The Photographer Who Went to Extreme Measures to Capture America’s Greatest Land Art

Alina Cohen
May 30, 2018 9:07PM

Photographer Gianfranco Gorgoni worked as a kind of roadie, stuntman, and documentarian rolled into one. Throughout the early 1970s, he met the American stars of the Land Art movement, followed them out West, and captured their projects for posterity. The process often required physical courage as well as technical ability. The resulting photographs are more than simply records of other people’s art; they’re also skillful pictures of peculiar and vast landscapes.

The adventurous Italian photographer traveled to the United States by boat in 1968, promising a photo essay about the trip as payment for his journey. He soon integrated himself into the country’s major cultural movements. He visited hippie communes across the country, photographed Woodstock, and settled in New York City. There Gorgoni infiltrated the art world by frequenting Max’s Kansas City, a magnet for the day’s prominent painters and sculptors, where he became familiar with Richard Serra, Carl Andre, and Robert Smithson.  

Gorgoni, born in 1941, always aimed to capture more than artists and artworks; he wanted to celebrate an entire milieu. Famed gallerist Leo Castelli helped fund the photographer’s travels to document the day’s major artistic talents. Gorgoni’s first shoot of the series captured the major Minimalist artist, Robert Morris, installing an exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art on April 1, 1970.


These images were collected in a book, The New Avant-Garde: Issues for the Art of the Seventies (1972), which features snapshots of work by Robert Smithson, Richard Serra, Bruce Nauman, Michael Heizer, Walter de Maria, and Carl Andre, in addition to that of two Europeans: Joseph Beuys and Mario Merz. The volume offers a very particular story about the era that followed Pop art, focusing on white male artists, many of whom socialized together and worked out of Los Angeles and New York. Nevertheless, the grouping offers a valuable glimpse into some of the key figures who pushed Minimalism, Land Art, and Conceptual Art forward (although the first two movements in particular skewed male, plenty of women also participated).

Gorgoni recalls a night when he was with Serra, Andre, and Smithson, and Smithson invited him over to his place for a small party (shortly before Castelli agreed to help finance the book). “He was living on Greenwich Street downtown near the meat market,” he told Artsy. “For the first time I saw some of his work with the sand, broken glass. Everything was so new. He said that he was preparing his big piece in Utah.” Excited about the project, Gorgoni offered to travel out west and photograph it on Earth Day, April 22, 1970. Serra and his partner at the time, Joan Jonas, joined.

The work in question was Spiral Jetty (1970), Smithson’s 1,500 foot long coil of black basalt rocks and earth at the Rozel Point peninsula on the Great Salt Lake. From a helicopter that Smithson commissioned, Gorgoni shot in color and black-and-white, capturing the massive work from various angles.

In certain frames he also included a human for scale. In one print, for example, a man stands at the base of Smithson’s work, where the spiral meets the rest of the land. The photograph highlights the landscape’s imposing dominance. Gorgoni reveals that the figure is Smithson himself. The photographer was always alert to the artist’s movements as he checked the small details of the massive piece. These images are about more than a monumental natural sculpture: they document the relationship between a man and his massive creation.  

Sometimes, Gorgoni was merely in the right place at the right time. After shooting Spiral Jetty, Gorgoni traveled to see Bruce Nauman in Pasadena, near Los Angeles. On the way back, he stopped by a bar on Sunset Boulevard where West Coast artists congregated (he can’t remember which one). He heard someone calling his name: it was Walter de Maria. The pair had a drink with Michael Heizer, who was also there.

Both artists were preparing to create, or had already created, their own desert artworks, and Gorgoni followed. He captured Heizer’s earthbound “drawings,” for which the artist rode a motorcycle in circles on the desert sand, leaving geometrically precise tracks. For a separate project (executed in 1968), de Maria had drawn parallel, mile-long chalk lines across the Mojave Desert, spotted best by airplane and quickly washed and blown away by natural elements. “This work doesn’t exist anymore. It exists only in my photographs,” says Gorgoni.

Gorgoni didn’t always see eye to eye with the Land Artists whose work he captured. De Maria wanted to own any negatives of pictures of his Lightning Field (1977), controlling how and where they were published. Gorgoni wanted to maintain the rights himself, and lost the opportunity to photograph the piece. Nevertheless, he remains the most prominent documenter of the movement. “The photographs are critical,” says William Fox, Director of the Nevada Museum of Art’s Center for Art + Environment. “Most people will not see these projects in person, or they’re projects which have disappeared.”  

Ugo Rondinone, Seven Magic Mountains, Las Vegas, Nevada, 2016. Photo by Gianfranco Gorgoni. Courtesy of Art Production Fund and Nevada Museum of Art.

Nearly fifty years after most of them were made, the major land artworks still resonate through Gorgoni’s photographs. “Land art is one of those key movements that feeds into our understanding of human creative interactions with natural environments,” says Fox. “Gianfranco had been in the thick of that in the early days.” He describes the photography itself as “terrific,” suggesting that it even verges on the experimental; Gorgoni stitched together multiple photographs of the same artworks to create panoramic views. He was also willing to dangle from scaffolds and over large holes in the earth; he once got stuck for hours when he suspended himself in a harness at Heizer’s Double Negative (1969), which consists of two massive cuts in the Nevada desert.

Next spring, the Nevada Museum of Art will mount an exhibition of Gorgoni’s photographs. The institution initially met the photographer when he documented artist Ugo Rondinone’s Seven Magic Mountains, sculptures composed of stacked, brightly painted rocks, sited just south of Las Vegas. The Museum, as well as New York’s Art Production Fund, produced the work, which could be seen as a contemporary update on the Land Art tradition.

Indeed, Gorgoni’s photographs are often the next best thing to actually trekking out West. “Even if you don’t or can’t go stand inside Double Negative, you still get an idea, and it still gives you a feeling of: Wow, that’s enormous,” says Fox. “How did an artist think to do that? How did they do these projects? How did they make them? They’re excellent provocations.”

Gorgoni’s photograph of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s Ocean Front, Newport, Rhode Island, 1974, for example, appears to have more in common with an abstract painting than with the forms it actually documents: 150,000 square feet of fabric, covering the waterfront. The picture offers no hint as to how the artists actually created the work, deepening a sense of mystery. Gorgoni’s images still lead us to consider our relationship with the environment, years after many of the Land artists—and some of their artworks—have disappeared back into the earth.

Alina Cohen

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that an exhibition of Gorgoni’s work would be mounted at the Nevada Museum of Art this spring. The show is slated for the spring of 2019.

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