Art Movements Throughout History: Earth Art

A piece of Earth Art designed by famous artist Robert Smithson.

Earth art is an American art movement that uses natural landscapes to depict sculptures, art forms, and structures that are site specific. Also referred to as Earthworks or Land Art, the art form evolved from Minimalism to Conceptualism. These two forms of art inspired an environmental movement which made people see art as a commodity. Artists enjoyed the simplicity of everyday materials and sought to perform and implore creativity in diversified environments.

History of Earth Art

Earth art emerged as a result of rampant experimentation in the arts from the late 1960s to 1970s. Artists integrated more than one form of art from the different existing movements making their final pieces hard to distinguish from works of previous eras. Earth art was very similar to Minimalism. The form simplicity and the occupation of space by objects were two characteristics of both eras.

For Earth art, the process was more process oriented and dramatic than Minimalism. It is said that Earth art is related to Post-Minimalism which integrates performance art, process art, and installation art. Earth art was also displayed outside unlike Minimalist pieces, which eventually damaged their beauty due to the elements of nature. The art was similar to Conceptualism in terms of aesthetic appeal but different from the art sine it was opposed to commoditization of art and focused more on transition.

The earliest artists of Earth art were former veterans of the Second World War who had been educated through the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act. These veterans later became painters. An example is Smithson who was a consultant for an engineering firm in New York City. He was inspired to draw a plan for Fort Worth Airport in Dallas which he called ‘Aerial Art’. Its style later inspired Earth Art.

Exhibitions and Global Ambitions

The first Earth art exhibition in America was held in Cornell University’s Art Museum in 1969. The pieces were displayed in both the museum and on the university’s grounds. The art exhibition also featured works of relevant international artists like Britain’s Richard Long and Hans Haacke of Germany. The art was further adopted by more artists in the 1970’s.

Concepts and Style

Earth art pieces were either suited for indoor exhibitions or outdoor display. They bridged the gap between humans and the environment and made use of locally available materials. Artists were inspired by ancient and pre-historic monuments of extensive scale and physical size. Their works integrated decay and degradation particularly in outdoor pieces. The pieces were also differentiated depending on their impact on the landscapes.

Later Developments

In the 1970s, there was a recession which caused Earth artists to suffer a major setback since they depended on investors to buy extensive land for them to work on. The death of Robert Smithson in 1973 also caused the movement to take a turn. Established Earth artists continued to produce pieces that were suitable for indoor displays and galleries. Together with their Conceptualism counterparts, Earth artists began focusing more on installation oriented pieces and less on discrete objects. They also adopted concepts of Post-Minimalism while still maintaining ephemerality.


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