Earth art, that consummately American movement that sprang up during the high–Vietnam War era, combined a steely-eyed commitment to the truth of materials and to the power of basic geometric forms with a desire to get off the grid or at the very least "expand the field" of sculpture. Sometimes called environmental or Land art, or Earthworks, depending on its practitioner, it demanded of its actual, physical viewers—"fit, though few," as John Milton might have said—a pilgrim's willingness to go on the road to remote places in order to see the works and experience the landscapes that they reframed and illuminated. Predictably, the vast majority of viewers got to know Earth art in the way they did most "important" art: not in person but in a documented or reproduced form—photographs, films, critical writing.
In the nearly four decades since Robert Smithson rented a dump truck and a tractor (with "rippers"), sought out the help of several bemused local construction workers, and built a fifteen-hundred-foot-long, fifteen-foot-wide spiral out of mud, salt, rocks, and water on a remote point at the north end of the Great Salt Lake in Utah, ideas of "experience," remoteness, and the grid have inexorably changed: Today, you can find Spiral Jetty on Google Maps (and see evidence of the oil seeps that surround it), and it is a breeze to watch highlights of the once-difficult-to-obtain film of the Jetty—which Smithson envisioned exhibiting in a Utah cave—on YouTube, from wherever you may be. But questions of travel, exploration, and presence register in Spiral Jetty as powerfully as those of entropy and desuetude, and it is at least in part the "road trip" dimension of Smithson's project that still attracts visitors to the recumbent coil. (This is especially the case since, thanks in part to global warming, the salt-encrusted Jetty reemerged from its watery grave in 2002.) Here's Smithson, in his "Spiral Jetty" essay, sounding like Joseph Conrad's Marlow on hallucinogens: "As we traveled, the valley spread into an uncanny immensity. . . . Slowly, we drew near to the lake, which resembled an impassive faint violet sheet held captive in a stony matrix, upon which the sun poured down its crushing light." What visitor to Spiral Jetty doesn't want to follow (literally) in Smithson's footsteps?
Robert Smithson, Spiral Jetty, 1970, Great Salt Lake, Utah.
Enter self-described "recovering art historian" Erin Hogan, whose book Spiral Jetta records her retrospective responses to a highway journey in her Volkswagen, in which, over the course of about three weeks, she visited Spiral Jetty, Michael Heizer's Double Negative, Walter De Maria's Lightning Field, and Donald Judd's various Marfa projects—as she notes, Dia, the arts organization that maintains most of these sites, "could almost be considered the architect of my trip." She also tried (and failed) to find Nancy Holt's Sun Tunnels, tried (and failed) to find James Turrell's still-in-progress Roden Crater, and spent a day in Moab, Utah, and a few hours in the border town of Juárez, Mexico. "The dry bed of the Great Salt Lake," she writes, "stretches out in front of you, then turns hazily into water and melts into the horizon, where it collides with the vast sky. The mountains surround you, the light and heat envelop you. . . . All the elements of the landscape were so distinct, like Ellsworth Kelly's planes of color, that they took on an unlimited sense. Sky meets water meets salt meets land meets mountain." Hogan's prose, while evocative, doesn't approach Smithson's "stony matrix" or "violet sheet," to say nothing of the "immobile cyclone [whose] flickering light made the entire landscape appear to quake." Breezy and descriptive, her writing is part art-theory lite, part practical guide à la Tripadvisor.com. As above, she tends to domesticate Earth artists' ambitions by comparing their works to paintings. Looking for a "maximally aesthetic experience" on her trip, Hogan downplays the manifestly anti-aesthetic dimension of most of the art under her purview, only occasionally pausing to reflect on the absolutely necessary question "Is earth art a fraud?" before deciding that, thanks to some sublime moments that the viewing of it provides, it mostly isn't.
Nancy Holt, Sun Tunnels, 1973–76,
Photo by Christopher F. Benson
Hogan, who lives in Chicago, pitches her travelogue as a desire to confront her inability to be alone, noting, with refreshing if slightly embarrassing honesty, that "the most significant period of isolation I'd ever endured was one Christmas break in college when I screwed up my flight home and wound up staying in an empty dorm for two days. By the end of that time I was climbing the walls, convinced I was having a nervous breakdown." On her road trip, she constantly has to tamp down her incipient anxiety: She fears car breakdowns, motel-room break-ins, and the perceived potential violence of not-always-friendly locals. After a night spent drinking in a bar called the Saddle Sore somewhere in the general vicinity of Sun Tunnels, she strikes the requisite early-Joycean epiphanic note: "I saw myself for what I was, a tiny drunk thing who didn't know where she was going, sitting in a dive bar filled with oversolicitous and, at moments, hostile men."
But about halfway into her trip, Hogan picks up a male friend at the Albuquerque airport, and the self-conscious personal-exploration dimension of the story mostly falls away. What replaces it is a peculiar kind of anthropology—Juárez is described as hot, crowded, filthy, desperately poor, and "bloody"—and straightforward art criticism. (Incidentally, Hogan is absolutely right that the capacious Ilya Kabakov and John Chamberlain installations at Marfa are woefully out of place.) Along the way, she offers compelling descriptions of the landscape of the American West, of the pilgrimage's contradictions—she is sharp when noting what expensive-eyeglass-wearing visitors to Sun Tunnels or Lightning Field must look like to the hardscrabble locals—and of getting lost (which seems an inevitable part of visiting Earth art). But there is little rigorous treatment of the movement's historicity, its politics, its sometimes preposterously macho rhetoric; and despite the Sebaldesque placement of photographs amid text, there is little sustained exploration of the boredom and melancholia attendant upon travel, or of the eerie feelings of belatedness and disappointment it provokes, or of the enigmas of arrival that make a travel narrative memorable.
Thanks in part to the deterritorialization engendered by Earth art, it is probably no longer possible or desirable (if it ever was) to follow Theodor Adorno's prescription in "Valéry Proust Museum" to pick out two or three paintings in a gallery or museum and "[concentrate] on them as fixedly as if they really were idols." And yet, Earth art bears a necessarily ambivalent relation to the twilight of art-as-idol it helped engender. By making art a destination, and by embedding transport in the process of viewing, it clings tenaciously to what it would jettison.
Nico Israel teaches literature at Hunter College. He is at work on a book about spirals in twentieth-century literature, art, and critical theory.