What is Land Art?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Land art is a form of art which involves using physical landscapes to create art, forcing people to view the art in context, and taking the provenance of art out of the museum and into the outside world. People have been creating works of art with landscapes for centuries, but the modern land art movement really got going in the 1960s, when American artists began creating land works on a large scale. Today, works of modern land art can be seen all over the world, sometimes right alongside much older pieces of land art created by people who lived thousands of years ago.

Land art is designed to be experienced in conjunction with beautiful, unusual or interesting landscapes.
Land art is designed to be experienced in conjunction with beautiful, unusual or interesting landscapes.

This type of art is sometimes referred to as Earth art or Earthworks, and it can take a number of forms. For example, the Spiral Jetty, a famous piece of land art created in 1970 in the Great Salt Lake, is made with a collection of stones, salt, and mud. The artist, Robert Smithson, sculpted a large jetty in a spiral shape which protrudes into the waters of the lake. The Spiral Jetty is not designed to be used in a practical sense, but rather to be admired.

Reshaping the landscape is a common feature of land art, as in the case of artworks which are created by carving into the landscape and moving components around. People can also add things to the environment to create land art, ranging from imported stones to structures made with regionally available material. It is also possible to landscape installations with the use of plants. In all cases land artwork is immovable, but not necessarily unchangeable.

In fact, one of the major distinctions between this type of art and most of the art one sees in the museum is that land art is designed to evolve, change, and eventually decay. Some works of art are quite ephemeral, persisting only for a few hours or days, while others are deliberately exposed to erosion and wind so that they become distorted over time. The evolution of the Earthwork is part of the appeal, in the eyes of the artist.

Many artists meticulously document the creation process with photographs and videos so that a record of their land artwork endures. Especially in the case of remote art installations, such records can be vital, because they allow people to see the art without having to travel. In other cases, the ephemeral nature of the art is part of the point, and no documentation will be made, forcing people to travel to the art if they want to see it. Some artists feel that physical interaction with land installations is an important part of the viewing process, and sometimes visitors are even invited to contribute to the art in some way.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


@istria: Denis Oppenheim was part of Land Art epic period, with Michael Heizer, Robert Smithson, Nancy Holt and a few artists aka landartists. Aplenty is right, the rediscovery of Nazca Lines was very important for these artists, along, of course, first steps of Man on the Moon and atomic bombings.


@ Istria- Dennis Oppenheimer is considered one of the founders of Earth art. He will always go down as a significant figure in land art history. His pieces can look like something straight out of the movie Beetle Juice. I have seen one of his pieces in person, and it was pretty spectacular. The piece is a house that is stretched out into a bus that coils into the ground. The piece is actually a functioning bus stop in Ventura, California, and it is about three or four stories tall. It is only fitting that this piece is in California, since he is a native.

He has another famous piece in a park in Vancouver that I would like to see one day. It is an upside down church built from aluminum and stained glass. The steeple is rooted into the earth. The piece is called "The Root of all Evil". It was originally on display at Stanford University (his Alma Matter), but it was taken down. I assume it was too controversial for the University.


@ aplenty- Who is Dennis Openheim and what were his land art designs like? You said they are surreal, so I am curious to know what type of art he did.


I have always thought that the most awe-inspiring pieces of land art were the Nazca lines in the mountains of Peru. The Nazca lines are not like a Dennis Oppenheim land art piece, but they are just as surreal.

Giant animals, birds, plants, and geometric shapes are drawn in the high plateaus of Peru, some spanning hundreds of Feet. The lines are made by removing all of the large rocks and boulders that litter the surface of the land, combined with years of ritualistic marching across these paths. One day I would like to travel to this area and do a fly by so I can take some photos. The pieces are so unique that they seem otherworldly.

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