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Looking at, and overlooking, women working in Land Art in the 1970s


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Suzaan Boettger has written about the intersection between feminism and Land Art. The essay was originally published in 2008, and seems increasingly relevant today. An excerpt below, the full piece via WEAD.

In New York in the 1970s, widespread desire for anti-traditional forms of behavior and art, surging feminist solidarity, and nascent environmentalism moved innovative women sculptors who worked in nature into a new presence in the art world. Not since Henry James’s 1903 sneer about a “strange sisterhood” of expatriate American “lady sculptors” who “settled upon the seven hills in a white, marmorean flock” had women sculptors received such unifying attention. In the decade between the tumultuous ’60s and the flush ’80s, Cecile Abish, Alice Adams, Alice Aycock, Agnes Denes, Harriet Feigenbaum, Suzanne Harris, Nancy Holt, Mary Miss, Patsy Norvell, Jody Pinto, Patricia Johanson, and Athena Tacha, among others, most based in New York City, began to be recognized as a distinctive contingent within the new genre of Land Art. In a 1978 article, “Six Women at Work in the Landscape,” critic April Kingsley asserted, “Women seem to be making most of the really innovative moves in this art form at the moment.”

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Alice Aycock, Low Building with Dirt Roof (for Mary), 1973.

Did you know that? Probably not. Think of the most famous sculpture made by a woman in the 1970s, and scrolling through your mental file system will probably pop up Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party (1974-79), which became the zenith – or nadir, depending on personal/political preference – of the goddess worship central to the decade’s feminist art movement. The historical view of the early to mid-’70s sculptural zeitgeist as being female-coded or conceptual/disembodied seems to have swept women sculptors who used architectural and landscape procedures to focus on phenomenological issues into a kind of Bermuda Triangle of historical invisibility. Last summer, to address that lacuna, the SculptureCenter, Long Island City, presented “Decoys, Complexes and Triggers: Feminism and Land Art in the 1970s,” guest-curated by Catherine Morris.

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Installation view of “Decoys” with works by (left to right) Alice Aycock, Michelle Stuart, Jackine Winsor, Suzanne Harris, Alice Adams and Miss Mary.

In its first week, “Feminism/Land Art” overlapped with another show focused on the 1970s, “WACK: Art and the Feminist Revolution,” which filled the MoMA/P.S.1 complex down the street. The brief concurrence, and the fact that only Lynda Benglis, of the SculptureCenter’s 10 artists (Alice Adams, Alice Aycock, Benglis, Agnes Denes, Jackie Ferrara, Suzanne Harris, Nancy Holt, Mary Miss, Michelle Stuart, and Jackie Winsor), was on view at P.S.1 made “Feminism/Land Art” into a sort of caboose to “WACK”‘s long train. But a bifurcated inconsistency of “Feminism/Land Art” suggests that the worthy goal of rectifying omissions from “WACK” derailed the focus on Land Art. More important is the real need to fill gaps in art historical memory, specifically of women working in the landscape.

The women sculptors who worked outdoors in the 1970s became active after great notice was given to the earthen excavations, mounds, piles, and markings of Michael Heizer, Richard Long, Dennis Oppenheim, and Robert Smithson, the first generation earthworkers who began delving into distant dirt around 1967. In contrast to those artists’ customary practice of using earth unreinforced by extraneous supports, the next generation of Land artists working in the earth brought wood, metal, and concrete. As Kingsley put it: “Alien materials are brought to the site and something is built with them that is more or less meant to endure through time.”

Works by Aycock, Holy, Miss, and Stuart, the four artists mentioned by Kingsley who also participated in “Feminism/Land Art,” generally confirm that definition. Holt is the archetypal Land artist in terms of the expansive scale of her projects exploring perceptions of space and astronomy. She brought concrete pipes of varying diameters to a Hamptons beach for Views through a Sand Dune (1972); to Artpark in Lewiston, New York, where they sunk into the earth and filled with water for Hydra’s Head (1974); and to the Nevada desert for the solstice-aligned Sun Tunnels (1976). Sun Tunnels and Stone Enclosure: Rock Rings (1977-78) at Bellingham, Washington, may be the only still-extant 1970s outdoor works documented in the show.

Stuart transferred a more fragile medium, paper, to the outdoors in Niagara Gorge Path Relocated, made at Artpark in 1975. After impressing local rocks and earth into muslin-backed rag paper and polishing the surface, she joined the panels to form a 420-inch-long ribbon that unfurled as it rolled down a terraced hillside where Niagra Falls was located at the time of the last glacier, about 12,000 years ago, an earthen remembrance of a former flow. By contrast, her Stone Alignments/Solstice Cairns (1979), which used only rocks from a plateau at the Columbia River Gorge in Oregon to create an astronomically aligned X within a circle with cairns on the perimeter, was an earthwork. Likewise, Denes’s Rice/Tree/Burial at Artpark and dramatic Wheatfield – A Confrontation (1982) at the Battery Park City landfill brought non-indigenous seeds to the sites as a kind of transgressive agriculture. These were very much about positive generative forces through the growth of edible plants in unlikely places.

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Audrey Hemenway, Garden Web, 1977-78.

Aycock’s precise plan for Project for Elevation with Obstructed Sight Lines (1972) exemplifies the importance of participatory discovery of the environment in both earthworks and Land Art. As she wrote on her drawing, “only as the observer completed the ascent of a given slope does the next slope become apparent.” Her 14-foot-high pine Stairs (These Stairs Can Be Climbed) (1974/2008), reconstructed inside SculptureCenter, demonstrated Aycock’s practice of putting the viewer/participant in uncomfortable spaces: when one climbed the stairs the ceiling height prevented ascent to the top. Conforming to the show’s themes, Aycock should also have been represented by photographs of her signature early Land Art: Low Building with Dirt Roof (1973), with its dank earthen hole to crawl around in, and Circular Building with Narrow Ledges for Walking (1976), a scary descent to another pit. Her work is compelling in its experiential perversity, but one had no sense of that from the broad blond staircase at the SculptureCenter.

In comparison, Miss’s inventive designs focusing attention on unmediated spaces and exploring contrasts of enclosed and unobstructed space were well represented in photographs, including Untitled (Battery Park) (1973), a series of panels installed 50 feet apart on rough landfill, with disks cut out to suggest a setting sun, and Perimeters/Pavilions/Decoys (1978), a mini-city of excavated rooms and projecting towers with ladders, on the grounds of the Nassau County Museum in Roslyn, New York. Miss’s plywood and steel mesh Screened Court (1979) demonstrated her characteristic preference for contrasting industrial weave and solidity in abstract forms, as well as a sensibility that thwarted the viewer’s ability to penetrate to the center, akin to the frustrations perpetrated by Aycock in works such as Wooden Post Surrounded by Fire Pits (1976).

Aycock’s and Miss’s early works were very architectural in structure, a fact that Lucy Lippard brought to attention in her 1979 article “Complexes: Architectural Sculpture in Nature,” probably the source of curator Morris’s use of “Complexes” in her exhibition title. Of the seven women Lippard discusses, three were included in the show: Aycock, Harris, and Holt. Documentation of Harris’s Locus One Up, built in 1976 on the sand and rock landfill of the future Battery Park City, would have been more appropriate to the Land Art theme than the boxy interior-scale works chosen by Morris. As Lippard described it, “One entered a temporary shelter, an underground passageway that led to a doubled experience: absolute enclosure (in a solid white cube nearly filling the circular well) and open expanse (the sky seen when one looked up instead of ahead).”

Another architectural work on view, Adams’s Large Vault, (1975), a series of Gothic rib vaults made of wood lath that arched across the floor, offered an unusual top-down view of a form usually seen from far below. In contrast to Large Vault, which reads as a discrete object, Adams’s Shorings (1979), made of wooden posts barely enclosing a large cube of dirt, puts her in the realm of Land Art. Likewise, Jackie Ferrara’s slatted Reconstruction of Wave Hill Project (1980-2008) resembles the stepped platforms and ziggurat towers of ancient Babylonian, Buddhist, Mayan, Aztec, and other architectural traditions. Rather than plopping this work into the SculptureCenter’s courtyard – neither an act nor work of Land Art – it would have been more thrillingly scary, and revelatory of the genre, to have Aycock re-create one of her low earthen chambers for viewers to experience.

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Jody Pinto, Triple Well Enclosure, 1976.

*Lead image: Nancy Holt, Views through a Sand Dune, 1972.