documentation. In the case of earth art, this meant using natural materials found on site and prioritizing the process of creating over the finished product.

The exhibition and documentation of earth art was another significant aspect of its development. Many of the works were located in remote areas that were difficult to access, and documentation was necessary to allow others to appreciate them.

Additionally, the commercialization of art was seen as problematic by many earth artists, who sought to create works that could not be commodified in the same way that more traditional art could.

Characteristics and Concepts of Earth Art

Continuation of Conceptual and Minimalist Ideas

The use of minimalism and conceptual art styles dominated the early earth art movement. Artists were interested in creating works that were simple, minimalist, and easy to understand.

They wanted their works to speak for themselves without the need for extensive explanations or interpretations. The use of unconventional materials like earth and rocks allowed them to create works that were stripped down and devoid of unnecessary elements.

The simplicity of the works was also seen as a response to the complexities of modern life.

Emphasis on Impermanence and Ephemeral Nature

One of the defining characteristics of earth art is its emphasis on impermanence and the ephemeral nature of the works. Many of the works were created using materials that were subject to decomposition over time, meaning that the works would disappear eventually.

This was a conscious decision on the part of the artists who wanted their works to be a reflection of nature’s transitory nature. The fact that the works were located in remote areas, sometimes in unconventional spaces like deserts and salt flats, added to their impermanence.

Many works could only be viewed during specific times of the year or in specific weather conditions, which added to their ephemeral nature.


Earth art or Land art has left a lasting impression on the art world. It has helped uncover the fundamental relationship between humans and nature.

Earthworks often composed of natural materials are meant to interact with the environment, rather than for passive viewing. The primary intention has always been to educate about the degradative nature of human intervention in nature.

It’s a unique form of art that encourages the preservation and rehabilitation of our natural resources.


In the 1960s, a new movement had emerged among artists that saw the world around them as their canvas. Earth’s natural landscapes, deserts and the vastness of valleys and mountains served as their inspiration and their medium.

This artistic movement came to be known as Land Art. In this expansion of our article, we will delve into the background, influences, and artistic approaches of Earth artists in the 1960s.

Background and Influences of Earth Artists

The early roots of Land Art were heavily influenced by the Vietnam War and the G.I. Bill. Many artists had served in the war and upon returning sought solace in working with earth and nature.

This art movement was a way of making peace with the natural world and themselves. The movement was also influenced by the American Abstract Expressionist and Minimalist painting styles that emerged earlier in the 1950s.

These artists shared a common interest in geometrical forms and shapes, deconstructing the traditional idea of art, and stripping it of its materiality. The remote locations of earthworks such as deserts and salt flats gave the art works a sense of seclusion and self-protectiveness.

This was a part of what made the movement distinct, as it was a movement that lived and breathed beyond traditional studio spaces. Virginia Dwan was one of the early supporters of Earth Art and played a key role in promoting the movement.

In 1968, Dwan, who owned an art gallery in Los Angeles, offered to finance several large-scale Land Art projects. Dwan’s support helped Earth Art gain momentum and brought the art form into the mainstream.

Artistic Approaches and Exhibition

Much of the Earth Art created in the 1960s was created in remote locations away from traditional galleries. The artists behind this movement saw these natural spaces as a source of inspiration and wanted their works to be a part of the natural world.

The large scale of the works made it difficult to display them in any conventional space. The remote locations of these earthworks shrouded in mystery added to their beauty and magnificence.

Remote locations were also seen as a way of disassociating the works from the perceived elitism of the art world. However, accusations of elitism were still leveled against Earth artists.

People criticised them as being out of touch with mainstream art culture. Critics claimed that the artists had retreated into their own worlds, using their own remote locations as a way of excluding those who didn’t belong to their social or economic class.

To combat these criticisms, Earth artists began to rely more heavily on documenting their works and using photographic media to share their art with others. Photography became an intrinsic component of Earth Art, and some of the most iconic Earth Art pieces were captured on film.

The photographs allowed these large-scale works to be viewed by a larger audience and were often exhibited in mainstream galleries, allowing the movement to grow.

Later Developments and Shifting Focus

As the art world began to change in the 1970s, the economic and political climate shifted. Economic factors like the widespread recession affected funding for Earth Art.

The scale of the works became even larger, and many artists began to look for alternative sources of funding, such as grants and sponsorships. The acquisition of land was also seen as an opportunity to create permanent works, and for many Earth artists, it became a natural progression of their work.

Some artists like Robert Smithson were known to have purchased lands for their work, which they used as inspiration for bigger projects. The death of Robert Smithson was a critical turning point for Earth Art in the 1970s.

Smithson saw Earth Art as firmly rooted in the natural world and actively worked towards saving parts from human intervention. He actively propagated joint art project concept between human beings and nature.

His passing led to a shift in Earth Art from large scale environmental interventions to a more community oriented approach. As Earth Art began to receive more attention from established institutions and galleries, the movement became more closely associated with Conceptualism and Performance art.

The use of organic materials within exhibition spaces became more common. Artists actively sought pre-existing spaces and structures to create art within, incorporating pre-existing landscapes into their work.



The 1960s to the 1970s saw the Earth Art movement gain momentum and become an established, environmental conscious artistic medium. Through this expansion, we have been able to provide an insight into the background, artistic approaches and exhibitions, and developments of Earth Art from its origins to date.

With continued awareness of its origins and constant evolution of the medium, the great legacy and philosophies unique to Earth Art will stay alive and provide a continued inspiration for this and future generations.


Earthwork art, also known as Land art, encompasses a wide range of styles and concepts that explore the relationship between art and the environment. In this expansion of our article, we will delve into two prominent concepts in Earthwork art: site and nonsite frameworks and the emphasis on art entropy.

Site and Nonsite Frameworks

One of the defining characteristics of Earthwork art is its site-specific nature. Artists create their works by directly engaging with the physical environment, whether it be by shaping the land, using natural materials, or interacting with specific features of a location.

Site-specific works are intimately tied to their surroundings, and this relationship is essential for the overall meaning and impact of the artwork. In contrast to site-specific works, artists also explore the concept of nonsite in Earthwork art.

Nonsite refers to a physical representation or documentation of a specific site that is brought into a gallery or indoor exhibition space. The idea of nonsite arose from the need to exhibit Earthwork art in traditional gallery settings while still maintaining a connection to the natural environment.

Nonsite works often incorporate materials from the original site and provide viewers with a different perspective and experience of the artwork. The juxtaposition of site and nonsite frameworks raises questions about the relationship between art and its context.

It challenges traditional notions of what constitutes an artwork and what constitutes a valid exhibition space. The duality of site and nonsite frameworks in Earthwork art highlights the importance of both the physical environment in which the work is created and the gallery space in which it is displayed.

Emphasis on Art Entropy

Another concept central to Earthwork art is art entropy, which emphasizes the inevitable decay and transformation of artistic creations over time. Artists draw inspiration from prehistoric structures, such as stone circles and ancient burial mounds, which have withstood centuries of erosion and weathering.

They incorporate natural materials like rocks, dirt, and plants, knowing that these materials will undergo changes, decay, and eventual disintegration. The impermanence and transience of Earthwork art challenge traditional notions of durability and permanence in art.

The emphasis on art entropy is rooted in a deep respect for the natural world and an acknowledgment of the cycles of life and decay. Artists embrace the temporal nature of their creations, allowing the elements and the passage of time to shape and alter their works.

By embracing decay and degradation, Earthwork art becomes a reflection of the natural world, reminding viewers of the impermanence of human existence and the ever-changing dynamics of the environment.

Examples of Famous Land Art

Richard Long’s A Line Made by Walking is a seminal work in the history of Earthwork art. In 1967, Long walked back and forth in a field until a visible line was formed in the grass.

The temporary nature of the work and its minimalistic simplicity embodied the essence of Earthwork art. The documentation of Long’s act through photography became an integral part of the artwork, capturing the beauty and simplicity of his process.

Dennis Oppenheim’s Annual Rings is an installation that consists of eight concentric rings made of earth and vegetation. The rings are meticulously crafted to resemble the annual growth rings found in trees.

Oppenheim’s work explores the concept of time and borders, highlighting the patterns found in nature and contrasting them with the concept of human-imposed boundaries. Michael Heizer’s Double Negative is a monumental earthwork created by removing soil from two massive trenches in the Nevada desert.

The scale and isolation of the work make it a powerful statement about man’s relationship with the natural landscape. Heizer’s minimalistic approach and the sheer magnitude of the work make it an iconic example of Earthwork art.

Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty is perhaps one of the most famous Earthwork art pieces. Consisting of a 1,500-foot-long spiral-shaped jetty constructed using rocks and earth, the work is situated in the Great Salt Lake in Utah.

The piece exemplifies the site-specific nature of Earthwork art, as its location was chosen specifically for its unique geological and visual qualities. The impermanence of the artwork due to the changing water levels of the lake adds to its conceptual depth.

Charles Ross’s Star Axis is an earthwork art project that doubles as an observatory. The work combines art and astronomy, incorporating precise alignments with celestial objects and the natural landscape.

Star Axis offers viewers a unique experience of time and space, integrating stellar observations into its architectural design. Nancy Holt’s Sun Tunnels are a series of large concrete tunnels placed in the desert landscape of Utah.

These tunnels align with the sun during specific times of the year, creating patterns of light and shadow. Holt’s work emphasizes site-specificity, as the position and alignment of the tunnels are essential to the overall experience of the artwork.

Walter de Maria’s The Lightning Field consists of 400 stainless steel poles arranged in a grid over a mile-long area in New Mexico. The work is designed to attract lightning strikes and offers visitors a unique sensory experience as they witness the power and energy of nature.

The remoteness and isolation of the site enhance the overall impact of the artwork. Agnes Denes’s Wheatfield was a temporary installation in the heart of New York City.

She planted a two-acre field of wheat on a landfill site in lower Manhattan. The installation served as a powerful symbol of sustainability, nature’s resilience, and the need to protect the environment in the face of urban development.

Andy Goldsworthy’s Pebbles, Broken and Scraped White with Another Stone encompasses the transient nature of Earthwork art. Goldsworthy creates temporary compositions of pebbles, scraping them with another stone to create intricate patterns and designs.

These works highlight the transience of art and the interconnectedness of human creativity with the natural world. In


Earthwork art encompasses a wide range of styles, concepts, and approaches.

From site-specific works that engage with the physical environment to the use of nonsite frameworks in gallery spaces, Earthwork artists challenge traditional notions of art and its exhibition. The emphasis on art entropy and the transience of materials underscore the impermanence of human creations and the ever-changing nature of the environment.

Through famous examples of Earthwork art, such as Spiral Jetty, Sun Tunnels, and The Lightning Field, artists have created lasting impressions that engage viewers and provoke contemplation about the relationship between art and the world around us. In conclusion, Earthwork art, also known as Land art, emerged as a response to societal and environmental concerns in the 1960s and 70s.

It encompasses a range of styles and concepts, such as site and nonsite frameworks, and emphasizes the inevitable decay and transformation of artistic creations over time. Earthwork artists engage with the physical environment, incorporating natural materials and creating works that interact with the elements.

Famous examples like Spiral Jetty and Sun Tunnels have left a lasting impression, challenging traditional notions of art and leaving viewers with a deeper appreciation for the relationship between art and the environment. The transience of Earthwork art reminds us of the impermanence of human existence and the need to respect and protect the natural world.

Through their works, Earthwork artists provoke contemplation and inspire us to reconsider our role in the ever-changing dynamics of the environment.

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