Land Art: How to Own an Earthwork

Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty,” on the banks of Utah’s Great Salt Lake.Credit All rights reserved Holt-Smithson Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York; Photo by Tom Smart for The New York Times

Land art was a term coined by Robert Smithson almost 50 years ago from those earthworks created in the remote areas of Navada, New Mexico, Utah and Arizona, a site-specific and ephemeral genre of landscape art.  Smithson along with fellow artists Michael Heizer and Walter de Maria pioneered the land art movement in the 60s.

Walter De Maria’s Lightning Field (1977). Photograph: John Cliett “Farewell Walter de Maria, force of nature who lit up the art world” by Jonathan Jones on

Earthworks or earth art are art forms created in nature. It uses natural materials like soil, bedrock, boulders, stone, logs, leaves, and branches. Other materials can be introduced such as metal, concrete, and asphalt and often earth moving equipment has been used. The most famous of the earthworks, is Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (1970), the featured image,  created in Great Salt lake in northern Utah, of arranged rock, earth and fluctuating water surround to it. It’s been left to be eroded by the natural elements of time and weather.

Rather than place a sculpture within the landscape, elements from the landscape itself are used to build an earth sculpture. Their biggest influences were prehistoric artworks like Stonehenge, and the works were meant to exist in the open in locations far from human dwellings.

Michael Heizer. Levitated Mass, 2012. Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Michael Heizer. Photo by Tom Vinetz

Museums Are Tombs, And It Looks Like Everything Is Turning Into A Museum – Robert Smithson

Earthworks was an American art movement that aimed to separate itself from the traditional commercial art market and break out of the confines of museums and gallery settings. For this reason, the intention of the original earthworks was in their “site-specificity” in nature, existing in public realm, and not be treated or sold like conventional sculptures, paintings or installation art.

However, in 2008, one sculpture sold at auction for $4 million and proposed the question of how one comes to own a piece of earthwork. In the 70s, land artists relied on wealthy art patrons  or private foundations to commission their projects. Subsequent decades debate on large scale land art and their precarious ownership and maintenance issues fell on each isolated cases, and often shifting responsibilities between parties of custodianship and legal gray zones.

Somewhere Over the Rainbow

Moving on from the conceptual avant-garde nature of the 70s land art movement, artists have been continuing to search and pursue the greater outdoor environment as a working canvas, to connect their artistic inspirations and sculptural art making.

The recent project Seven Magic Mountains (2016) by Ugo Rondinone, was a five solo exhibitions in twelve months throughout last year, from Miami, Rome, Berlin, Rotterdam, the Netherlands, France, to the installation in desert landscape, ten miles south of Las Vegas. Quite an exceptional specimen of recent land art revival.

They are seven towers of huge stacked boulders in bright rainbow colors, standing over 30-34 feet high, and situated in the valley adjacent to the magnificent mountains of Nevada landscape. The idea of the project came from his work on a Public Art Fund project in Rockefeller Center in Manhattan, another large Stonehenge-like stick-figure. But the full scope of the Seven Magic Mountains took 5 years since,.and finally came to fruition by the support of the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno and the Art Production Fund, the New York public art organization. It’s the longest and largest public art project Rondinone has ever worked on.

Installing a large scale major public art pertains incredibly arduous processes, as many greater and remote outdoor land is owned by the federal government. The bureaucracy that contends such scope of work requires endless amount of permits and even local level legislation to add road and infrastructure to the site. Not to forget those are in addition to the artist and organizer’s liability if any visitor may fall or get hurt around the artwork and the site.

Image source: Las Vegas Review Journal at

Seven Magic Mountains

With all that incredible orchestration (lots of money) and hard work by many involved, Seven Magic Mountain is one of the largest and the most successful land art piece in recent time. The Nevada Museum estimates visitors total to some 16 million by the end of the two year installation. Moreover, it’s been reported that Nevada’s depressed economy from the 2008 financial crisis has been picked up and new jobs being created around the tech industry in around the state.

“Who knows about the future?” Rondinone said in his interview in Artnews article in last May. “Maybe it becomes a site to visit as a spiritual—” Who knows, incredibly cheerful and rainbowy giant totems in the desert landscape, can angle their primordial sun magic, standing high and tall. This land art may turn our wishes do come true, and all together now, voila (!) we own, a rainbow in the rocks, in the land not too far away.


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