20 Nov 2020

Art in Nature & the History of Environmental Art

Unframe London

Art in Nature & the History of Environmental Art

UNFRAME explores the history of Environmental Art, and how Land & Earth art of the 1960s and 70s was a catalyst for contemporary work engaging with the climate crisis.

During a time of such uncertainty, where for many, a relationship with nature is an unfamiliar, coveted feeling, the connection conjured by environmental art is more significant than ever.

Since ancient times, transforming the environment has been common practice for humankind. In the beginning, cave paintings and stone circles became early forms of environmental ‘interventions’. They became a way, predominantly, to document the surrounding world. Since then, the natural world today in all of its glorious colours, structures, shapes and form has hugely influenced contemporary artists. Land and Earth artists created important depictions and adaptations of the natural world. In this article, we will look at the influential Land and Earth art of the 1960s and 1970s. We will explore how they shaped the work of notably contemporary artists engaged in the climate change crisis today.

We will explore the work of Land artists; Richard Long, Nancy Holt, Robert Smithson and Christo & Jeanne Claude, to name a few.

Richard Long The Sahara
‘Touareg Circle, The Sahara’, 1988. Richard Long. Courtesy of the artist

Land Art

Land art primarily is a term encompassing historical representations of nature to politically charged works. The art often ends up provoking awareness and conversation on climate change. Land art celebrates the connection between nature and artist, most of all, through natural and organic matter. Land art as a term, includes work that strives to improve the relationship between humans and nature and the engaging of our surrounding social environment. Due to the nature of land art, most of the time, we often only see documentation in form of a photograph or video.


Land art importantly became part of the conceptual movement of the 1960s and 70s. The Conceptual movement, ultimately, gave primary importance to the concept behind the work rather than any aesthetic quality. The American artist Sol LeWitt, was linked strongly to the movement. The conceptual movement’s ideals ultimately gave great meaning to gestural artworks, all in all, allowing it to be almost anything.

“When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes a machine that makes the art.” – Sol LeWitt

The political environment of the 1960s and 1970s saw a rise in art driven by idea rather than technical artistry and accomplishment. As it emerged in the mid 1960s, the movement grew to be an international phenomenon across Europe, North & South America. All in all, conceptualism as an art movement reflected a broad dissatisfaction with the government policies at the time. With commercialisation of the art world, overall, many looked to the land to make their work over studio making.

Environmental Art
‘Stone Enclosure. Rock Rings’, 1977-1978. Nancy Holt. Courtesy of Aware Women Artists

In terms of land and earth art, initially, through use of mechanical machinery, artists often were able to create large and ambitious artworks. This took place with or, alternatively, in amongst the natural world. In another way, many were mostly making very minor adaptions to the natural world, often they would be temporary interventions to the environment in the form of markings and performance work. Artists document these performances through film and photography, layers of ‘medium’ often become part of the meaning of the artwork for land and earth artists. Mostly, there is simplicity to the land artworks, they portray a motivated sensitivity towards nature.

Environmental Art
‘Sun Tunnels. Great Basin Desert, Utah’, (1973–1976). Nancy Holt. Courtesy of Sculpture Nature

Nancy Holt

American artist Nancy Holt’s 1973-76 ‘Sun Tunnels’, portray a large scale installation in the Great Basin Desert in Utah. ‘Sun Tunnels‘ and Holt’s environmental artworks became a prolific part of the Land and Earth movements, as well as, the Conceptual art movement. Holt presents difficult but ambitious questions in her artworks, raising issues of environmental understanding. Holt is hugely influential to contemporary land artists today due to her land work of the 1960s and 70s. She influenced the work of many contemporary artists, conceptually, in particular, Danish–Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson and his work on the current climate crisis.

“I feel that the need to look at the sky—at the moon and the stars—is very basic, and it is inside all of us. So when I say my work is an exteriorization of my own inner reality, I mean I am giving back to people through art what they already have in them” – Nancy Holt

Sun Tunnels
‘Sun Tunnels. Great Basin Desert, Utah’, (1973–1976). Nancy Holt. Courtesy of Sculpturenature

Sun Tunnels

With an art practice spanning from drawing, film, photography and installation Holt crosses many media. Importantly, Holt’s site-specific tunnels form an immersive environment placed upon the natural desert setting. In turn, these giant tunnels form intimate viewing platforms, allowing people to connect to nature and in particular the stars. The brutalist tunnels, in many ways, represent a considered intervention in a natural environment. Sensitively, they work alongside the desert, a seemingly common sentiment of land art.

Holt describes her Sun Tunnels as “seeing devices, fixed points for tracking the positions of the sun, earth and stars.”

Nancy Holt Sun Tunnels
‘Sun Tunnels. Great Basin Desert, Utah’, (1973–1976). Nancy Holt. Courtesy of Dia Art

Holt’s ‘Sun Tunnels’ are composed of four concrete cylinders, arranged in a cross format. In this example, the tunnels are arranged to face and frame the sunlight, specifically, during the solstices of both summer and winter. The design of a cross format aligns to create a precise part of the sky and horizon chosen by the artist, successful in it’s subtlety.

Robert Smithson Environmental Art
‘Spiral Jetty’, 1970. Robert Smithson. Courtesy of Dia Art

Robert Smithson

A natural collaboration was formed between Nancy Holt and the American artist Robert Smithson. Smithson is known for his sculptural works and land art, often using drawing and photography linked to the spatial arts. He is importantly known for pioneering the Land Art movement.

In 1969, in particular, Holt and Smithson embarked on a journey around England and Wales visiting natural environments they felt aligned with their practice. Crucially, they both shared a fascination of human imprint on the natural environment. As well as this, they often travelled together, documenting both their work and themselves as they went. Their studies involved visiting ruins, often, wild and landscaped natural landscapes together.

Robert Smithson
‘Spiral Jetty’, 1970. Robert Smithson. Courtesy of Khan Academy

“Instead of causing us to remember the past like the old monuments, the new monuments seem to cause us to forget the future– Robert Smithson

In this case, Smithson’s 1970 ‘Spiral Jetty’ , a key work by the artists, is made up of salt crystals, basalt rocks and mud, forming a 1,500-foot-long and 15-foot-wide coil. The fluid coil form, made of natural elements, extends from the lake’s shore, often, becoming submerged by the water. Smithson decided to transition to making his work in the outdoors, most of all, staying away from the rigidity of galleries in the 1960s. All in all, this represented a yearning for artistic freedom, far from the commercial and commodified.

Nancy Holt & Robert Smithson

Both Holt and Smithson’s work, most of time, responds to natural environments with their pronounced need to reconnect with it. In short, ‘Spiral Jetty’ depictions a scientific reflection within Smithson’s research and artistic practice. In this instance, he used a bulldozer, the variety of materials were then placed in the lake. Importantly, unlike art within galleries, the scale of the work gives spectators a sense of perspective. Subsequently, land and earth art like that of Holt and Smithson, predominantly exerts a feeling in each viewer of one’s own perspective.

Walter De Maria
‘The Lightning Field’, 1977. Walter De Maria. Courtesy of Dia Art

The Lightning Field

Initially, American artist Walter De Maria’s 1977 land artwork ‘The Lightning Field’ seems within a similar realm to the work of Holt and Smithson. Although, in this example, this environmental piece is activated by nature itself. ‘The Lightning Field’ , situated in New Mexico is made up of four hundred stainless steel rods, installed into a grid formation. In a similar way, De Maria’s piece invites viewers to investigate the work during specific times, in this example; sunset and sunrise.

Walter De Maria
‘The Lightning Field’, 1977. Walter De Maria. Courtesy of Dia Art

De Maria, specifically, intended his prolific‘The Lightning Field’ to be experienced only in the flesh. The artist’s piece is strictly protected by copyright laws, with no photos being able to be taken of the work. He categorically wanted his work to be felt and experienced, not documented. Interestingly, the artist decided on nine photographs to be the only images allowed for publication, despite the amount of documentation that remains in the digital world. In this way, due to the intended reading of the work to be isolated and personal, De Maria’s work becomes rarely unmediated.

Ana Mendieta
‘Creek. Super 8 Film’, 1974. Ana Mendieta. Courtesy of Dazed Digital

Ana Mendieta

Cuban artist Ana Mendieta explores the human relation to natural environment through her own human form, she is renowned as a pioneer of land and earth art. Most of the time, Mendieta uses her own body to create illusively philosophical sculptures that dwell on life and death, and ‘mother nature’. Her overtly personal works, consequently, relate to the conceptual movement.

Ana Mendieta
‘Untitled: Silueta Series, Super 8 Film’, 1978. Ana Mendieta. Courtesy of Dazed Digital

Primarily, her photographic and film series ‘Silueta’, made in 1973-1980, models a human form into varying landscapes, drawing a light on our connection to earth. Additionally, during her travels across Mexico, she utilises the natural compounds of each place visited to sculpt her body. In contrast to those discussed so far, this represents an intimate and layered dialogue depicted by Mendieta rather than large scale ‘interventions’. These immensely personal depictions derive from themes of identity, female oppression and identity politics, ultimately, explored through natural elements.

Andy Goldsworthy
‘Sycamore leaves edging the roots of a sycamore tree’, 2013. Andy Goldsworthy. Courtesy of the Independent

Rearranging Nature

British artist Andy Goldsworthy creates temporary artworks within natural environments, mostly, using found natural material to adapt and add to an existing setting. Through this process, consequently, he is drawing attention, casting light upon understated but profound imagery.

Environmental Art Andy Goldsworthy
‘Poppies in flower after heavy rain collected from fields and laid on steps’, 2014. Andy Goldsworthy. Courtesy of the Independent

Most of all, he rearranges what is already there, all in all, a sensitive and respectful gesture to ‘mother nature’. This can be seen in his 2014 piece ‘Poppies in flower after heavy rain collected from fields and laid on steps’.

Richard Long
‘A Line in Japan, Mount Fuji’, 1979. Richard Long. Courtesy of artist

“I like the idea that art can be made anywhere. Perhaps seen by few people, or not recognised as art when they do.” – Richard Long

Richard Long River Avon Mud drawings
River Avon Mud drawings’, 1989. Richard Long. Courtesy of Printed Editions

Richard Long

British artist Richard Long is a prominent part of the land art movement, often delving into realms of geographic history and environment in his work. Most of the time, he uses found natural elements to form his ‘conversations’ with nature, rather than building upon or shaping the environment around him. As you can see, organic and unrefined natural forms and shapes dictate the way he then creates his pieces. Long makes his land artworks, predominantly, to fit into the landscape and for spectators to happen upon them.

Above all, Long has broadened the possibilities of the medium of sculpture, becoming forms of performance and conceptual art. Often, Long’s work is displayed as a photograph, seemingly this becomes an extension of the work for the artist.

Mud Drawing Richard Long
‘Parana Do Manori Mud Drawing’, 2017. Richard Long. Courtesy of Hidden Gallery

Mud Drawings

Unlike his large body of work, most of the time, consisting of land and earth artworks, in this example, Long takes to the act of drawing. With this in mind, he makes the mud drawings by submerging paper in to mud extracted from the River Avon, Warwickshire. Eventually, as he hangs each piece, water runs off and leaves lines of mud on the surface of the paper. This method, in particular, allows for uniquely differing final artworks, each piece is unique. In many ways, each work mimics the ebb and flow of a river itself. Although these works remain, in contrast, to his earlier pieces, they still depict relationships formed between humans and nature in his attempt to capture the river on paper.

Environmental Art
‘Wishing the Mountains Madness’, 1977. Dennis Oppenheim. Courtesy of Storm King

Wishing the Mountains Madness

American Artist Dennis Oppenheim was a prolific earth artist, sculptor, performance artist and photographer. He was an integral part of the early days of Land art, importantly, his early interventions in natural environments often took form in removing, rather than adding. Later on, he began to create architectural and modernistic interventions within nature. Oppenheim’s altered landscapes, simultaneously, often portrayed dream like scenes for the spectator.

Dennis Oppenheim Land Art
‘Wishing the Mountains Madness’, 1977. Dennis Oppenheim. Courtesy of Storm King

Specifically, his 1977 site specific piece ‘Wishing the Mountains Madness’ suggests natural upheaval, literally, he brings the stars down to earth. Created in Montana, in the same fashion, Oppenheim depicts a subtle juxtaposition between the beautiful landscape of Montana and the diversity of New York at the time. The piece was temporary and documented through aerial photography. In a similar vein, Oppenheim’s land artworks mirror recognisable visual traits seen in land and earth artists mentioned so far, although, documentation seems far more important here.

Christo and Jeanne Claude
‘The Floating Piers’, 2014-2016. Christo & Jeanne Claude. Courtesy of the artist

Christo and Jeanne Claude

Collaborative French artist duo Christo and Jeanne Claude, important to realise, consistently imagined projects together. Often working with large scale, man-made interventions of the natural world. Their environmental works span over many years, specifically, their 1980s piece ‘Surrounded Islands’ depicts one of their most ambitious land artworks. Both artists intended their work of art ‘Surrounded Islands’ to portray the habitual qualities of Miami living, bridging the gap between land and water. All in all, the installation involved swathes of pink fabric sewn into patterns, thus reflecting each island’s shape. During the span of three years, both artists designed and created the piece to act as a vibrant outline or border to each floating island. For their best known work, Christo and Jeanne Claude wrapped the The Reichstag in Germany and also Pont Neuf. ‘Surrounded Islands’ , in contrast, is an adding on to a natural environment.

Christo and Jeanne Claude
‘Surrounded Islands’, 1980-83. Christo and Jeanne Claude. Courtesy of Ignant

Contemporary Environmental Art

Danish–Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson, crucially, places environmental issues and the climate crisis to the forefront of his art practice. More and more, artists such as Eliasson have begun exploring the current political and climate issues and themes within their modernistic land and earth art. In a similar way to the land artists of the 1960s and 1970s, in many ways, land art remains present and required in the art world more than ever. His 2014 piece ‘River Bed’, dissimilar to works such as Ana Mendieta and Andy Goldsworthy, transports us into a generated natural environment within a gallery space. What’s more, contemporary land artists are reforming and rebuilding the foundations of the typical gallery spaces, causing an unavoidable questioning of the current climate crisis

Environmental Art Olafur Eliasson
‘Riverbed’, 2014. Olafur Eliasson. Courtesy of Wallpaper

“To make art, for me, is to be in dialogue with the world” – Olafur Eliasson

Olafur Eliasson
‘Your Waste of Time’, 2006. Olafur Eliasson. Courtesy of Widewalls

During the 1960s and 1970s, particularly, Land art shaped our relationship to nature within the contemporary art world today. As we have seen, together with land art, modern environmental art becomes a vessel in which an array of conversations and questions are formed. To conclude, contemporary artists today, more than ever use the work to promote public awareness of climate change and environmental concerns. They aim to transform opinion, most importantly, giving information and provoking a new, respectful relationship with the natural world we live in.

Whats more, see work by Unframe artists engaging in environmental work, such as artist Jaanika Peerna and Rachel Duckhouse

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To see Environmental art spanning from land art of the 60s and 70s to contemporary, visit the Chinati Collection, a contemporary art museum located in Marfa, Texas which reopens this month. Alternatively, visit the Holt Smithson Foundation in New Mexico to see the work of Robert Smithson and more.