Sorry to hear today of the death of the artist Nancy Holt. Her Sun Tunnels was my favorite among the Land Art I visited for an article I wrote several years ago for Organic Style, which unfortunately folded before my piece ran.
ART ROCKS: A way of seeing
Not long ago, I lit out to what looked on the map like unexplored territory—an immense tract of Utah and New Mexico with plenty of desert, mountain and rock but few landmarks or even roads. All the more startling
to find there several important works of 20th-century art: Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, Nancy Holt’s Sun Tunnels and Walter De Maria’s Lightning Field.
Once I learned more about the Land Artists of the 1960s and 70s, it was less surprising that they so frequently chose the American West for their sculptures. Beautiful or decorative landscapes were out. Site-specific art made of native materials like rocks, sticks and soil—art that considered Nature as part of the Industrial Age—was in. Their creations are generally outsize, in keeping with the vastness of the landscape. And so the first thing I learned was that the grand scale is not necessarily ancient, anonymous or religious. No, artists still have grand visions.
I fly into Salt Lake City and head north a couple of hours. At Golden Spike National Historic Site, where the transcontinental railroad joined up in 1869, I thump onto a gravel road. Fifteen miles, one fat badger and a lot of tumbled volcanic rocks, mesquite and purple sage later, I park by a broken-down pickup truck and a pink trailer. Half a mile’s walk down to the Great Salt Lake is the site of Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, a 1,500-foot basalt and earth “immobile cyclone.” The water is an outlandish reddish-purple, the salt blinding white with streaks of algae-induced hot pink and orange. As I pace Jetty’s stately curves, covered thickly with salt (it’s been underwater most of the time since it was built in 1970), I feel like I’m on the coast of Maine—wild rocks and snow, except the snow is salt and it’s dead silent.
Smithson chose this site partly because he didn’t consider its abandoned oil rigs, worn-out stone and scrubby bush scenic. Along with this disdain for Beauty, the Land Artists took a stance against the “commodification” of art, so they took their work as far as possible from galleries and museums—from the market, that is. They made art for those who can’t stand to stand in a room and stare at a wall. To be at the end of the world, the end of land, is to deposit us at the start of imagination.
The next day I drive to an even more remote spot to see Holt’s Sun Tunnels. A nearby historical marker informs me that “this country is little changed in the last 150 years, or even in the last 10,000 years.” It sure does feel as primordial as all get out. If Spiral Jetty is at the end of the world, Sun Tunnels are the beginning of nowhere. “The work exists where it does because that was the kind of landscape necessary for it,” Holt tells me later. “The work evolved from the site—it wasn’t made in a studio and plunked down there.”
From half a mile away, Sun Tunnels’ four nine-foot concrete pipes look like the arched canvas tops of covered wagons. Aligned to the sun on the summer and winter solstices, they rivet you toward the sky, horizon and lonely enormity of northwestern Utah. Harsh poetry in a harsh landscape, Sun Tunnels burn into my brain. Oddly, they’re also fun and frisky, like a jungle gym. I crawl through and curl into them, try cartwheels and somersaults.
When I mention to Holt that I got lost over and over on the unmarked dirt roads leading to her work and use the word “inaccessible,” she stops me. “The best thing that can happen to a regular sculpture is if it’s collected by a museum, but then it goes into storage and even the artist doesn’t have access,” she points out. “But these you can go to anytime you want—they are as available as anything in a museum. Many people do find their way there.”
I especially appreciate that there’s no text posted at the site—no artist’s name, no explanation; it’s up to me to decide what I’m seeing. If I came upon Sun Tunnels without warning, would I know I was seeing art? Or might I suppose a religious purpose? We assume that ancient monuments have a sacred intent, but is “art for art’s sake” a strictly modern concept? Who’s to say that the still-unexplained Stonehenge isn’t a giant installation project? Art or shrine, it takes attentiveness that feels spiritual to do something this substantial, even if it’s not, strictly speaking, “for the glory of god.”
On to New Mexico, by way of hundreds of miles of varied landscape and a couple of stunning national parks. Lightning Field (1977) consists of 400 stainless-steel poles, averaging about 20 feet tall, installed in a one-mile by one-kilometer grid. I made a reservation a month earlier, as visitors are required to spend 24 hours at the site. Five others are there the night I am, all of us sharing a cozy log cabin.
At first glimpse, the installation looks mechanized and functional, like irrigation pipes. Here’s what I see when I walk the perimeter the first afternoon: one large, red-and-black-striped bug, rabbits, lots and lots of ants, scat of many creatures and coyotes (actually, I heard them at 4 a.m.—the city dwellers in our group thought the whoops were a drunken party). As I slog the drab, uneven ground, I wonder if this was what it was like to be a pioneer, trudging across the territories. The thought I really have is: Maybe De Maria wants us to feel what it was like to be a pioneer. And that feels manipulative.
The beauty is strange but obvious—of course flagpoles shine in the sun, and it’s merely odd that they’re here, in western New Mexico, 40 minutes from the nearest town.
But then the sun goes down, and for a flash they’re sparklers, then glowing matches. And at dawn, they’re white candles, marching in long wide avenues with no visible end. I feel less resentful, more involved; I even admire that De Maria has found a way to force the viewer to engage with his work long enough to appreciate it. I’m reminded of a line by English landscape painter John Constable: “We see nothing truly till we understand it.” I stand here on this piece of desert with these poles and plants and crows. As I get more familiar with where I am, I do begin to see it. In an artist statement at the cabin, De Maria says, “The land is not the setting for the work but a part of the work.” I get it. It’s performance art of stillness.
By the way, there’s no lightning. I’m only somewhat mollified by another of De Maria’s pronouncements: “The light is as important as the lightning.”
NEW YORK STATE
But hey, there’s monumental art on the East Coast too. So it’s up the Hudson River for an encounter with the popular British environmental sculptor Andy Goldsworthy. A radiant 2002 documentary, Rivers and Tides, shows him working with ice, rocks, wood, leaves, wool, sand and other natural materials. He is seeking, he says, “the energy that is running through, flowing through the landscape”—not to dominate it but to collaborate with it. We see him turn a pool blood-red with pigment he’s crumbled from the iron oxide in local stones. He snaps icicles and melts them together into a luminous loop around a tree trunk. I can’t imagine anyone watching the pattern of snow he flings in the air or his floating chain of red leaves without wanting to rush into a forest and make something of and with nature. He leaves a mark... and doesn’t.
One of Goldsworthy’s best-known works is Wall, located at Storm King Art Center, a 500-acre sculpture garden 60 miles north of New York City. It’s a traditional drystone wall—except that instead of defining a property line, it twists and coils among maples and oaks for nearly half a mile, then dips down into a small lake, reappearing on the other shore as though it continued underwater. Wall couldn’t be more different from most of the stuff at Storm King, giant widgets of rusted or brightly painted metal that could be plopped anywhere big enough for them.
What I really like at Storm King, though, is simply strolling the grounds. And yet, I know I would never have pulled off the highway to ramble in a field. It’s the last day of summer, mellowed by butterflies, geese, grasshoppers, the buzz of crickets and vast lawns of dandelion, cornflower and Queen Anne’s lace. I may have come for Goldsworthy, but I’m grateful simply to be here.
I leave looking hard at the shapes around me—clouds and mountains and trees. Now that my eyes are open, I see art everywhere, from organic shapes to lawn flamingoes, which I think of as a manifestation of a universal human drive to beautify our environment.
One reflection of that urge is in the Adirondacks, where, like Smithson, Chris Marzec built a spiral. Marzec, who did applied mathematics research in structural biology for 20 years, set his in an artist colony. Twenty or so folks, toting some 2,700 rocks, built it one weekend in 1992. For Marzec, “the Spiral is not intended as art, although it was made with artistic attentiveness.” By this he means that he hopes people “will notice and engage it—but no more than a dragonfly skimming across the surface of a pond.”
I walk the Spiral slowly, ending up pondering on a stump in the center. Like all the art I’ve seen lately, it demands—and rewards—my participation. Maybe that’s the point: You value what you attend to. The act is what matters, art that is experience rather than object. The particular is what we love: not “Art” but this art. Without the Spiral, this would be just another grassy spot in the woods.
My mistake till now was in thinking art was unilateral, which is like saying I hate or love Food, when it’s toast and tomatoes I gobble, herring and lima beans that I spurn. Not all of it is to my taste but enough. I like this art, too, for where it sent me—to glorious parts of the country, but also to Whitman and John Muir and even the salons of Soho and a field that could be any field but isn’t.
I even wonder if nature requires art as much as people seem to. After all, said 17th-century Spanish philosopher Baltasar Gracian, “Nature scarcely ever gives us the very best; for that we must have recourse to art.” In the spiral ironies of my odyssey, I see that for all that art got me to experience nature, it’s also the case that nature led me to experience art. And vice versa.