27 October 2023


An exhibition and a new book shift the focus
to women of American Land Art


by Kate Mothes

As with many narratives in art history, the story of Land art has been dominated by men, characterized by monumental artworks that literally moved the earth—and occasional bouts of megalomania. Closely related to Minimal and Conceptual art that developed in the 1960s and 1970s, Land art often considers our own relationship with the environment, exploring ideas related to time, permanence, light, the environment, and Earth’s place within the cosmos.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Western art was amidst a flurry of change as New York City solidified itself as a locus of creative energy and opportunity and artists began exploring new materials and techniques outside of the traditional studio or gallery space. On the flip side of that coin, however, was a lopsided focus on male artists, reflected in very little representation or funding for women. Projects organized by men overshadowed many of the trailblazing efforts of women who played an indispensable role in shaping and defining the genre.

“It’s an ungainly truth that Virginia Dwan, the almost prophetic gallerist and patron of the two most influential styles of this era—Minimalism and land art—who bankrolled Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (1970) and a prototype for Walter De Maria’s The Lightning Field (1977), among other landmark earthworks, represented few women,” wrote Megan O’Grady for the New York Times in 2018, marking the occasion of Agnes Denes’ long-overdue survey, which took place the following year at the Shed.

A forthcoming book from DelMonico Books titled Groundswell: Women of Land Art levels the field, addressing the history of Land art and earthworks through the lens of 12 pioneering women sculptors, shifting the focus to a vast number of installations by women artists that have often gone virtually unrecognized until now.

Accompanying a major exhibition at Nasher Sculpture Center, the research dives into seminal works by artists like Agnes Denes, who planted and harvested two acres of wheat on the Battery Park landfill, Manhattan, in the summer of 1982, or Maren Hassinger’s Pink Trasha performance originally staged in 1982 in Central Park, Prospect Park, and Van Cortlandt Park, that drew attention to how local New Yorkers interacted with their surroundings.

Groundswell surveys a wide range of themes, pieces, and documentation that have, until recently, been largely overlooked in the history of earthworks and environmental art. From the 1960s and continuing into its so-called “decline” in the 1970s, the genre was characterized by burgeoning ideas about our interactions with our surroundings. Often associated with rural, unpopulated areas, many installations emerged in densely busy urban centers, thanks to ambitious public art programs that evolved in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The artistic contributions of these women, finally given the credit they are due, continue to pave the way for artists today.

Groundswell continues through January 7, 2024, in Dallas, and the book is scheduled for release on November 7. Find your copy from Artbook.

Nancy Holt (American, 1938-2014), Sun Tunnels, 1973-76. Concrete, steel, and earth installed in the Great Basin Desert, Utah, overall dimensions 9 feet x 2.5 inches x 86 feet x 53 feet; length on the diagonal: 86 feet. Photo by ZCZ Films/James Fox, Collection of Dia Art Foundation with support from Holt/Smithson Foundation
Martin Kane (American, b. 1958), Beverly Buchanan’s Ruins and Rituals in Macon, Georgia, 1979. 28 x 41.75 inches. Collection of the Nevada Museum of Art, The Altered Landscape, Carol Franc Buck Collection. © Estate of Beverly Buchana, courtesy of Andrew Edlin Gallery, New York City. Photo © Martin W. Kane
Maren Hassinger (American, b. 1947), Pink Trash, 1982. An installation and performance in three New York City parks on the defiling of nature, 1982. © Maren Hassinger, photo by Horace Brockington, courtesy of the artist and Susan Inglett Gallery
Alice Aycock (American, b. 1946), Maze, 1972. 12-sided wooden structure of 5 concentric dodecagonal rings, broken by 19 points of entry and 17 barriers, 6 x 31 feet diameter. Originally sited at Ginny Farm near New Kingston, Pennsylvania (destroyed). © Alice Aycock. Photo by Silver Spring Township Police Department, Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, courtesy of the artist
Mary Miss (American, b. 1944), Battery Park Landfill, 1973. Wood, 5.5 x 12 feet sections installed at 50-foot intervals, temporary installation in the space that was the landfill that became Battery Park City. Photo © Mary Miss, courtesy of the artist
Lita Albuquerque (American, b. 1946), Spine of the Earth, 1980. Pigment, rock, and wood sundial at El Mirage Lake, Mojave Desert, California. © Lita Albuquerque. Photo courtesy of the artist and Kohn Gallery, Los Angeles

Header image: Detail of Twelve Trees 2, 1979, by Maren Hassinger. All images courtesy of DelMonico Books, shared with permission.

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