Interviews

A Documentary Mines the Stories of Three Pioneers of Land Art

Michael Heizer’s "Circular Surface, Planar Displacement Drawing," El Mirage Dry Lake (1969), from 'Troublemakers' (photo © Gianfranco Gorgoni, courtesy Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles)
Michael Heizer’s “Circular Surface, Planar Displacement Drawing,” El Mirage Dry Lake (1969), from ‘Troublemakers’ (photo © Gianfranco Gorgoni, courtesy Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles)

They displaced thousands of pounds of earth, broke down mountains, rejected art galleries and dealers, and carefully constructed mythologies around their art and lives. The land artists of the late 1960s and early ’70s have long been romanticized as cowboys who used their bare hands and raw physical force to create monumental art in extreme environments; they’ve been portrayed in popular culture as rule-breakers of the artistic status quo of their day.

In his new documentary, Troublemakers: The Story of Land Art, filmmaker and art historian James Crump digs beneath the surface to explore the personal lives, artworks, and historical treatment of three of these practitioners — Michael Heizer, Walter De Maria, and Robert Smithson — concentrating on their activity between 1968 and 1973. The chief curator of the Cincinnati Art Museum from 2010 to 2013, Crump conducted interviews with artists and incorporated original historical footage into his film. Hyperallergic spoke to him about the mythologization of the land artists, his efforts to capture the immense scale and scope of earthworks on film, and who the “troublemakers” of contemporary art might be.

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Kemy Lin: You previously directed Black White + Gray, which was about the highly mythologized Robert Mapplethorpe and Sam Wagstaff. The land artists also actively cultivated and performed their contrarian, outsider personas as they produced art that disrupted the market of their day. What attracts you to these types of figures? Do you see their personalities and mythologies as an extricable part of their art practices?

Walter De Maria, Hamburg, Germany, 1968. From Troublemakers. Photograph © Angelika Platen. Used by permission
Walter De Maria, Hamburg, Germany (1968), from ‘Troublemakers’ (photo © Angelika Platen, used by permission)

James Crump: I have always been drawn to compelling art historical stories, but more importantly to art historical discovery. The chief impetus for Black White + Gray was my strong feeling that Sam Wagstaff had been, to some extent, written out of history, forgotten and overlooked as an important curator, collector, and benefactor to Robert Mapplethorpe. I felt similarly about Heizer, and even to a greater extent about Walter De Maria, Nancy Holt, and Dennis Oppenheim — that they were overlooked and certainly misunderstood. Robert Smithson died prematurely, in 1973, but he was a prolific writer, presenter, and disseminator of his own work, which, until recently, biased the discourse about land art. I am fascinated by these artists’ personalities and their sense of risk taking, which strikes me as refreshing in today’s highly speculative contemporary art market. Nevertheless, the work itself has to hold up and stand the test of time, which it certainly does in the case of the iconic sites featured in the film.

KL: Though described as “troublemakers” and portrayed as outsiders, Smithson, Heizer, and De Maria were clearly not isolated from the art of their era. How did the land artists work in dialogue with or in opposition to their contemporaries?

JC: Compared to Smithson, Heizer and De Maria were less interested in dialogue and more reticent — in some cases secretive — and full of contradiction in the statements they made in interviews. For example, Heizer pulled out of exhibitions or later renounced them or outright denied having participated in them. At such a pivotal moment, there were few artists so strong-willed as to absent themselves from the discourse of contemporary art or important forums planning to showcase their works. Smithson, on the other hand, wrote essays about Donald Judd, for example, and mounted sharp institutional critiques, while also forcefully delineating the conceptual themes in his work. He lectured and more clearly understood the power of media, which in many ways separates him from Heizer and De Maria, who more recently refused to participate in Phillip Kaiser’s and Miwon Kwon’s 2012 landmark exhibition Ends of the Earth: Land Art to 1974, ostensibly for their collective disavowal of photography and of land art as a movement itself. This kind of absolute control, subterfuge, and contradiction I think underscore the title of the film.

Nancy Holt, sunlight in "Sun Tunnels" (1976), from 'Troublemakers' (photo by Nancy Holt, © Holt-Smithson Foundation / licensed by VAGA, New York)
Nancy Holt, sunlight in “Sun Tunnels” (1976), from ‘Troublemakers’ (photo by Nancy Holt, © Holt-Smithson Foundation / licensed by VAGA, New York)

KL: Do you think the hypermasculine and “cowboy artist” characterization of the land artists has marginalized women like Nancy Holt and Michelle Stuart, who contributed to and were part of the movement? How does Troublemakers address this gender imbalance?

JC: To some extent, I do agree that the marginalization of women is partly the result of the macho element at work in land art. Troublemakers hews very closely to the period between 1968 and 1973 and the artists that were championed by [art collector and patron] Virginia Dwan. Although Holt’s most important work comes later, she is represented in two lengthy segments that show her in relationship to Heizer, Smithson, and Dwan, and also how integral she was to Smithson’s practice before.

KL: How did land art respond to and critique the issues and events of the era, including the Apollo 11 moon landing, the civil rights movement, Vietnam, etc? Why was the fabric of the Earth itself the appropriate vehicle for this work?

Charles Ross, "Star Axis (Solar Pyramid)" (1976–), from 'Troublemakers' (photo © Jill O’Bryan, 2010, used by permission)
Charles Ross, “Star Axis (Solar Pyramid)” (1976–), from ‘Troublemakers’ (photo © Jill O’Bryan, 2010, used by permission) (click to enlarge)

JC: Troublemakers points out that land art of the late 1960s was a powerful convergence of information, technology, and history, which includes space travel and the Vietnam War. To what extent each artist was responding to contemporary issues, or not at all, one must examine the works individually. Works by Charles Ross and Nancy Holt are chiefly concerned with star geometry and astronomy and the metaphysical relationships of earth to sky, all in the wake of space travel. Despite Smithson’s facetious derision of NASA’s “forced exuberance” and the moon shot as a “very expensive non-site,” he was deeply fascinated by contemporary events like space travel, science fiction, and films of the period, like Stanley Kubrick’s influential 2001: A Space Odyssey. Perhaps more than most of the artists featured in the film, Smithson addresses nascent ecological concerns and the power of nature, which he believes most people underestimate. Dennis Oppenheim says in the film that land art was “certainly one of the more physical factions of conceptual art. It meant real time. It meant real worlds. Something like the Vietnam War was something that occurred on the same battlefield. It occurred in the same system as a real world.”

KL: Over the course of filming Troublemakers, how did seeing iconic land art pieces through the lens of the camera change your understanding and experience of them?

JC: I think filming the sites, some from the air, gave me a much greater sense of the magnitude of the projects, their enormity, and the danger involved and the nearly impossible feats these artists performed to get their respective works completed in unforgiving circumstances. Who today would risk their lives for their art like the artists in the film who literally did? I now better understand the frustrations and contradictions of recording the works with film, given the enormous technological leaps with digital and lens-based technologies that allowed us to make a truly immersive and experiential cinematic experience.

Nancy Holt (front) and Virginia Dwan (middle) in the Yucatán (1969), from 'Troublemakers' (photo © Dwan Gallery Archives, New York, used by premission)
Nancy Holt (front) and Virginia Dwan (middle) in the Yucatán (1969), from ‘Troublemakers’ (photo © Dwan Gallery Archives, New York, used by premission)

KL: What were the limitations of the camera in capturing and conveying the pieces to the audience? How do you document artworks that, through their enormous scope, physical texture, and panoramic engagement with the surrounding landscape, demand viewers to experience them firsthand, in person?

JC: The strange, atmospheric conditions of certain shoots allowed us to produce something truly singular, befitting and respectful of the actual works themselves. Nevertheless, one reason I wanted to make the film was to make others aware of these incredible sites. In the case of Heizer’s very important, though somewhat overlooked, “Double Negative” (1969–70) near Overton, Nevada, for example, we spent one day inside of the work with steady cams in order to effect the relative scale one feels experiencing the piece in person. Combined with aerial footage, the montage gives one a palpable sense of actually being there. Yet, photography and filmmaking will never replace the experience of visiting these sites and the relative insignificance one feels when confronted with these vast, open landscapes in the American deserts.

Aerial partial view of Michael Heizer’s "Double Negative" (1969–70), production still from 'Troublemakers' (photographic still © Summitridge Pictures and RSJC LLC, 2014)
Aerial partial view of Michael Heizer’s “Double Negative” (1969–70), production still from ‘Troublemakers’ (photographic still © Summitridge Pictures and RSJC LLC, 2014) (click to enlarge)

KL: How did you document pieces that were fleeting, no longer exist, or have changed significantly over time?

JC: There are a number of sites included in the film from the late 1960s that either have eroded significantly or disappeared entirely. For these works, we relied on the excellent photographic documentation that exists from the period. Using these archival images, we added slight animation effects and movement to bring them to life for the big screen (and device screens, as technology would have it!).

KL: Having been to “Spiral Jetty” earlier this year, I’ve experienced firsthand that the long and sometimes confounding process of getting to the piece itself is an essential part of the witnessing and understanding the artwork. Did you shoot all the pieces on-site or rely on stock footage taken by other filmmakers or the artists themselves? How did you capture the anticipation and lengthiness of the journey (or pilgrimage, even) one undertakes to reach these pieces?

JC: In the case of “Spiral Jetty,” I felt Smithson’s 1970 film, a unique work of art in itself, is so important and incredibly beautiful for its grain, period texture, and color, why try to surpass it? Viewers will find it adds something to the cinematic experience, and I simply decided to own the look of the low-fi, early video and 16mm film footage I discovered from the period, some of which has never been seen before. Some of the most visually mesmerizing segments in the film are those taken on dusty roads or above them or tracking through the desert and red rocks. The film is infused with the essence of the mythological American road trip.

Robert Smithson’s "Spiral Jetty" (1970), from 'Troublemakers' (photo © David Maisel, art © Holt-Smithson Foundation / Licensed by VAGA, New York, Courtesy Institute, Venice, CA)
Robert Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty” (1970), from ‘Troublemakers’ (photo © David Maisel, art © Holt-Smithson Foundation / Licensed by VAGA, New York, Courtesy Institute, Venice, CA)

KL: How do you think historical distance and the passage of time have treated these artists and artworks (aside from eroding them)? How has the mythology that colors the land art movement evolved over the past 40–50 years?

JC: I genuinely believe that most of these artists are more relevant than ever today. It is important that a much younger generation of artists rediscover these troublemakers and their past work in order to fully realize that making art is not simply for the market. Ironically, the dominant commercial market seems to have caught up with the pioneers of land art, witnessed for example by Gagosian Gallery taking over the representation of Michael Heizer and the estate of Walter De Maria, demonstrating that it’s never too late to “sell out.”

KL: Who do you see as the “troublemakers” of the contemporary art world? Or do we not have enough distance to make such a judgment?

JC: Just to name a few, I think those stirring up trouble today would include Tala Madani, Paul McCarthy, Kara Walker, Maurizio Cattelan, Pierre Huyghe, Doug Aitken, Philippe Parreno, and Rirkrit Tiravanija.

"Michael Heizer, Garden Valley, Nevada" (c. 1970), from 'Troublemakers' (archival video still © Summitridge Pictures and RSJC LLC, 2014)
“Michael Heizer, Garden Valley, Nevada” (c. 1970), from ‘Troublemakers’ (archival video still © Summitridge Pictures and RSJC LLC, 2014)

Troublemakers premieres at The Theatre at Ace Hotel (929 South Broadway, Los Angeles) on September 29 at 8pm. The film will also screen at the New York Film Festival (Walter Reade Theater, Lincoln Center, 165 W 65th Street, Upper West Side Manhattan) on October 1 and 4.

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