In 1969 and 1970, sculptor Michael Heizer displaced 240,000 tons of rock in the Nevada desert, cutting two enormous trenches, each one 50 feet deep and 30 feet wide and together spanning 1,500 feet, at the eastern edge of Mormon Mesa.
In 1970, artist Robert Smithson marshaled heavy equipment to deposit rocks and rubble along a 1,500-foot-long path, starting at the shoreline of a remote section of Great Salt Lake, Utah, and spiraling out into the water.
In 1977, Walter De Maria harnessed the potential energy of a distant patch of high desert in Western New Mexico by installing 400 stainless steel poles — effectively lightning rods, each one about 20 feet tall — in a grid pattern that measures one mile by one kilometer.
Heizer, Smithson and De Maria are the "Big Three" of Land art, a genre in which artists intervene in the actual landscape rather than depositing sculptural objects on it or painting pictures of it. As noted in a provocative new exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art, the aforementioned works are easily its most famous examples.
"Ends of the Earth: Land Art to 1974" fills Little Tokyo's Geffen Contemporary warehouse with 250 works by more than 80 artists. How can a museum show art that operates in the actual landscape? Sometimes by bringing a small piece of it indoors, as in a boxed field grown by Helen and Newton Harrison. Mostly it can't. That's one reason the MOCA show is provocative.
The title "Ends of the Earth" is a double-entendre, signaling the end of Earth art as it has been conventionally considered. The show pulls out heavy equipment of its own to open up the terrain. Mostly it works. One can quibble about some specific inclusions, but former MOCA curator Philipp Kaiser and UCLA professor Miwon Kwon successfully dispel a number of entrenched ideas about the genre.
Despite the Big Three, Land art was not an exclusively American phenomenon. Israeli artist Micha Ullman swapped dirt dug from two pits, one on either side of the Palestinian-Israeli border, in a gesture of political boundary-smashing. Germany'sFranz Erhard Walther made temporary drawings in a field using hemp cord. American sculptor Richard Serra went to Canada to create "Shift," a sequence of six low concrete walls whose length and location were determined by the changing visual relationships of two people traversing the topography.
In Japan, Tatsuo Kawaguchi filmed the shifting line drawn by ocean tides at the shoreline. In England, Richard Long made a spiral path on a gallery floor from white china clay, its length equal to the distance from the base to the peak of a local prehistoric earth-mound.
Artists on almost every continent were involved. Not all of them were men.
Joan Jonas made a filmed performance on a hilltop in which dancers' movements were choreographed by the wind's force and direction. The painterly tradition of a momento mori — a remembrance of mortality — was extended by Michelle Stuart, whose dense, pebble-strewn graphite rubbings of the ground recall tombstone rubbings. (Graphite is itself a form of elemental carbon.) Czech artist Zorka Saglova memorialized a World War II resistance hero with flaming gasoline in the snow.
The American West's seemingly barren deserts added a romantic aura, but cities were always in Land art's sphere. Four years before Heizer's 1969-70 "Double Negative," Alan Sonfist got a New York City commission for a big urban garden in Greenwich Village composed entirely from plants indigenous to Manhattan before Europeans arrived.
Perhaps most provocatively, Smithson is the only artist of the Big Three whose work is in the show. The great 1972 "Spiral Jetty" is presented as a film and a text that the late artist produced.
But Heizer chose not to participate — even though his "Double Negative" is in MOCA's permanent collection and was the show's inspiration. A good aerial photograph appears in the informative catalog, but Heizer — perhaps being overly cautious — worries that documentation in a museum gallery misrepresents sculpture that can be known only through physical experience. Being there counts, especially in our wired world.
In language, a double-negative is when two negatives appear together in a sentence, canceling each other out and creating a positive. Think of that when you see the show, and maybe Heizer's absent sculptural void is metaphorically present.
As for De Maria's 1977 "Lightning Field," it postdates the show's cut-off year of 1974. The curators chose the date because Land art was fully institutionalized by then. New York state, for example, opened Artpark that year, a place for commissioned Land art at a former waste dump near Niagara Falls. (Today it's mostly a concert venue.) A worthy endeavor, it was also a kind of cultural petting zoo.
Among the exhibition's most interesting features are three "shows within the show," partly re-creating pivotal precedents. "Earthworks" was a 1968 Virginia Dwan Gallery exhibition, which undercuts common claims that Land art sought to escape the art market. "Earth Art" was presented at a Cornell University museum in 1969, which complicates notions that it was a reaction against institutional constraints. And "Land Art," a 1969 film for German television by Gerry Schum, introduces mass media into the mix, tossing a technological monkey wrench into the ecologically minded romance that Land art represents a return to nature.
Many of these points are hit in one terrific if unprepossessing 1968 work by Dutch artist Jan Dibbets. An image of grass receding into the distance fills the entire visual field of a big landscape photograph. The clipped grass of a park or yard belies remoteness, subsuming nature into cultural manipulation. The image is printed on linen, as if it were a painting.
The nearly 4-foot photograph also shows a rope square held in place by four pegs pounded into the lawn. The rope was actually a four-sided polygon in the grass, calibrated for the angle of camera-vision to appear to be square. The square photograph's physical edges follow the image, reinforcing the optical illusion.
As this visually available information slowly floods the eye and mind, perception begins to wobble. The earth becomes unstable. So does photographic truth, and so does art. Established boundaries don't fall away; they are clarified instead.
That clarity was Land art's primary accomplishment. It was also its source. By the early 1960s, avant-garde paintings had lost their frames, while sculptures gave up their pedestals. The traditional furniture that formed an established boundary identifying works of art disappeared. If a painting was neither window nor mirror but an object on the wall, and if sculpture stood on the floor just like you did, where were art's boundaries? No wonder it ventured forth into the landscape. The fence was down.
Therein lies one flaw in the show's ointment. The curators have included a few background works to set the Land art stage, but they're unconvincing.
Jean Tinguely, for example, did drag one of his exploding sculptures out into the Nevada desert at the behest of a 1962 television show. But not only is it little different from the sculpture he blew up at New York's Museum of Modern Art two years before, the motif of sculpture made for a specific landscape was as commonplace as a Henry Moore or Barbara Hepworth bronze.
But that's a small complaint. Since last summer, MOCA has been going through a rough patch in its exhibition program. "Ends of the Earth" is its most challenging and engaging show since then.
"Ends of the Earth: Land Art to 1974," Geffen Contemporary at MOCA, 152 N. Central Ave., Los Angeles, (213) 626-6222, through Sept. 3. http://www.moca.org