Rock of Ages

Art | Oct 2015 | BY Degen Pener

In the late 1960s, a group of artists became so disillusioned with the commercialization of the New York gallery scene that they struck out for desolate parts of the American Southwest. Iconoclastic pioneers of the Land Art movement, they created works so monumental, that they would never fit in a gallery; so immovable that they couldn’t be delivered to the home of a collector.
Perhaps the most renowned works, both in the collections of the Dia Art Foundation, are Walter De Maria’s Lightning Field—a near-square-mile grid of 400 steel poles in the high New Mexico desert—and Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, a 1,500-foot-long tentacle of basalt rock, salt crystals and mud jutting into pink salt waters on the north side of the Great Salt Lake in Utah. “It was something infernal… otherworldly,” says gallerist Virginia Dwan, who helped finance Spiral Jetty, in the illuminating new documentary titled Troublemakers, due out later this year. “I hesitate to say hell. I don’t mean everybody being tortured. But the feeling of aloneness and it being in a place that was unsafe.”

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Robert Smithson and Nancy Holt at the site of Spiral Jetty on Utah’s Great Salt Lake in 1970, from Troublemakers. Photo© Gianfranco Gorgoni.

But as the movie reveals with breathtaking new aerial footage, a third earthwork, Michael Heizer’s Double Negative, deserves equal prominence. Seen from a helicopter’s POV, the quarter-mile-long piece looks like it could be a sort of minimalist Mayan ruin—if its creators had been interested in exploring the idea of negative space. In 1969 and 1970, Heizer (whose 340-ton solid boulder piece, Levitated Mass, found a home at Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) in 2012) used dynamite and a bulldozer to excavate some 240,000 tons of rock in the southeast Nevadan desert, leaving two trenches, 30 feet wide and 50 feet deep, on opposite sides of a natural canyon. “Double Negative is really a scar of a kind, an intrusion of nature, an assault of some sort,” says Heizer in the documentary. “It’s as though a surgeon took an exploratory cut of a mesa to show its innards.” Dwan, who purchased the land for the piece to be made, donated Double Negative to L.A.’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in 1984.

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Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, 1970, from Troublemakers. Photograph © David Maisel and Holt Smithson Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York.

James Crump, the film’s director, says he was drawn both to these awe-inspiring works, but also to the obsessive artists behind them—individuals who wanted to carve out their own existential relationship with planet earth. “They were really trying to transcend the parameters for making art and were willing to take these incredible risks,” says Crump, former chief curator of the Cincinnati Art Museum, whose previous film, 2007’s Black White + Gray, focused on the relationship between Robert Mapplethorpe and curator/collector Sam Wagstaff. He brings his subjects to life with photos and remastered footage, much of it never widely seen, and interviews with such contemporaries as Dwan and artist Carl Andre. Adds Ronnie Sassoon, the film’s executive producer and a long-time art collector who is also Crump’s life partner: “They were idealistic. They were also dogmatic. They were doing it according to their own imagination and belief system in what they saw as an authentic environment.”

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Michael Heizer’s Circular Surface, Planar Displacement Drawing at El Mirage Dry Lake, California, 1969. Photo © Gianfranco Gorgoni.

Smithson—who derides many people’s “Disneyland idea of nature” in the film—died in 1973 in a plane crash while scouting for a new work near Amarillo, Texas, and De Maria died after a stroke in 2013. And Land Art has not become a widely embraced school of work since, not just because of the major financial backing that’s needed (Dwan, an heiress to the 3M company fortune, supported many of the projects), but also because, as Sassoon asks, “Who in the commodified art world of today would actually leave a career in New York as an artist to go out and live in isolation?”
Some of the original artists are still doing just that. Heizer, now in his early seventies, remains at work in the Nevadan desert, laboring to complete an immense monument that The New York Times recently called a “a kind of modern Chichen Itza.” He has been working on it for more than 40 years, and in July, President Obama announced the creation of the Basin and Range National Monument in Nevada, giving protection to more than 700,000 acres in the state—including where Heizer is at work. James Turell continues on his Roden Crater project, transforming a massive crater in Arizona into a celestial observatory, while Charles Ross is in his fourth decade of working on his own observatory, Star Axis, near Santa Fe, New Mexico. In the film, Heizer sums up well the movement’s ambitions, which are nearing a culmination: “It is interesting to build a sculpture that attempts to create an atmosphere of awe—a state of mind equivalent to religious experience.”

Troublemakers is an Official Selection of the New York Film Festival, and premiered October 1 at the Walter Reade Theatre at Lincoln Center.

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