Earth art, also known as land art or earthworks, is an artistic movement in which works are created in nature using available natural and introduced materials. Rock, soil, and water are mixed with materials like metal and concrete to create sculptures and other pieces from the landscape. Rather than placing art somewhere, this type of art creates a work from the landscape itself. Robert Smithson is one of the movement’s most representative artists and prominent figureheads.
The movement arose in the United States toward the end of the 1960s and early 1970s. Land artists rejected what they perceived as artificiality in and commercialization of art. Working to create landscape projects on a grand scale, earth art was non-transportable, difficult or impossible to display in a traditional museum setting, and was therefore thought to be beyond the influence of the commercial art market. Many pieces are ephemeral, created away from developed areas and left to change, erode, and disintegrate with time.
Despite a suspicion of the traditional gallery environment, earth art can still be displayed in a commercial setting. In many cases, photographs of the original work are shown, but earth artists also create smaller installation pieces. The outdoor projects are often the most influential and reveal a preoccupation with both science and nature.
Many projects are monumental in scale and can be found throughout the United States, Europe, and Africa. Large images or geoglyphs visible from high altitudes are drawn in sand or created with stones. Giant boulders become heads emerging from the ground, and balls made of tightly fitted logs greet forest visitors. Earth-moving equipment is often necessary to complete land art.
The most famous piece of earth art is likely the spiral-shaped jetty created by Robert Smithson in 1970. Smithson made his jetty protrude into Utah’s Great Salt Lake by arranging earth, rock, and algae in a long spiral shape. The fluctuating water levels influence how much of the piece is visible at any given time. Smithson also created works that could by exhibited in a gallery setting, such as his piece "Gravel Mirror with Cracks and Dust," made in 1968.
The 1968 group exhibition “Earth Works” in New York at the Dawn Gallery is considered to be the beginning of the earth art movement. One of the exhibition’s announcement cards was written in sand. Smithson gave the movement a critical framework that same year in his seminal essay, “The Sedimentation of the Mind: Earth Projects,” which elaborated that earth art was a reaction to Modernism’s disconnection from social issues. Smithson’s 1973 death in a plane crash robbed the movement of its most prominent thinker and figurehead.
The roots of the earthworks movement are found in minimal and conceptual art. Most land artists are American men, including James Turrell, Michael Heizer, and Carl Andre. Nancy Holt and Alica Aycock are two prominent female earth artists. Australian Andrew Rogers and British artists Andy Goldsworthy and Chris Drury are influential non-American exponents of land art.