domingo, 18 de março de 2012

Robert Hughes's American Vision: The Epic History of Art in America (The Age of Anxiety) on Earth Art Movement


One of the old themes of American art that got a new lease on life in the later 1960s and 1970s was the apprehension of nature's sublimity. It reappeared, in a secular form, in the Earth Art movement. Perhaps it was inevitable that younger artists, having been raised on the rhetoric of Active sublimity that surrounded Abstract Expressionism, should have tried going out into the vast and actual spaces of America to test themselves against them.
More people "knew" the results through reproduction than ever got to see them. One was Walter De Maria's Lightning Field (Figure 339), completed in 1977 in a spectacular mountain-rimmed valley in New Mexico, two hundred miles southwest of Albuquerque. It consists of four hundred glittering stainless-steel spikes, their needle tips forming a level square like a fakir's bed of nails one mile long and one kilometer wide. The metal poles invite lightning strikes, which rarely happen, but their shimmer in morning sunlight and their virtual disappearance under other conditions of weather are enough to establish a gratuitous and intensely poetic presence.
De Maria's most visited piece is in downtown New York, on the second floor of a loft building in S0H0. There, also in 1977, he filled the entire space with 125















339. Walter De Maria, The Lightning Field, 1977. Four hundred stainless-steel poles with solid, pointed tips, situated in a rectangular grid array, 1 mile x 1 kilometer. Catron County, New Mexico; commissioned and maintained by the Dia Center for the Arts.

tons of rich, chocolate-brown soil, covering 3,600 square feet of primg real estate, in perpetuity, to a depth of 22 inches. The Earth Room is still there, sedulously maintained and viewed by perhaps fifty people a week. It is said that reproduction does not do it justice, but perhaps neither does an actual visit. This odd conceptual icon enshrines a moment when Minimalist and Conceptualist artists alike were hoping to contradict the art market, which they tended to view as inherently wicked; certainly it's hard to imagine all that soil being trucked up to Sotheby's, and presumably all offers from indoor marijuana growers will continue to be refused.
The image of the sublime West would always be attached to American earth-works, because it was their necessary site. They needed a tabula rasa, but one with deep cultural associations.

Michael Heizer (b. 1944), who came from a family of geologists and archaeologists, was fascinated by mysterious sites, places that retained the marks of inscrutable ancient technology such as the moving of great blocks of stone. In homage to these mighty "primitive" efforts, Heizer carved out Double Negative, 1969-70, a straight trench thirty feet wide, fifty feet deep, and a third of a mile long cut with bulldozers across the Virgin River mesa in Nevada, removing some quarter of a million tons of sandstone.

The most striking example of Heizer's efforts to create a lost-civilization effect stands in a stretch of desert near Hiko, Nevada: Complex One, 1972, a prismatic hill of rammed earth between two end triangles of reinforced concrete, inflected by large concrete beams, the whole thing being 140 feet long and no feet wide, thus recalling, in its massive presence, the enigmatic structures left behind by America's various nuclear and space programs, which by the 1970s were already beginning to seem an archaeology of the Age of Paranoia.

340. Robert Smithson, Spiral Jetty, 1970. Rock, earth,and salt crystals, coil 1,500 x 15' (457.2 x 3.81 m). Now submerged (Great Salt Lake, Utah).


The best-known work of earth art has already disappeared. It was created by Robert Smithson (1938-1973), in the shallows of the Great Salt Lake in Utah. Up to the time he began work on it, in 1969, Smithson had been preoccupied with entropy: "evolution in reverse," the decline of systems, enforced by the second law of thermodynamics, under which energy dissipates and all distinct form blurs and disintegrates across the span of geologic time. He made rather opaque and theoretical indoor works to illustrate this point, but his great success was a work which virtually no one in the art world ever saw except in the art magazines. This was the Spiral Jetty (Figure 340). In 1969 Smithson took out a twenty-year lease on an abandoned lakeside industrial site. The water was red from saline algae and fouled with chemicals and tailings; the shore, littered with obsolete machinery. The whole place looked like a ruined moonscape, which suited him perfectly, since Smithson's imagination had a strong component of the higher sort of science fiction, such as the apocalyptic, time-drenched landscapes of J. G. Ballard, whom the artist read avidly and admired.
Into the water Smithson dumped some seven thousand tons of rock, to make his Spiral Jetty: a counterclockwise coil fifteen hundred feet long and fifteen wide, built with aged Caterpillars and dump trucks. The spiral form, of course, was so organic and archaic that it could have been associated with almost anything, and was: from viruses and spiral salt-crystal deposits, to legends about mysterious whirlpools forming and vanishing in the Great Salt Lake, to archetypal serpents and snail shells, scrolls and—seen from the air—nebulae in outer space. That it could attract such a traffic jam of symbolic references was, of course, part of Smithson's design. The Spiral Jetty remained visible for two years, until the waters of the lake rose and covered it. It is still there, under the reddish muck.
The earth sculpture that will probably be remembered as the most impressive of the whole genre is not yet finished. It is in Arizona, on the edge of the Painted Desert: the work of James Turrell (b. 1943).
Turrell's earlier work consisted of almost nothing: bare walls, some tungsten and filament lamps, natural daylight, and the reactions between them. But the effect could be extraordinarily compelling. One sees, for instance, what appears to be a big flat rectangle pasted to a white wall, dark gray in color with perhaps a greenish cast: undifferentiated, banal late Minimalism. But as you approach, corners appear within its surface, as though reflecting the gallery in which you stand. Perhaps this "thing" is a dark, smoky sheet of mirror? But no; it is only a hole in the wall, giving onto another room, which seems to be filled with a gray-green mist. The surprise of this dissolution of substance into absence is so intense, and yet so subtly realized, that it becomes magical.
The problems of illusion are obviously central to art. How does one conjure up the presence of something that isn't there? And once that is done, how do we recognize the limits of image and reality? Can one make art by just having light?
Turrell tried to. His Second Meeting, in Los Angeles, is a square pavilion with a clean-cut square opening in the roof. It contains nothing but air, and from it you watch the sky. As the sun sets, the changing contrast between the artificial light inside and the natural light of the sky makes that square almost palpable. "I put you in a situation," says Turrell,

where you feel the physicality of light. This is an art that people try to touch—but there's nothing to touch. There is, first of all, no object; there is no image, nor any place of focus. What are you then looking at? Well, I'm hoping that you then have the self-reflexive act of looking at your looking, so that you're actually seeing yourself see to some degree, so that it actually does reveal something about your seeing as opposed to being a journal of my seeing.

The medium of Turrell's work is perception itself; his art happens behind your eyes, not in front of them.
Since 1979 Turrell's consuming project has been to turn an extinct volcanic crater north of Flagstaff, Arizona, into a work of art: not painting the Western landscape but subtly transforming a part of it. He found the Roden Crater in the course

341. James Turrell, Roden Crater Bowl, Finished Contours, 1 990. Photo emulsion, wax pastel, acrylic and ink on Mylar and vellum paper, 36' 1/4x 36'1/4 (92.1 x 92.1 cm).

of a seven-month search, piloting his own plane around the West, sleeping under the wing at night; and in the end "I had to buy a ranch to get a volcano." The Roden Crater is a stepped cone which, from one angle of view, looks like an immense pair of lips on the horizon. Inside it, looking upward from its basin, Turrell plans tunnels, viewing chambers, and pools acting as lenses of water that will enable the visitor to experience the light of the sun, the moon, and the stars in isolated, concentrated ways: an instrument that will "engage celestial events in light, so as to play the music of the spheres in light" (Figure 341). Its first stage, the shaping of the crater rim, is now complete. It entailed bulldozing off some 200,000 cubic yards of earth, "so as to shape the sky." Which it does: when one lies down on the ground and looks at the upside-down firmament framed in the smooth arc of the rim, it becomes a blue dome, all-embracing, transparent, and yet somehow solid: the "luminous eyeball" Emerson wrote of in the nineteenth century, a huge emblem of peaceful and oceanic consciousness.
The settlement of northeastern America in the seventeenth century was done by iconoclasts: radical Puritans bearing an already old and fanatical tradition of English hostility to the graven and colored image. To them, as we have seen, the Word was law and the Image a delusion and a snare, except in the "shades" of family portraiture. Once implanted, the idea that virtue may lie in the breaking (or at least the rejection) of idols, the scorning of the visual and the sensuous, is not easily shaken off. It has been fixed in the American genome for three hundred years and is apt to show itself in moments of political or moral anxiety.


Robert Hughes. American Visions:The Epic History of Art in America. The Age of Anxiety. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1997, p. 570-574.

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