Site-specificity and environmentalism
Smithson delineated the concepts of “Site” and “Nonsite” to designate theoretical differences in the physical context of work produced. “Nonsite” was termed as an “indoor earthwork” and indicated a piece that could be exhibited in a gallery setting, displacing natural materials from their original sites with accompanying drawings or photographs. “Site” referred to those works created outside the gallery infrastructure in site-specific locales with materials taken from that location. Smithson’s iteration of these new frameworks along with the activist mentality of the late 1960s underscored the interest of some Earth artists in socially engaged art that explored humans’ relationship with the land. For many artists, this was a conscious movement away from Greenbergian modernism that instead stressed art’s lack of connection to the mundane world.
Earth artists were influenced by prehistoric and ancient monuments such as Stonehenge and Native American burial mounds that were monumental in size and scale. Heizer experienced these prehistoric sites firsthand as a child, visiting various excavations with his father, who was an archaeologist. The prehistoric monuments, by means of their continued existence incorporated the passage of time through natural decay and erosion. The entropy of the materials, which were both manmade and organic, was integral to Earthworks. The pieces created outdoors by the likes of Smithson and Heizer were naturally subjected to the depredations of the elements so that decay and disintegration were part of their meaning; preservation was understood as a conceit.
Invasive and Non-invasive
Earthworks are sometimes divided into those works that make great changes to the landscape and those that do not. Works in the former category generally require earth-moving equipment to make massive alterations to a site, such as Robert Heizer’s Double Negative (1969-70). Those works that are non-invasive and are seen as more respectful to the land include Richard Long’s A Line Made by Walking (1967), along with pieces by Andy Goldsworthy and Alan Sonfist.
During the mid-1970s, the recession impacted the funding of Earth art dramatically. Many artists were dependent on patrons to purchase expensive tracts of land to complete large-scale work. In addition to the economic slump, Robert Smithson’s sudden death in 1973 while surveying possible sites in Texas changed the momentum of the movement. Those who established their names through Earth art, such as De Maria, Heizer, Morris, and Andre, took their careers in other directions, reorienting their production to accommodate institutional and gallery spaces. De Maria’s New York Earth Room (1977) was executed in 1977 and several international iterations were created. Heizer would also create gallery-appropriate works, reconfiguring notions of site-specificity to adapt to art world institutions. Along with other postwar Conceptual artists, Earth artists ushered in a new period of art that favored installations over discrete objects, challenging the expectations of artistic production.
The tenets of Conceptualism became dominant in the art world during this period, as many movements began to share ideas and encourage artists working in multiple institutional frameworks. Post-Minimalist movements such as Process art were strongly connected to Earth art, and many artists working between the movements would shift towards the gallery model as the economy weakened and cheap alternative spaces became available in urban locales. Conceptual art also ushered in an era of performance that translated well in gallery settings and, like Earth art, challenged traditional notions of art as a commodity because of its transitory nature. Organic materials were sometimes utilized within the gallery space, and an emphasis on the ephemeral was understood through site-specific and temporary installations.