Photo by Gianfranco Gorgoni

“Land” or “Earth” Art was a movement that flourished briefly in the early 1970s, when artists, decades after the “death” of pictorial painting, returned their attention to landscape. The difference in this case, though, was that the artist was ostensibly working with the landscape as the actual medium of the art. “Ostensibly” because, except for the artists and their friends (and a few intrepid connoisseurs), the only evidence the art world saw of the various scrapings, pilings, tunnelings, gougings and wrappings was the preparatory drawings and documentary photographs exhibited and sold back in New York City, and widely published in magazines and textbooks. (Art theorist and provocateur Professor Buck Burns has in fact claimed in print that all Land Art, except his own, has been an elaborate hoax “like the moon landing.”)

A hit in the newly emerging art-grad-school milieu and its increasingly influential house organ, Artforum, Land Art extended many of the formal concerns of the previous month’s flavors, Minimalist sculpture and early Conceptualism, quite literally into the field. At the same time, Land Art resuscitated several early Modernist trends, notably the utopian striving to create an art so unwieldy and ephemeral as to be unabsorbable by the commodifying machinery of the bourgeois capitalist museum and gallery system, and the desire to reconnect with “primitive” prehistoric cultures, whose monumental works (Stonehenge; Native American burial mounds; extraterrestrial landing strips at Nazca, Peru; the Chalk Horse of Uffington, as well as more reliably attributable works such as the Great Pyramids at Giza and the Great Wall of China) testify to an almost unimaginable will to create, unclouded by the millennia’s-worth of cultural smog contemporary artists are forced to navigate.

Apart from these doomed strategies, the Land Artists represented a baffling variety of motives and theoretical associations. None were so fully and convincingly articulated as those of Robert Smithson, the creator of the single most famous earthwork, the 15-feet-wide by 1,500-curled-feet-long basalt-rock Spiral Jetty, which fiddleheads counterclockwise into the Great Salt Lake in Utah. Smithson’s 1973 death, in a plane crash while surveying the site of a proposed spiral work in Texas, guaranteed his rock-star status. His collected writings, first assembled in 1979 by his widow and fellow Land Artist Nancy Holt and reissued in an expanded edition in 1996 by the University of California Press, solidified his reputation as one of the founders of the early-’70s multidisciplinary scholasticism that, in a sadly devolved state, was to become the standard for art discourse in the coming decades. Possessed of a wide-ranging curiosity and a familiarity with the sciences as well as the humanities, Smithson fleshed out his art and ideas with surprising and idiosyncratic connections, and was as likely to cite a specialized textbook on glaciology or numbers theory as Jorge Luis Borges or Ad Reinhardt. In his essay on The Spiral Jetty, amidst a flurry of such references, Smithson mentions offhand that “A cameraman was sent by Ace Gallery in Los Angeles to film the process.”

Realizing the structural resonance between the unwinding film reel and the spiral form of the piece, Smithson took on the task of completing the quasi documentary in a manner that both reflected his compositional style and used the film medium to produce experiences analogous to those he sought in the earthwork itself. The film that resulted, currently screening three times daily at Ace, is probably the best surviving artifact of Smithson’s creative mind at work. Even under the conditions of less-than-ideal light and soundproofing in which I experienced it (but which the gallery has since redressed), the freshly reprinted film is a startlingly original collage of raw cinematic experimentation, spinning off into clinical descriptions of heat prostration and speculations about crystalline lattices while the camera is hypnotized by reflections off the lake, or jumps around a map of the planet in the Jurassic era in faux classroom-movie style. All the while clearly and compellingly telling the story of the construction of the massive jetty.

On the wall of the screening gallery and filling the walls of one adjacent are the familiar documentary B&W photographs of The Spiral Jetty taken by Gianfranco Gorgoni, the longtime art-world photo-documentarian. These are the photographs through which most of us have experienced the work — the closest physical art experience we have had of it. As such, they retain an iconic quality as the conduit through which the magnitude of Smithson’s accomplishment has been channeled. Apparently for technical reasons, the bulk of the photos are broken into grids of four prints, adding a not-incompatible structural layer to the work that emphasizes the essentialist geometric and archetypal spiritual intimations of Smithson’s vision. As art, it pales next to Smithson’s film, but the combination is the closest anyone can get to actually experiencing The Spiral Jetty anymore. For most of the 30 years since it was built, the already inaccessible jetty has been submerged under several feet of salt water.

In fact, the majority of Land Art works, even those that weren’t explicitly ephemeral, have suffered from neglect, erosion or outright hostility — some to the point of absolute obliteration. CLUI, the Center for Land Use Interpretation, has chosen to inaugurate its beautifully remodeled offices and exhibition space with “Formations of Erasure: Earthworks and Entropy,” a show of large-scale contemporary photographs documenting and exploring just this phenomenon. This is a first for CLUI, whose bus tours and exhibitions, though directly descended from Land Art, have previously been careful to skirt the direct engagement of their monumental antecedents. In some ways, CLUI stands as a critical reproach to Land Art’s failures. From an initial interest in earthworks, founding director Matthew Coolidge’s pilgrimages to the wildernesses of Nevada and Utah awakened him to the vast numbers of unacknowledged creative landscape interventions created by industry and the military. Like any art that functions properly, Land Art, once it has taught you to look at things in a new way, renders its own pedagogical models redundant. This provides “Formations of Erasure” with an extra layer of conceptual reverb. The inevitable romantic tug of ruins filtered through the deadpan institutional descriptions of the CLUI house style produces something akin to witnessing a friend arrange the funeral of a sibling with whom he never quite got along.

And a fine wake it is, to be sure. Always lucid and shot through with dry humor, insightful asides, and a wealth of new and detailed information, the textual component of CLUI exhibits is a reliable joy. Perhaps because the subject matter invites comparison to standard art museological discourse, the verbiage in “Formations of Erasure” seems even better than usual. Beginning with a brief history and clear definition of the parameters of “Earthworks” (fixed constructions using primarily earthen material native to the site, i.e., no giant yellow umbrellas), the exhibit proceeds to examine 10 sites, from William Bennett’s unfinished modifications to the Jamesville Quarry in upstate New York, to Smithson’s fatal Amarillo Ramp, completed by Nancy Holt and Richard Serra, and now overgrown with brush. Three of the decaying works are by Smithson, one by Holt, three by Smithson’s predecessor and continuing archrival, Michael Heizer. The photographs themselves are uncredited, but presented in museum-quality prints on a scale previously unattempted by the Center, and are uniformly haunting (in an impartial, bureaucratic way, of course).

While the story told in “Formations of Erasure” is one of loss and neglect, CLUI’s always canny programming is, in fact, riding a wave of resurgent interest in the Land Artists. Over the last few years, a small specialized industry has sprung up around the remaining earthwork monuments, with busloads of grad students and tourists trekking to the desert to see Heizer’s Double Negative or booking the overnight facilities at Walter de Maria’s Lightning Field. The Dia Center for the Arts, which has maintained the latter site since 1977, has recently taken over The Spiral Jetty, with a commitment to making it more accessible to tourists and possibly carrying out Smithson’s intended 15-foot elevation of the causeway. By declaring earthworks to be equivalent to other exhibit subjects such as Show Cave Architecture, the Nellis Test Range or the Chesapeake Bay Hydraulic Model, CLUI similarly breathes new life into the original subversive utopianism of Land Art, albeit in the Invasion of the Bureaucracy Snatchers version. And by erecting a sidelong parallel to the institutional art world, without the shortsighted prejudices of the art world, CLUI operates at the forefront of the renewed formal and conceptual reclamation of the literal American landscape that most thought had petered out a quarter-century ago.

FORMATIONS OF ERASURE: Earthworks and Entropy
9331 Venice Blvd.
Through November 18

Robert Smithson and
Gianfranco Gorgoni
At ACE GALLERY LOS ANGELES, 5514 Wilshire Blvd.
Through October 31

LA Weekly