PHOENIX — Defining legacy in an art world context is slippery. With the increasing formation of artist estates and foundations, and considering the basic definition of legacy as simply something passed on to others, the question of what role foundations play is critical. What are the legacies they are leaving behind?

The Aspen Institute’s Artist-Endowed Foundations Initiative’s (AEFI) 2018 report found that these foundations’ worth grew to a staggering $7.66 billion of combined assets between 2011 and 2015 in the United States alone, representing a 120% increase. Operating as nonprofit entities under the tax code, foundations must be of benefit to the public, but within the context of coloniality and movements to decolonize the art world, are they helping or hurting? 

In the American Southwest, the idea of legacy is often connected to art and its intersection with foundations dedicated to the preservation of Land art. What will sites like Michael Heizer’s “City,” owned by the Nevada based Triple Aught Foundation, or James Turrell’s “Roden Crater” and its Flagstaff, Arizona-based Skystone Foundation do for culture at large and for regional communities? It is worth considering if major artists of the earthwork genre — Heizer, Turrell, Nancy Holt, Walter De Maria, or Robert Smithson — were making work solely as a means to obfuscate the commercial art world of the 1960s and 70s. Or were they, consciously or unconsciously, creating monuments to an art world imperialism that scars the landscape, all for elite audience’s ability to make pilgrimages, creating legacies that function as colonial art world outposts, thus situating their foundations paradoxically at odds with their anticapitalistic ideals? 

In 2014, prior to her passing, Nancy Holt established the Holt/Smithson Foundation in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The institution’s website claims that “Holt and Smithson recalibrated the limits of art, changing what art can be and where art can be found.” Within a Western dominant culture framework, the two sought to radically shift the ways in which art could be viewed and where it could be seen. The resounding conversation around Land art or earthworks was meant to critique, subvert, and eschew the capitalistic trappings of galleries and museums. Some artists working in this vein, such as Heizer, sought to create what Holt/Smithson Foundation’s inaugural Executive Director Lisa Le Feuvre calls “bombastic” manifestations of Land art. Holt and Smithson chose to work in more nuanced ways that were meant to draw attention to place, meaning, and other issues affecting the global community. 

Nancy Holt, “Sun Tunnels” (1973-76), Great Basin Desert, Utah, concrete, steel, earth, overall dimensions 9 feet 2-1/2 inches. x 86 feet x 53 feet; length on the diagonal: 86 feet (photo Nancy Holt, © Holt/Smithson Foundation and Dia Art Foundation / licensed by Artists Rights Society, New York)

“[Smithson] wasn’t into this idea of beautifying the land,” Le Feuvre told Hyperallergic. “His work was pointing to the destruction that industrialization placed on the surface of our planet.” Maybe Smithson’s legacy, however esoteric, was in some ways a paradox — undoing colonial atrocities by prying up and aiming the detritus of industrialized capitalism at itself. Nancy Holt’s work, perhaps more obliquely, was aimed at an inspection and (re)presentation of structures. “Her work was really looking at systems. Systems of language, of the earth in relation to the universe, of a lifespan, of architecture,” said Le Feuvre. 

It is important to remember that Holt and Smithson, as well as other creatives working at the time, were creating earth-based works in and outside of urban centers. “Land art is not just outside of urban areas; it also takes place within urban areas. The land also exists within villages, within cities, within metropolises,” said Le Feuvre. “This idea of remoteness is always, always relative.”

However, interrogating what exactly Holt and Smithson’s attempted recalibration means, and how this narrative may cause harm to Indigenous communities who continue to occupy these lands, actively creating and contributing to artistic legacies individually and communally, is essential to constructing a new ideological framework. “It would be unethical to look at their work now and not say ‘this work was made on stolen land,’” said Le Feuvre. “That said, we cannot just make a declaration that makes it look as though we are absolving these artworks from the problems.” 

For Demian DinéYazhi’ (Diné), who goes by they/them, the Southwest is not just a place or site for land-based sculpture, it is their ancestral homeland. Born and raised in Gallup, New Mexico, and now based in Portland, Oregon, the artist’s identity — their legacy — is inextricably linked to this region. “I used to think of legacy in terms of what it means to leave something behind, to make an impression,” DinéYazhi’ said. “I always thought that it is something long lasting. I think of artists like Felix Gonzalez-Torres, or European artists like Van Gogh, but then I start to compare that and put that into perspective with where I am from, and that’s when I start to think about petroglyphs, basketry, rugs, and Indigenous traditions.” 

Demian DinéYazhi’ , “Untitled (Sovereignty)” (2017), collaboration with artist Noelle Sosaya, fiber arts, 11 x 7 feet (image courtesy Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art)

For DinéYazhi,’ it is about contributing to a continuum of culture and is not necessarily about an individual legacy. “We are not permanent beings,” they said. “We abide to a lifeline. So, when I start to apply that to my art practice, it’s a little daunting and depressing realizing there are so many artists who, because of the time period they lived in, because of the political structures that existed, because of genocide and settler colonialism, their legacies or their contributions to human histories have completely been erased, forgotten, or ignored.” DinéYazhi’ combats this Western perspective of legacy by making work that urgently speaks to the now. In their 2018 solo exhibition A Nation is a Massacre at Pioneer Works in New York, DinéYazhi,’ in collaboration with R.I.S.E.: Radical Indigenous Survivance and Empowerment, created site-specific agitprop posters with concise headline-like statements that directly point to historic and contemporary moments of gun violence, missing and murdered Indigenous peoples, and sustained occupation of Indigenous lands.

When reflecting on earthworks in the Southwest region, DinéYazhi’ shared that they view much of it as an extension of settler colonialism. “There are artists who respectfully work with Indigenous communities and Indigenous artists, who have meaningful relationships and collaborate and go out of their way to create those relationships. Artists who are doing it correctly and thoughtfully,” they said. “But then there are also artists who are not. Artists who go into these spaces and rearrange the landscape to create pieces without asking for consent, who extract materials from the earth without asking for consent, who oftentimes don’t give anything back. It is just a continual process of taking and taking and taking but doesn’t take into account Indigenous peoples in the region or even the land itself. It is conquest.”

An example of an artist who consciously builds those relationships and actively works with Indigenous communities is Chip Thomas, who makes work under the pseudonym Jetsonorama. Thomas has lived and worked as a primary care physician on the Diné Nation in the Four Corners region of the Southwest for the past 35 years. During that time, he developed The Painted Desert Project in tandem with his practice as a photographer and street artist. “In my time in the Southwest on the Navajo Nation, I ask myself, What story am I telling, whose story am I telling?” Thomas said. “Having found examples of African American people who were in this area 150 years ago, and even earlier, who had intimate interactions with Native communities, has helped give me a sense of place here in the Southwest.”

Chip Thomas, “La Isla Memory Project” (2019), installation in La Isla, Colorado; Walter Perea holding a family portrait

Thomas’s work is integrated into the fabric of the Diné community. “It’s all tied together. When I see people in my clinic, I am attempting to create an environment of wellness,” he shared, relating how his practice as a doctor and his practice as an artist are intertwined. He says that the sociopolitical situation on the Navajo Nation — such as unemployment, poverty, the teenage suicide rate, and a lack of running water and electricity —  makes the selection of the imagery he chooses to place in the community important. “It really is an attempt to reflect the beauty of the community back to them and create that environmental wellness in the community that complements my medical practice,” he says. Thomas creates a legacy that is not hinged upon art markets and asset building but wedged into a landscape, aimed at highlighting the ways in which capitalism has ravaged and ignored Indigenous communities.  

Essential questions about legacy persist: How is legacy defined, who defines it, whom does it serve? Can existing legacies bound by commercial markets be accountable to diverse populations that were left out of the conversation from the beginning? It is a fractured landscape built on land grabs and stolen histories, exacerbated by a rabid capitalistic art market. The time has come for these conversations to be inclusive of all voices and points of reference to bring honesty and equity to the idea of legacy in the Southwest. 

Robert Smithson, “Spiral Jetty” (1970), Great Salt Lake, Utah, mud, precipitated salt crystals, rocks, water, 1,500 ft. (457.2 meters) long and 15 ft. (4.6 meters) wide (photo Gianfranco Gorgoni, 1970, © Holt/Smithson Foundation and Dia Art Foundation / Licensed by Artists Rights Society, New York)
Robert Smithson, “Amarillo Ramp” (1973), Tecovas Lake, Amarillo, Texas, diameter: 140 feet, height: ground level to 15 feet (photo Gianfranco Gorgoni, 1973, © Holt/Smithson Foundation / licensed by Artists Rights Society, New York)
Demian DinéYazhi’ , “A-HA-TENI KAY-YAH + KAY-YAH CAH-DA-KHI TA-GAID AH-CHANH (Native (Native) Land (Land) + Land (Land) Wound (Wound) Without (Without) Self Defense (Protect)” (2016), dirt sourced from Dinétah (Navajo Nation) from the artist’s maternal grandparents land, coal extracted from Dinétah (Navajo Nation) and purchased by Diné merchant beside the road, dimensions variable (image courtesy the artist)
Demian DinéYazhi’ , “trust fall (pine ridge)” (2012), land art, photography, 24 x 36 inches (image courtesy the artist)

Erin Joyce is a writer and curator of contemporary art and has organized over 35 exhibitions across the US. She was a winner of the 2023 Rabkin Prize for arts journalism from The Dorothea and Leo Rabkin...