Groundswell: Women of Land Art

Sue Spaid

Nasher Sculpture Center, Dallas

On view through January 7, 2024

A couple of years ago, I unearthed a disappointing story. Between 1971 and 1990, as earthworks gave way to eco-art, twelve museums mounted exhibitions focused on eco-art, which featured artworks by a total of 238 men and 25 women, even though women actually built half of the fifty early examples of ecological earthworks. Moreover, dozens of women participated in the Land art movement, yet the very notion of women creating Land art, which typically requires heavy machinery, specialized skills, and expensive materials, still astonishes fifty years later. Thanks to Anna Mendieta’s well-publicized career, more women are known for their ecologically-oriented performance art. Seven first generation eco-artists are among the twelve artists featured in “Groundswell: Women of Land Art.” Since museums have historically ignored women’s vital contribution to this field, an exhibition focused entirely on women artists only seems fair. “Groundswell” offers a historical context for Patricia Johanson’s Fairpark Lagoon, a massive remediation project commissioned by the Dallas Museum of Art in the early 1980s to revitalize the lagoon sited three miles southeast of the Nasher Sculpture Center. 

Patricia Johanson (American, born 1940) Fair Park Lagoon, 1981–86, Gunite, native plants, and animal species, Dimensions variable
For the People, the Meadows Foundation, Communities Foundation of Texas, Texas Commission on the Arts and their private and corporate donations. Permanently sited in Fair Park, Dallas
© Patricia Johanson, Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Michael Barera

A notoriously broad category, Land art includes almost anything built in situ in relationship to the site. “Groundswell” broadens this category further to include large-scale sculptures, outdoor installations, and “nonfunctional architecture” that prove site-relational, but are not necessarily sculpted into the site. One of this exhibition’s main points is that Agnes Denes, Alice Aycock, Beverly Buchanon, Maren Hassinger, Nancy Holt, Johanson, Anna Mendieta, Mary Miss, Joyce Pinto, and Meg Webster gained skills as Land artists that eased their transition into public art. Divided into four sections, “Groundswell” explores “Charting the Land and Sky,” “Architecture, Ruins, and Exposed Infrastructure,” “The Emergence of Ecological Art,” and “From Land Art to Public Art.”

Agnes Denes (American, born Hungary, 1931), Wheatfield—A Confrontation: Battery Park Landfill, Downtown Manhattan—Blue Sky, World Trade Center, 1982
Two acres of wheat planted and harvested by the artist on the Battery Park landfill, Battery Park City, New York © Agnes Denes, Courtesy Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects 

If these twelve artists have one thing in common, it’s “digging in dirt”! Forget the brush: grab your gardening tools, shovel, or better yet, rent a digger. They’ve all dug holes of varying scales in numerous materials to secure posts/stakes, plant seeds, gather Earth, excavate clay/rocks, fill with pigments or water, cast shadows, and especially to climb down into. Exhibited photos of artworks by Miss, Aycock, and Pinto feature ladders enabling climbers to reach depths below. As I-95 was being built, Pinto and friends dug-out numerous historic wells, which lent them access to life during colonial times, as they recovered objects that had fallen in. Here is an image of one such excavated well.  

Jody Pinto (American, born 1942), Well Projects, 1974–76
Photo documentation of the excavation of 19th-century wells and cisterns with temporary installations of found objects and painted bundles. Courtesy of the artist © Jody Pinto

Given these artists’ efforts to preserve the natural environment, it’s little wonder they primarily opted for impermanence. They thus mostly created labor-intensive, temporary installations, such as Aycock’s temporary wooden maze measuring 6-feet tall and 32-feet in diameter.

Alice Aycock (American, born 1946), Maze, 1972, 12-sided wooden structure of 5 concentric dodecagonal rings,
broken by 19 points of entry and 17 barriers 6 x 32 feet diameter (1.8 x 9.7 m). Originally sited at Gibney Farm near
New Kingston, Pennsylvania (destroyed) © Alice Aycock
Photo: Silver Spring Township Police Department, Mechanicsburg, PA, courtesy of the artist

“Groundswell” revisits several temporary outdoor installations created by Aycock, Agnes Denes, Hassinger, Holt, Miss, Pinto, and Michelle Stuart for Art Park (1974-1977) in Lewiston, NY, a stone’s throw from the Canadian border. However art-historically significant (truly ground-breaking) these artworks were, most are not even visible (listed) on artists’ career CVs. It is truly astonishing to encounter such ephemeral efforts fifty years after the fact, given their absence from the Land art canon, which the catalogue’s “Select Chronology, 1959-1990” aims to correct. For example, the anthology Land and Environmental Art (1998) features artworks by Aycock, Denes, Holt, Johanson, Mendieta, Miss, and Webster, yet its focus is extant artworks (Art Park is nowhere mentioned). No friend to impermanence, art history favors the enduring earthworks by Michael Heizer’s Double Negative (1969), Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (1970), Jim Turrell’s Roden Crater (1970-2024), Holt’s Sun Tunnels (1973-76), Walter de Maria’s Lightning Field (1977), Johanson’s Fairpark Lagoon (1981-1986), and Denes’s Tree Mountain (1992-96).

Nancy Holt (American, 1938–2014), Sun Tunnels, 1973-76, Concrete, steel, earth 
Overall dimensions: 9 1/6 x 86 x 53 feet (2.7 x 26.2 x 16.1 m), length on the diagonal: 86 feet  
Great Basin Desert, Utah. Collection Dia Art Foundation with support from Holt/Smithson Foundation 
© 2023 Holt/Smithson Foundation and Dia Art Foundation/ Licensed by Artists Rights Society, New York 

Rather than treating open vistas as blank, open canvases awaiting human constructions, several artists refused the tendency to produce visible earthworks destined to overwhelm the natural landscape. On view are images and studies related to earthworks that noticeably slip down into the land, thus securing invisibility (and better yet, surprise), such as Aycock’s low building with dirt roof (1973) and networked underground wells (1975/2011); Mendieta’s siluetas (1975); Miss’s buried trap (1973), sunken pool (1974), and underground pavilions (1977-1978); Pinto’s historic well excavations (1974-76), and Meg Webster’s Glen (1987). 
The handful of still-standing, first-generation earthworks that  “Groundswell” revisits with photos and drawings include Johanson, William Rush (1966) and Cyrus Field (1970), both in Buskirk, NY; Beverly Buchanan, Ruins and Rituals (1979), Macon, GA, Marsh Ruins (1981), Brunswick, GA, and Blue Station Stones (1986), Miami, FL; Nancy Holt, Sun Tunnels (1973-1976), UT and Stone Enclosure: Rock Ring (1977-1978), Western Washington University, Bellingham, WA; Mary Miss, Untitled (1973/1975), Oberlin, OH; Meg Webster, Glen (1987), Minneapolis, MN; and Alice Aycock, Project for a Single Network of Underground Wells and Tunnels (1975/2011), Ghent, NY and Low Building with Dirt Roof (for Mary) (1973/2010), New Windsor, NY and Maren Hassinger, Twelve Trees #2 (1979/2015), Fullerton, CA.

Martin Kane (American, 1958), Beverly Buchanan’s Ruins and Rituals, installed in Macon, Georgia, 1979
28 x 41.75 inches (71.12 cm x 106.04 cm)
Collection of the Nevada Museum of Art, The Altered Landscape, Carol Franc Buck Collection
© Estate of Beverly Buchanan, courtesy Andrew Edlin Gallery, New York City. Photo © Martin W. Kane

Given that “Groundswell” is focused on Land art, and primarily impermanent examples, this exhibition includes plenty of drawings and maquettes related to original “sites,” as well as “nonsites” (sculptures that refer to actual sites) that lend spectators tangible experiences.  The nonsites include Lita Albuquerque’s Najma Returns (2023), Aycock’s Clay #2 (1971), Buchanan’s Untitled (Frustula Series) (1978), Hassinger’s Dry/Flow (1976/2023) and Field (1989), Holt’s Pipeline (1986/2023) and Locator (P.S. 1) (1980), Mendieta’s Untitled (1984) and Untitled (1985), Miss’s Stream Trace: Dallas Branch Crossing (2023), Stuart’s Frijoles Notebook (1974-75), Hermosa Strata, Colorado (1977), and Records: Copan Quirigua Mesa Verde (1977-79), and Webster’s Long Gates (1984/2023), Moss Bed Queen (1986/2005/2023), and Bench for Two Backs Leaning (1989). For “Groundswell,” Holt’s Pipeline, supposedly carrying oil (presumably West Texas Intermediate), snaked across the entire wall of the foyer gallery and eventually heads outdoors.     

Nancy Holt (American, 1938–2014), Pipeline, 1986, Steel, oil, Dimensions variable [site responsive]
Installation at the Visual Arts Center of Alaska, Anchorage
© 2023 Holt/Smithson Foundation / Licensed by Artists Rights Society, New York 

Given my preference for living sculptures, my favorite sculpture is Webster’s Moss Bed Queen, a mattress-like form covered in earth and peat moss, positioned directly on the floor as sunlight streams through a window in the foyer gallery. Given museums’ resistance to living sculptures, it’s particularly impressive that it’s on loan from the Collection of the Walker Art Center. I also appreciated the finesse of her Long Gates, a waist-high, rammed earth cross that one enters/exits from opposing portals. 

Meg Webster (American, born 1944), Moss Bed, Queen, 1986/2005, Peat moss, earth, and plastic tarp, 10 x 60 x 80 inches. Walker Art Center, T. B. Walker Acquisition Fund, 2006 © Meg Webster 
Courtesy of the artist and the Paula Cooper Gallery Photo: Courtesy Walker Art Center 

One of this exhibition’s overarching themes, which is more implicit than explicit, concerns labor. It seems that every year there is at least one exhibition focused on “women’s work,” though their focus is usually domestic chores or exquisite crafting. Just as “Groundswell” expands the Land art category, it duly explodes the category of “women’s work” to include all manner of building, brick-laying, chaining, concrete-pouring, construction, excavation, harvesting, marking, mapping, quarrying, ramming, sawing, sowing, surveying, and tunneling. Given this exhibition’s emphasis on physical labor, Albuquerque’s gleaming outdoor installations offer a delightful counter-balance. While some of her pigment installations, such as Spine of the Earth (1980), are the result of numerous performers making the artwork as a choreographed event, others entailed her sprinkling rocks with “pixie dust” (colored pigments) either to enlighten objects hidden in dark spots, lend cohesion to dispersed elements, or to brighten natural elements so as to heighten viewers’ awareness of their brilliance.

Lita Albuquerque (American, born 1946)
Rock and Pigment, 1978, 22 rocks and pigment 
Mojave Desert, California © Lita Albuquerque
Photo: Courtesy of the artist and Kohn Gallery, Los Angeles

 Lita Albuquerque (American, born 1946)
Spine of the Earth,1980, Pigment, rock, and wooden sundial, El Mirage Lake, Mojave Desert, California
© Lita Albuquerque, Photo: Courtesy of the artist and Kohn Gallery, Los Angeles

Curator Leigh Arnold’s decision to focus in-depth on artworks created by just twelve women from among the dozens of qualified candidates may seem odd, if not a little unfair. However, doing so allowed her to paint a coherent picture of women working extremely “hard” against all odds, with little guarantee of remuneration, let alone a substantial “pay off.” On this level, their efforts seem nearly the opposite of Marcel Duchamp’s “art coefficient,” which characterizes the relationship between “intention and realization,” such that the creative act sets off a subsequent chain of unexpected, but welcomed reactions. As briefly mentioned, very few of the artworks presented in “Groundswell” have found their way into the canon. Moreover, only a handful of these artists have had consistent gallery representation, enabling them to sell art and secure public art commissions. Given what all they’ve achieved, everyone, not least the artists, must be amazed by their accomplishments.