Finding Richard Long
I often parse early earthworks from the late 1960s and 1970s into two broad categories. One branch tended toward large permanent installations, such as Michael Heizer’s Complex One (now part of his larger City work), and Walter De Maria’s The Lightning Field. The other strand consisted of more ephemeral works, a type exemplified by the walking works of Richard Long and Hamish Fulton. Earthworks was less a movement than a loose rubric under which any artist who displaced dirt was relegated; my use of these two categories is meant only to initiate a dialogue about the evolving nature of what soon became known as Land Arts. Heizer, for example, has made short-lived works, and Long created sculptures and paintings intended for the duration of a lifetime.
It’s a fallacy to suggest that the American strain of Land Art is all about large heroic gestures and that the other, more transitory works are exclusively European. Both can be seen as part of the larger movement in art to make a creative imprint on the land that was in step with the spread of the human footprint around the planet following World War II, and urbanization metastasized everywhere except the Antarctic.
Land Art is, therefore, an important category of study at the Nevada Museum of Art, and it was natural to include it in the large exhibition we’re opening this August about the Lake Tahoe-Donner region. In 2005 Richard Long was engaged by San Francisco gallerist Cheryl Haines to create one of his walking works in the Sierra Nevada, which he did in September of that year, hiking 250 miles along the Pacific Crest Trail from Ebbetts Pass to the northern fork of the Feather River in Northern California. Along the way he committed modest interventions typical of his works, including a small circle of stones atop Donner Pass. Although Long’s work does not appear in the show, we included an image of it in our book accompanying the exhibition.
Long has been making circles since at least 1967, and I often use an image of one done in Peru in 1972 in my lectures to illustrate the shift from artists painting and photographing landscape to actually making work on and with land. Long’s work is especially appropriate in that context as the works consist of the walks that he makes, the marks in the land that he leaves along the way, and the photographs he takes of his tracks and stone re-arrangements.
The Donner Pass Circle site is only a forty-five minute drive, and then a half-hour hike from the Museum, and in mid-July I went to find the piece, part of my preparation for the exhibition. Long has committed walking pieces every continent, and in 1995 he walked for twelve days through the southern Sierra; along his route he made a circle of stones atop Muir Pass.
To find Long’s circle on Donner Pass, I hiked along the user trail that parallels the Pacific Crest Trail heading north from old Highway 40—the original Donner Pass on what was the Lincoln Highway, the first transcontinental highway in the country. It’s also the location of the first railway route across the Sierra, and evidence of the original construction by Chinese workers during the 19th century litters the landscape. Donner Pass was a challenge to cross not least because of its granite outcroppings, and the reason I think I know where Long’s work sits is that I’ve been hiking and climbing here for more than forty years on those same crags.
Ann Wolfe, our curator of the Tahoe exhibition, asked one of our volunteers, Bob Anderson—who has long been a leader in the project to build the Rim Trail around Lake Tahoe—if he thought he could locate the work by comparing the photo to the landscape. Bob and I talked about the likely area for the work, which I thought would be just off the Pacific Crest Trail about halfway between Interstate 80 and Highway 40—and sure enough, that’s where he found it. After twenty-five minutes of walking I reached the highest point of the hike between those two roads, and there was the circle—or what was left of it. Here’s the photograph taken by Long of his circle.
I sat on a granite bench above his circle to eat my lunch and contemplate the remnants of his circle. Long made the sculpture in an engaging little flat of sandy decomposed granite nestled in a small rock amphitheater. The circle was about twenty-four feet in diameter, incorporated a couple of larger rocks in its circumference, and has been pretty well dismantled during the last ten years. The only way I could be sure I was looking at the right place was by lining up foreground boulders with Donner Peak, which Long centered in the background of his photo. It was clear that he picked the site not just as a flat area upon which to make the circle, but also one that had a handy vantage point, one elevated enough to frame the trace of the work in the image.
Hikers had partly dismantled Long’s work to construct a smaller circle within, this later version about the right size for a campfire. There are fewer backpackers now in the U.S. forty years ago, but many more casual day users—hikers, runners, and high school partiers. And many of them want to leave their own mark on the land. Donner Pass is littered not just with remains from the railroad construction, but fire circles, wind breaks, and innumerable cairns, all made by rearranging rocks.
Long’s work, the hiker cairns on Donner Pass, Alfio Bonanno’s monumental cairn sculpture I wrote about in the Lofoten Islands, and Michael Heizer’s sculpture in the Alps—they are all part of the ways in which we are making our mark in the world. We are as relentless in our re-formation of the Earth, in our terraforming, as ants. That’s not to denigrate ants, which are a critical part of the global ecosystem, but simply to point out that humans and ants are both driven to move prodigious quantities of earth each year.
Scientists and policy makers are debating whether or not we should deploy massive technological measures to counter climate change. Paul Crutzen, who coined the term “anthropocene,” is one supporting such efforts. Using technology to fix a problem caused by technology in the first place is a worrisome problem, given the ever-present risk of unintended consequences. Logic and politics aside, however, I look at Heizer and Long, and at the watershed restoration work of Daniel McCormick and Mary O’Brien—all of which involve sculpting land—and I think I know what choice we’ll make.