Art Market

The Market for Land Art Challenges Us to Think About Collecting Differently

Scott Indrisek
Jun 20, 2019 3:28PM

Phillip K. Smith III, 1/4 Mile Arc , 2016. Photograph by Lance Gerber Studio. Courtesy of Phillip K Smith III Studio.

One intriguing narrative of contemporary art has always been the tension between radical artists and a market that has tried (and often failed, at first) to monetize their boundary-pushing activities. The logistics of collecting paintings, sculptures, and other static objects are fairly straightforward, but how does one “collect” performance art, or a set of conceptual instructions, or a piece of virtual reality?

In this regard, the epic ambitions of land artists present another set of curious considerations and quandaries. When artists like Robert Smithson, Michael Heizer, or Nancy Holt were making their site-specific outdoor interventions in the late 1960s and ’70s, they certainly weren’t doing so with an eye to the art market. Spiral Jetty (1970), Smithson’s 1,500-foot-long rock formation in the Great Salt Lake of Utah, was surely never intended to end up as part of a hedge-fund investor’s holdings. Iconic provocations like this, or like Heizer’s earth-gouging experiment Double Negative of 1969, were incompatible with traditional models of art acquisition.

Gianfranco Gorgoni
Spiral Jetty (1), 2013
Jim Kempner Fine Art

And yet Double Negative is now in the “collection” of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, and Spiral Jetty is likewise “owned” by the Dia Art Foundation. What, exactly, does this mean? In conversations with artists, gallerists, and institutional professionals, one thing becomes clear: Land art can’t actually be owned by anyone in the conventional sense. This paradox was a focus of “Collecting the ‘Uncollectible’: Earth and Site-Specific Sculpture,” a recent symposium at The Frick Collection in New York.

As Alexis Lowry, a curator at Dia and a participant in the symposium, told Artsy, the so-called ownership of land art is more about “stewardship,” a “question of responsibility to these objects or installations.” But that doesn’t mean that institutions (and certain well-heeled private individuals) are unable to support—and in some rare cases, own—these hard-to-categorize creations.

Don’t “just buy things”

Some land artists may have evinced disdain for the traditional art market, but their massive outdoor sculptural efforts still require one boring, workaday thing: money, and plenty of it. Well-connected talents of the 1960s and ’70s were supported by forward-thinking patrons like Virginia Dwan, Robert Scull, and the Dia Art Foundation itself (which commissioned Walter De Maria’s Lightning Field, 1977, still one of the genre’s most famous works).

De Maria, Smithson, and Heizer, Lowry said, were “seeking support from patrons who had been collectors or gallery owners, or had a more traditional relationship with art, but who were compelled by the kind of projects these artists were proposing.” It was, arguably, an audacious leap to go from acquiring a sculpture for one’s living room to footing the bill for a massive incision in the remote terrain of Nevada. Land artists “were asking for money to go make projects [for which the patron’s] only records were going to be the personal experiences of going to visit them—and maybe some photographs,” Lowry continued. “There was no exchange of an object, in that sense.”

Nancy Holt, Sun Tunnels, 1973-1976. Photo by Retis via Flickr.

During art historian Suzaan Boettger’s moving keynote presentation at the Frick symposium, she discussed the pivotal role of Robert Scull in making this type of new work possible. “It was Scull who made an acute distinction,” she said, before quoting the man himself: “The minute a collector says to an artist, ‘I see you’re struggling, here is some money. Don’t give me anything now’—now you’re dealing in terms of involving yourself in the creative life of a human being who has got something that you find very significant, or some poetry that makes you shell out money and say, ‘Here, do it.’ Then you become a patron, and that’s a whole other trip.” Boettger connected these seemingly unique funding models to ones that were very common hundreds of years earlier. “Like Rembrandt,” she said, “these modern recipients of patronage had a closer relationship than they would to collectors, who just buy things.”

While collectors’ roles with land art can seem basically philanthropic, their support do have one obvious upside: an ego boost; a chance to feel like a vital part of an unfolding new history. To illustrate this point, Boettger showed a 1972 New Yorker cartoon by Warren Miller. A businessman holds court in a restaurant booth, trying to impress a pretty (and much younger) woman. The caption reads: “How’s about you and me flying out to Utah and taking a gander at some of the earthworks I’ve financed?”

Can’t buy the land? Snag the photograph.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude
Lago d'Iseo - WV08, 2016
Galerie Ostendorff

Every land artist, past or present, has a different philosophy when it comes to how their work is presented, and whether or not salable objects might arise from such projects. Some, like Christo and his late partner Jean-Claude, have supported their installations via the sale of drawings, collages, and other studies (which, in their case, are sold by blue-chip gallery Pace). Andy Goldsworthy, known for making spirited interventions in nature, often documents these activities in the form of editioned photographs or videos, offered by New York’s Galerie Lelong. Michelle Stuart, also on that gallery’s roster, has been working in the outdoor landscape for decades. Her practice includes salable works, from photographs to rubbings and drawings made using dirt and earth from site-specific projects.

Michelle Stuart
These Fragments Against Time, 2018
Galerie Lelong & Co.

Phillip K. Smith III, an artist based in Palm Desert, California, has often undertaken major pieces—like the immersive installation The Circle of Land and Sky (2017), made for the Desert X biennial—which can lead to scaled-down works for collectors based on similar themes. For a 2013 project, Lucid Stead, he converted a shack on his own desert property into a sort of reflective mirage, with mirrored slats on its façade; later, he repurposed materials from the project to create wall-mounted sculptures that could be acquired by private collectors.

Occasionally, land art generates discrete works that can, feasibly, live indoors. At the Frick symposium, Boettger mentioned Smithson’s “non-site” sculptures—geometric arrangements of local rocks, with accompanying photographic documentation—as well as Robert Morris’s 1968 work Untitled (Dirt), an unwieldy sculpture of natural materials first presented that year by Virginia Dwan. “It was not collected at the time,” she noted, “more like swept up.” It’s now part of Dia’s permanent holdings.

Phillip K. Smith III, The Circle of Land and Sky, 2017, Desert X, Palm Desert, CA. Photograph by Lance Gerber Studio. Courtesy of Phillip K Smith III Studio.

More recently, crowdfunding has provided new models of support and reward for artists and would-be patrons, including those without the deep pockets of a Scull or Dwan. When Ugo Rondinone and his commissioning partners, Art Production Fund and the Nevada Museum of Art, sought to build his Seven Magic Mountains—a brightly colored installation of stacked and painted rocks outside of Las Vegas—they turned to Kickstarter to supplement institutional funding. Donations of $250 garnered an 8-by-10-inch commemorative print of the work, made by acclaimed land art documentarian Gianfranco Gorgoni; patrons providing $10,000 or more received a private tour of the installation, as well as a small sculptural edition, among other perks.

Ugo Rondinone, Seven Magic Mountains , 2017. Photo by Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images.

Patton Hindle, senior director of arts for Kickstarter, nods to a similar crowdfunding structure used by Trevor Paglen for his Orbital Reflector launch last year. “Giving a sense [of] ‘ownership’ to the community is something that instills a lifetime of support for these land art works and a worthwhile framework for the long-term care and investment culturally for these projects,” she said. In some ways, Kickstarter, Indiegogo, Patreon, and other funding models are expanding and democratizing the sort of patronage arrangements that, in earlier generations, might have been hashed out at gallery dinners or cocktail parties.

Get comfortable with impermanence

Of course, there are some mortals who do have the funds—and the acreage—to acquire their own land art. Mary Sabbatino, vice president and partner at Galerie Lelong, described a few “very special collectors”—who must remain nameless—who have commissioned site-specific works by Andy Goldsworthy on their properties.

Perhaps such a collector had seen Goldsworthy’s winding Storm King Wall (1997–98) at the titular sculpture park, and dreamed of a similar structure that might snake its way around their own home. In such cases, Sabbatino said, the process is prolonged, and requires true dedication on the part of the patron.

“They really become quite devoted and supportive of Andy,” she said, “going way beyond the ‘collector-artist’ relationship” and becoming “almost familial.” Such rare collectors are “visionaries and risk-takers,” Sabbatino said. “You have Andy, his team, and us with you, for a long time. This has a big impact on your life.” Such patrons need to be ready to have their routines disrupted. “The process is more like heavy construction than it is a kind of delicate artmaking,” she added.

Land art, more so than most other disciplines, is typically situated beyond the “art world”—in the real world. Many of the professionals I spoke to noted with pleasure that this often means going beyond one’s comfort zone or area of expertise. Alexis Lowry of Dia is grateful that her role has “opened my eyes to lots of fields outside of strictly museum practice.”

Andy Goldsworthy, Walking Wall, 2019. Courtesy of Galerie Lelong.

Smithson and his peers, Lowry said, had to juggle things with which most studio artists would never be confronted. “Figuring out how to get a backhoe somewhere,” she said, “finding people to help physically build [the work]. Purchasing and leasing land, figuring out what the legalities were; sometimes the legalities were: ‘Don’t talk about it, we don’t really know the answer!’ To build these objects was always an exercise in working in fields well outside of the visual arts. To maintain them, to steward them now, continues to be that.”

Sabbatino concurred, noting that supporting land artists like Goldsworthy will always present idiosyncratic hurdles that require a certain curiosity, energy, and patience to overcome. “The process of commissioning, which is somewhat open-ended, always has challenges, always has problems to solve,” she said. “Physical problems; drainage and weather problems. Decay problems. Animal problems! There’s always a problem that you have to solve along the way, and the collectors are part of that. Once you do that, you see that there’s a great reward: something comes into being that would never have been there [otherwise].”

And, Sabbatino said, there’s another issue for collectors to wrap their heads around when it comes to certain land artists, and Goldsworthy in particular: “the idea of dissolution.” More so than an oil painting or a steel sculpture, a piece of land art might change in unpredictable ways—and that’s the point. “Dissolution is a real challenge,” Sabbatino says. “We have sold some works that [are inherently prone to dissolution], but even the special collectors often get nervous when the work actually does disappear and morphs into something else.” She compares it to “the abstract idea of embracing decay or death, as a fact of life—and then actually facing it.”

Rethink what collecting means

James Turrell
Roden Crater (blue sky), 2010

As Lowry from Dia put it, land artists were rethinking what engagement with art means. Their often-remote installations required fortitude and determination to reach. “The travel shouldn’t be discounted,” she said. “You have to go through the experience of getting to the work.” And as Boettger put it during the Frick symposium, land artists and their “impossible art” brought about “a new set of collecting experience, which was the collecting of experience.”

What does that mean for you, dear reader, who might not have a country estate upon which to build a Goldsworthy wall, or the money for a Christo sketch? Perhaps ponder ownership itself as a category error. The monuments of land art are “out there to be experienced, to be found in a way that invites an experience that is both deeply personal and communal,” Lowry said. “You become part of a larger community of people who have traveled to these sites, to seek these kind of awe-inspiring, sometimes sublime experiences with the intersection of the natural and the built world.”

Boettger concluded her keynote speech at the Frick symposium by playfully reconsidering the word ‘collecting’ itself. She showed snapshots of herself at James Turrell’s 1996 land artwork Celestial Vault in the Netherlands. She spoke of “experientially owning” such a piece, something so grand that it can only belong to everyone, or no one. Her time with Turrell’s installation is now “re-collected, recollected in memory, and on iCloud,” she said. “The Celestial Vault, and most other magisterial works of land art, wait for you.”

Scott Indrisek