My husband Jim and I both went to art school in the 70’s. Land art was coming of age. it was fresh, it was monumental; it brought the genre of landscape back to art with a heroic effort, and most of all, it put American sculpture on the big art world map.
Early in the summer of 2002 we went in search of the great American land art… a road trip that took us on a 3500-mile circle from Salt Lake City to Oklahoma City.
The first day at sunrise we were in Lucin, Utah, the site of Sun Tunnels by Nancy Holt, built in 1973-76. Having spent the night in Wendover, Nevada, the closest bed to sun tunnels, we crossed back into Utah just east of Montello. Lucin (pop. 10) is about 10 miles from the border. About 2 miles from the site, the tunnels become visible in the southeast. We knew what to look for, yet somehow, it is different in the context of the greater landscape. The image that we have so fixed in our minds is most often not what we encounter. We develop a richer understanding of the desire to create in space a really big space. It is not the object we are in search of, it is the full view. We learned this on day one. We also learned that the road leading in and out of a site is just as essential to the experience.
The Sun Tunnels are instruments for viewing both the sky and the vista through the tunnel openings parts of the landscape are framed. Our perception of space becomes more focused and our attention to light more pronounced. A piece I felt I knew so well took on a new meaning; it in fact is not a series of objects placed on the land but an instrument for reading the sky much the way I imagine Turrell’s Roden Crater to be. (a piece we had planned on visiting, but in the course of 18 months of planning it was no longer possible to visit until it opens in 2005, as scheduled now by the Dia foundation).
Next stop Las Vegas, the ultimate American theme park. In some odd fashion, we could read this as an enormous form of land art. Las Vegas was our base for visiting Double Negative, some 60 miles up the road in Overton. Michael Heizer’s Double Negative is a radical earth work created in 1969-70. The work, a gigantic excavation into the mesa, produces two voids in the landscape, or so I have seen in reproduction.
We left before sunrise to Overton. The directions were straightforward, Highway 15 north to Overton, then head to the airport. The airport is a mile marker for the climb up the mesa only five miles outside town. The road up the mesa is narrow with a few steep turns. Unfortunately, there was one too many, and the Ford Explorer just couldn’t do it. We gave it a couple of tries, then headed into town. During my planning for the trip, I had spoken to the director of the small Archaeology Museum in town. He had been helpful in clarifying directions to the Negative so we stopped by, hinting at a ride up the mesa in the Ranger’s ATV. They all agreed there was “nothing much to see.” Frustrated and a little disappointed we headed back to Las Vegas. We took the scenic route along Lake Mead and the Red Rock Canyon. In the face of our failure we had left without photographing the road that by now had become our obsession… where these works are in relationship to everything else… the lingering question of accessibility.
Next morning we turned around and drove back to Overton. We were convinced that we could get to the top of the mesa on foot. We drove to the turn in the washed-out road and walked to the top. The ranger had assured us the sand would continue and make it to difficult to walk. Just past the washout, the road turned rock hard again and in minutes I was on top of the mesa. With 2.5 miles to go on a dead flat and hard surface, I abandoned the idea of walking. It was 8 a.m. and 110 degrees; the closest cloud was over China. We retreated, decided to finally photograph the road, and then headed out of town back on the highway.
On to the Hoover Dam, remarkable in its massiveness, I imagined the void Double Negative made in the mesa compared to the dam’s redirecting a river through an enormous space carved in the canyon. Taliesin West proved a diversion from our failure to get to Double Negative. The organic architecture built by Frank Lloyd Wright in the desert outside Scottsdale was influenced by the light of the desert and the natural formations surrounding the site. The structures of natural rock, wood and canvas built into the landscape share a similarity to land art.
The drive from Scottsdale to Quemado, NM, the pick-up point for Lightning Field, is close to five hours. Lightning Field was completed in 1977 by Walter De Maria and was commissioned and is maintained by the Dia Art Foundation. The town has a diner and no place to spend the night, so you need to be either an hour or so east or west of town to make the drive into Quemado the morning of your pick up. The caretaker for Lightning Field, Randy, met us in town at the Dia office at 1 p.m., in the white building with no sign. Randy drove us out to the cabin about 40 minutes from town. We crossed over the continental divide 11-1/2 miles from the cabin. It is quite high up, 7,200 feet above sea level, and feels like being on top of the world. Nothing that I had read prior, not even the famous 1980 Artforum article, prepared me for what we experienced. The cabin became visible after the last bend in the road but we didn’t see the poles because the sun was almost overhead at 2 pm making them invisible. Our visit was on a Monday in early June and we were the only visitors for the evening. The cabin can sleep up to six people in three bedrooms, though Randy informed us four had been tops lately. Being by yourself is not impossible. The cabin is a seamless experience, an original part of the concept: De Maria knew that to see his piece, you had to spend 24 hours with it.
Like every visitor before us, we walked the perimeter along the worn path in the sand. The poles created a perfect grid laid out on the high plateau; they appear to stretch out forever, measuring one mile by one kilometer. It is walkable in little over an hour. Returning to the cabin, sitting on the small porch, we stared out into the field. The poles became visible slowly as the sun began to drop in the sky. They became increasingly apparent as markers in the landscape… as transmitters of light recording time. Time passed and we observed the smallest of details in the vastness of the land. The grid, so flawless, consists of 400 pointed steel poles with an elevation change of 9 feet. They are placed to such exactness that a sheet of glass could rest on top. Evening turns to night and the starlit sky and moon shimmer off the poles as the space extends. There is no light for the cabin, no sound for us, no sign of wires or technology. I awoke before sunrise and stood in awe as the visible field of poles drew into the invisible, knowing they would reemerge come dusk. In De Maria’s words, the invisible is real.
The drive on to Marfa, Texas, to the site of the Chinati Foundation, is too far for a day’s drive. We stopped over in El Paso and the next day took the scenic route over the mountain through Van Horn into Marfa. West Texas is something special: a country unto itself with the biggest blue sky on earth. Donald Judd found his way here in 1972 in search of that place to create his work away from the crowd of New York City, with space to see his work as he had envisioned it. Purchasing in collaboration with the Dia Art Foundation the abandoned Fort Russell Army base, in 1979 Judd began a project of transformation which continued until his death in 1994. Judd converted the abandoned barracks and artillery sheds into the perfect works of architecture to house his work and that of a select few other artists with whom he shared a similar reductive vision of form and space. The grandeur of the space and the quality of the light provide a backdrop for the work.
The seemingly simple renovations are reductive remakes of existing buildings. In a former artillery shed, Judd removed the flat roof and replaced it with a corrugated metal barrel vault. The walls open to the landscape with the familiar Judd grid of windows. The length measures 285 feet. The light is enormous, abundant and full, casting shadows and recounting the hours of the day across the 100 milled aluminum boxes housed in the two artillery sheds. Chinati proves to be far more than an alternative to the common exhibition space. It is a place where art, architecture and the landscape are married. Marfa is off the beaten track, 60 miles from the Rio Grande, 8 hours to the metropolis of Austin. It’s a long way from anywhere to Marfa.
The common bond of the artist working on and with the land is the belief that a special quality of light can only be found when the space opens to the sky and the isolation is explicit. As De Maria puts it, “isolation is the essence of land art.”
Roberley Bell and Jim Morris are artists living in Upstate New York. Bell teaches at Rochester Institute of Technology and Morris at the State University of New York at Brockport.
This article was originally published in Landscape & Art, Summer 2003.