Often dealing with ecological issues, environmental art can have a myriad of forms and be made from a variety of different substances. Environmental art alludes to the natural world through subject matter, materials or the site chosen for the art. Some environmental artists, however, are more concerned with the finished artwork than its impact on the environment.
Environmental art is a broad term encompassing earth works, site works and other types of art that relate to the environment. The term became popular in the 1960s and 1970s when several different artists chose to use the landscape as the medium for their works of art. One of the best known environmental artists is Robert Smithson, who in 1970 completed Spiral Jetty. This earth work spiral, which is made out of black rock, earth and salt crystal, sits on a shore of the Great Salt Lake. Spiral Jetty was submerged under water for several decades until 2004 when the water level of the Great Salt Lake dropped due to drought conditions similar to the time of the artwork’s construction.
Two other artists of the same era as Smithson, Walter De Maria and Michael Heizer, used the landscape to make artistic statements in different ways. In 1971 Walter De Maria built Lightning Field , which consisted of a group of 400 stainless steel rods positioned in a flat open field in New Mexico. As its name implies, during a storm Lightning Field could attract an ever-shifting array of lightning bolts. Michael Heizer completed Double Negative in 1970 by bulldozing about 240,000 tons of dirt and rock in the Mormon Mesa in Nevada to create two 30-foot (about 9-meter) wide ramps.
Environmental artists are divided between their concern with the final product and concern for the environment. Smithson, De Maria and Heizer clearly were not very concerned with the effects of their alterations to the landscape and the damage that it might cause to the environment. Other environmental artists, however, like Richard Long show more concern for the environment. Most of Long’s environmental artworks consist of minor adjustments to the landscape. Artist Ulrike Arnold uses natural pigments that she gathers from around the world to create paintings on canvas.
Some artists, like Allan Comp, reclaim contaminated land to create environmental art. Comp worked with a group of artists, scientists and engineers to restore an area polluted by coal mines. The park that Comp and his associates created is also a natural water treatment system that filters toxic metals from the water.