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.
Dispatches from the Alps, 7
One of the most important reasons for us to visit the Valais in southwestern Switzerland is to see Michael Heizer’s recent sculpture, Tangential Circular Negative Line (1968-2012), which Jean-Maurice Verone commissioned as the first project for his AIR & Art Foundation, an organization he started in 2010 as a companion to R&Art. The sculpture’s title refers to the fact that the series of three circles—situated at 1950 meters and just below the enormous Mauvoisin hydroelectric dam—is based on desert drawings that Heizer made on Mirage Dry Lake in 1968—the 80-foot diameter strewn earth Circular Surface Drawing—and then in 1970 Circular Surface Planar Displacement Drawing on Jean Dry Lake outside Las Vegas. Circular Surface Planar Displacement was a 900 x 500-foot drawing made by riding on a motorcycle in circles after creating a template with string anchored to the five central points of the linked figures.
The current work was fabricated in spring of 2012 using 26 tons of large Core-ten weathering steel to make half-circles that were transported carefully up the winding road and placed on a leveled site near the Mauvoisin Hotel. The arcs created three shallow trenches topped with gravel left over from the dam’s construction. This new work is in a series with the early drawings, but not identical in form to any of them.
After talking with Verone about the Heizer sculpture and future plans for the AIR & Art Foundation—who emphasized that the works commissioned by the Foundation would be large-scale and permanent, versus the ephemeral works made for the R&Art program—we pile into the art school van and drive to the work itself. Jean-Maurice plans to commission one work in iconic sites for each of the thirteen subregions of the Valais. The Director of the Art School, Sibylle Omlin, who sits on the board of Verone’s foundation, comes with us to add her perspective.
We enter the Mauvoisin site through tall vertical frosted panels bearing labels about the artist and work, walk downhill through a small grassy copse, then out onto the gravel bed of the work. The Core-ten steel already has a rusted patina, the nested and tangential circles a playful temptation to enter the work itself. Peaks tower 2,000 meters above, while the 250-meter tall dam (820 feet high) dominates the valley behind us. The steep and narrow valley is a total rock-and-ice avalanche zone, the site was chosen in part to keep it out of harm’s way.
Julian Myers-Szupinska, who is admirer of Heizer’s work and has written extensively about it, questions what it means to translate a gesture made in the Nevada desert more than forty years ago into a work in the Swiss Alps, a work that has no site-specific relationship to its setting. Sibylle calls it a “Swiss Heizer,” in that it seems to fall within the tradition of modernist Swiss steel sculptures. Benoît Antille thinks that this is, in part, a quote or re-enactment of the earlier works. One thing we all agree on is that it belongs to a larger effort to brand the Valais with art, a strategy aimed at international tourism.
We spend some time talking about the mountain surveys that Heizer started making as early as 1970 in Switzerland, then later in Montana, Wyoming, and Nevada, all in search of a place where he could lower a huge granite slab down a very steep slope to create a “vertical displacement” work. These gravity sculptures would have been then, and would remain now, unparalleled and important land art. Sadly, Heizer could never find a site with the characteristics necessary to realize the work.
I know why we’re having a discussion about the problematics of this particular work, but it is also geometrically intelligent, relevant to the method of the dam’s construction, and an elegant horizontal riposte to the vertical mass of the concrete face. Jean-Maurice has a plan for AIR & Art that bears a procedural resemblance to that of his R&Art program: start with works by well-known artists that can be easily assimilated by the audience and then commission more challenging work over time.
The sun is slipping lower and we head over to the hotel to have a fondue as a snack. I take the opportunity afterwards to sneak back to the sculpture by myself just as the sun sets behind the peaks. A woman with a backpack is kneeling in the center of the work. Several mushrooms have spring up there, and she harvests them with a pocketknife. I ask her if they are good, and she replies yes, as long as they are harvested when young—when they mature, they become poisonous. I’ve never seen anyone foraging on a sculpture before, yet another variation on the deepening relationship between art and nature.