Fleeing the confines of studios, galleries, and museums, the Land Artists of the 1960s and ’70s turned the earth’s surface into their canvas. Suddenly, art could be dirt, stone, sand, and sky. It could vanish in the wind or permanently alter a landscape. It didn’t need to be bought or sold.
(Using the organic world as an artistic medium was nothing out of the ordinary to many non-Western cultures, of course—think of the geoglyphs in the Nazca desert, or “Nazca Lines,” in Peru—but within the context of Western art, it was groundbreaking.)
While the definition of Western art expanded in this era, the image of the artist narrowed. The Land Artist was seen as a rugged cowboy, colonizing the American West with bulldozers, guns, and cranes. The Land Artist was also quintessentially male. Yet, in practice, this was far from the case. Dozens of female creatives pioneered this movement alongside their male counterparts.
And financial support came from women, too. Earthworks were often expensive to make, and required patronage—which many Land Artists found in gallerist Virginia Dwan. Dwan funded Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (1970), Walter De Maria’s Lightning Field (1977), and Charles Ross’s Star Axis (1971–76), but she underwrote few projects by women. “Virginia Dwan was the head of a very exclusive boys’ club,” explained the feminist artist Judith Bernstein. “Few women were allowed to enter.”
Recent scholarship, as well as pivotal exhibitions at New York’s SculptureCenter and Brooklyn Museum, have helped to correct this bias, highlighting the women artists who were instrumental in the development of this art form. What follows is a rundown of 10 female Land Artists you should know—though there were many more.
Agnes Denes, Wheatfield - A Confrontation: Battery Park Landfill, Downtown Manhattan, 1982. © Agnes Denes, Courtesy of Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects, NY.
Pioneering conceptual artist Denes once recalled losing her sense of language as a child, after moving from Budapest to Sweden to the United States all before reaching the age of 16. “The creativity had to come out in some way,” she explained. “It blurted itself out in a visual form.”
After beginning her career as a painter, Denes turned to new modes of artmaking in the ’60s and created what are considered to be the first public artworks to engage with ecological concerns. Over her five-decade-long career (and counting), Denes has tackled a variety of subjects from mathematics to philosophy, though her primary dealer Leslie Tonkonow has cited this artistic range as a potential barrier to public recognition.
“It’s difficult to get your head around all the things she’s done,” Tonkonow has said. “I do honestly think that’s why she hasn’t been a household name.”
Denes is best known for her environmental intervention Wheatfield – A Confrontation (1982), in which the artist brought a vacant lot in lower Manhattan to life with two acres of golden wheat. Supported by the Public Art Fund, Denes began by cleaning the area, then covered the city streets in over 200 truckloads of topsoil, and finally installed an irrigation system to support the wheat’s growth cycle over a four-month period. By early fall, the artist harvested over one thousand pounds of grain, which then traveled to 28 cities worldwide in “The International Art Show for the End of World Hunger.”
Denes hoped that the earthwork, planted in Manhattan, would call “people’s attention to having to rethink their priorities.”
More recently, she was included in the 2017 documenta exhibition, where a curved pyramid with tiered steps of planted soil formed an organic monument that grows over time.
Nancy Holt, Sun Tunnels, 1976. Photo by Calvin Chu via Wikimedia Commons.
Holt began her artistic career creating photography, poetry, and video work, but quickly changed course after visiting the Las Vegas desert with her husband and fellow Land Artist Smithson in 1968. “We stepped off the plane into the vastness of the desert,” she said of the encounter. “I had an overwhelming experience of my inner landscape and the outer landscape being identical. It lasted for days. I couldn’t sleep.”
Remaining in the American West, Holt spearheaded a new strain of Land Art that emphasized the land over the art. In contrast to many of her peers, who sought to make their mark on the earth, Holt instead cultivated experiences that enabled viewers to see the landscape through a new lens.
Sun Tunnels (1974–76)—Holt’s best-known piece and a popular pilgrimage for art lovers—epitomizes this effort. Set in the Great Basin Desert of Utah, Sun Tunnels consists of four 18-foot-long tubes that perfectly frame the sunrise and sunset during the summer and winter solstice. The tops of each cylinder are perforated, so that during the daytime the constellations Draco, Perseus, Columba, and Capricorn can be seen projected inside.
When Holt had finally completed the work, she spent days in the desert, sleeping in her Volkswagen camper and photographing the changing effects of light through these unobtrusive concrete forms.
Pennsylvania-born sculptor Aycock began creating earthworks in the early ’70s, cutting through the landscape with complex wells, tunnels, and labyrinths. Many of her early pieces invited viewers to crawl and climb through dark, buried spaces—conjuring feelings of claustrophobia, fear, and exhilaration.
“About the time I was six or seven years old, I would be terrified of going to sleep at night for fear of falling into this void of blackness,” the artist said about the origins of these works. “This sense of the precariousness of myself in the world that I have had since I was very young has never gone away.”
With the help of her mother, Aycock built one of her seminal earthworks, Low Building with Dirt Roof (For Mary), on her family’s farm in 1973. Resembling a partially buried house, the structure rises just inches off the ground, hiding in the bucolic landscape under a planted roof that matches the crops of the surrounding fields. According to the artist, the piece is redolent of everything from a Greek tomb to a frontier home, a dream state to her grandparents’ attic.
To fully experience the work, viewers must lie down corpse-like in the small entrapment, bringing their bodies as close as possible to the earth’s surface. The piece was recreated at New York’s Storm King Art Center in 2010.
Lita Albuquerque, Southern Cross from Stellar Axis: Antarctica, Ross Ice Shelf, 2006. Photo by Jean de Pomereu.
For Albuquerque, humanity’s landing on the moon in 1969 marked a seismic shift in artistic perspective, which she compares to the discovery of one-point perspective during the Renaissance. Indeed, her works are often best viewed from above to better reveal their position in the cosmos. (In the ’70s and ’80s, Albuquerque became known for her ephemeral pigment drawings, which she installed everywhere from the Mojave Desert to Washington, D.C., to the Great Pyramids of Giza.)
Funded in part by the National Science Foundation, Albuquerque’s Stellar Axis: Antarctica (2006) epitomized this decades-long effort. The first artwork ever installed on Antarctica, Stellar Axis consisted of 99 fabricated blue spheres, which corresponded to the location of 99 stars above. The size of the spheres reflected the brightness of the stars. Over the course of the installation, the earth rotated and the alignment between the constellation of spheres and stars shifted, marking the passing of time and space.
“In realizing this work, my aim was to encourage the public to look up and out, not in and down,” Albuquerque explains, “to guide people from our everyday reality to the larger stellar movements and their energy.”
Though born in Brooklyn, Pepper has spent most of her career living and working in central Italy, an environment that has shaped much of her practice. “I want to get people out of buildings,” Pepper explains, “and into places where they can meet—an idea I got from all the outdoor cafes in Rome.” Pepper taught herself to weld by working in American factories in the ’60s, where she was often the only woman. (The artist joked about having to use the men’s restroom, as the factories were not equipped for female employees.)
While Pepper is best known for her curving, Corten steel sculptures, her impressive output of land art is often overlooked. Throughout the ’70s, Pepper experimented with what she called “Earthbound Sculptures,” creating colossal structures that rose out of the earth’s surface. Turning public spaces into dynamic meeting places, Pepper also designed a series of “earthbound” amphitheaters, such as her Amphisculpture (1974–75) at the AT&T Network Operations Center in New Jersey and Cromlech Glen (1985) at Laumeier Sculpture Park in Missouri.
Most recently, Pepper cut into the ground of Broadway producers Barry and Fran Weissler’s Westchester home, creating a grass and granite amphitheater that blends into their backyard landscape.
Mary Miss, South Cove, 1984. Courtesy of City as Living Laboratory.
While Holt installed earthworks in remote locations, often miles from any town or sign of human activity, her contemporary Miss placed her land pieces in highly trafficked public spaces, such as the Union Square subway station and Beijing’s Olympic Park. Miss often highlights transitional points in the landscape—where land meets water or valleys turn into mountains—and transforms them into areas for exploration and meditation.
Situated at the Southern tip of Manhattan, her South Cove (1984–87) combines pillars, benches, walkways, bridges, and blue lights into a permanent installation that draws New Yorkers towards the river and offers a quiet space amid the hectic city. “This whole ground is alive,” Holt said of the complex structure, which she produced in collaboration with the architect Stan Eckstut and the landscape architect Susan Child.
Today, Miss continues to lure urbanites to nature through her organization “City as Living Laboratory,” which raises awareness about environmental sustainability through artistic collaborations in public spaces.
Cuban-born Mendieta moved to the United States in 1961 at the age of 12, staying in refugee camps with her sister before relocating to Iowa. Mendieta’s father remained in Cuba as a political prisoner, and years of separation left the artist craving a deeper connection with the world around her.
This childhood trauma permeates her “Silueta (Silhouette)” series, produced between 1973 and 1980, in which the artist physically embedded her body into the landscape. For these “earth body” works, Mendieta would cover herself with blood, fire, flowers, and feathers, and push herself into the ground until she left her mark. Her flesh touched beaches, archaeological sites, and Mexican alcoves, among other locations, in radical gestures that combined shamanistic rituals, performance art, and the natural world.
Mendieta’s creative output is often overshadowed by her tragic death. On September 8, 1985, Mendieta fell from the 34th-floor window of her Greenwich Village apartment at the age of 35. Her husband, the Minimalist sculptor Carl Andre, was accused of murder and later acquitted of the charges. In recent years, the activist group WHEREISANAMENDIETA has emerged, protesting exhibitions that feature Andre’s works and raising awareness of domestic abuse.
While she was still a senior at Yale University, Lin won a competition to design the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C. The commission launched the 21-year-old into art-world stardom, and cast her as an heir of the great Land Artists of the prior generation. The Memorial (or “anti-monument,” as Lin calls it) surely bears elements of earthworks, cutting into the surrounding landscape with a simple, V-shaped granite wall.
Lin installed her largest land piece, Storm King Wavefield, in 2008, covering over 11 acres of Storm King Art Center with seven rows of undulating hills. The swells in the earth, which range in height from 12 to 18 feet, feel insurmountable from afar. But once immersed in the field, the hills become surprisingly approachable, covered in blanket of daisies, short grasses, butterflies, and bees.
“I am interested in perception—psychological perception—in creating an experiential psychological space for viewers,” Lin explains. In this effort, she has identified the female practitioners of Land Art as most inspiring to her practice, favoring Holt’s viewer-centric Sun Tunnels over Smithson’s more imposing Spiral Jetty.
“How better to know a place than to know the earth of a place?” asked Stuart, whose deep love of deserts, seas, and mountains has roots in her California upbringing. After studying at the Chouinard Art Institute, now CalArts, Stuart worked as a topological draftsman for the United States Army Corps of Engineers before moving to Mexico to pursue her interests in Pre-Columbian culture.
In the early ’50s, she assisted the famed Mexican Muralist Diego Rivera, but soon found that she was not “angry” enough to be a political artist. So Stuart decided to return to the earth, and pioneered a new form of Land Art that brought the ground into the gallery.
Stuart’s most celebrated earthworks are her large-scale paper scrolls, for which the artist meticulously rubbed paper and muslin into the earth’s surface, leaving a residue on the material. Stuart considers these pieces to be drawings, gaining their color and texture directly from the soil. In a monumental gesture, she once unfurled a 460-foot-long scroll down a mountainside in northern New York, marking an escarpment where Niagara Falls had flowed approximately 12,000 years earlier.
While Stuart traveled as far as Nepal and New Zealand to record diverse terrains, she discovered that some of the richest soil exists much closer to home—in Sayreville, New Jersey. Stuart heard about the remarkable red clay there from Smithson, and memorialized the soil in four large panels, titled Sayreville Strata Quartet (1976), now housed at Dia: Beacon.
In 1981, Mendieta curated an exhibition “Third World Women Artists of the United States” at A.I.R. Gallery, which advocated for intersectionality and inclusion in the feminist movement, and selected three cast concrete sculptures by African-American artist Buchanan for the show.
Like Mendieta, Buchanan championed artmaking that was both political and personal, spanning a variety of media from sculpture to video, photography to land art. After working for a decade as a public health educator, Buchanan found mentorship from painters Norman Lewis and Romare Bearden in the ’70s and changed course, dedicating herself to artmaking that addressed the character and history of the American South.
Buchanan set her earthwork Marsh Ruins (1981) in Georgia’s Marshes of Glynn, just miles away from St. Simons Island, where a group of slaves committed suicide in 1803. There, she planted three concrete forms and covered them in a layer of tabby—a mixture of sand, water, and lime that was used in the construction of plantations and slave living quarters. Marsh Ruins gradually cracked and sunk into the mud, an erosion process that Buchanan captured in video.
Whether the ephemeral monuments evoked a cleansing of the land from its past atrocities or signaled the earth’s inability to heal is open to interpretation.
A previous version of this article contained errors regarding information about Ana Mendieta’s work. The artist continued her “Silueta” series until 1980, not 1978; worked in alcoves, not caves; and she did not apply wood to her body.