Helen Mayer Harrison (1927–2018)

Helen Mayer Harrison. Image from the The Time of The Force Majeure, After 45 Years Counterforce is on the Horizon, Prestel (2015).

HELEN MAYER AND NEWTON HARRISON, often referred to simply as “the Harrisons,” became known for their ecological systems art, which first emerged in the early ’70s. Helen is no more on this earth she loved, but we can imagine her serenity at contributing to its energies on another level. In her own words in a recent catalogue, she relates how her art career began: “I, Helen, began to invest myself in the earth that Newton had made.” But we are not obliged to take such a modest statement literally; we can leverage it by listening to the sharp wit and lively voice in scores of online interviews addressing the Harrison Studio’s complex research-based practice, or we can recall how, as early as 1962, she was the first New York coordinator for the Women’s Strike for Peace—which was simultaneous with her life-changing reading of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.

How to disentangle authorship in any collaboration? Architectural studios are miserable when it comes to attributional politics; artistic studios usually deny collaboration altogether. As feminists know well, the challenge is even more vexed for the female half of a partnership, particularly when that collaboration is nested in a marriage. In the case of Helen Mayer Harrison, once she left her first career as a teacher and administrator to become an artist, there was no going back. Her participation as a full collaborator, which became “official” around 1972, began with parallel play. An early work for the Los Angeles Women’s Building, Making Jam (installed at the Grandview Gallery of the Women’s Building in 1974), is now historicized by the Harrison Studio as Making Earth, Then Making Strawberry Jam (1969–70), connecting her “Jam” performance to Newton’s earlier solo project of producing humus-rich soil from disparate ingredients. This yoking together of the two durational performance-actions revealed how the collaboration consistently reconsidered, rethought, and reinterpreted its joint work. Helen’s “investment” in Newton’s earth-making activity brought strawberries, then jam, into being—and this would introduce a crucial cyclical and negentropic component to the collaboration that would come to distinguish this work from the entropic inclinations of Smithson et al., and become characteristic of the Harrisons’ expansive urban-agricultural and multispecies imaginary.

Thanks to the official website for the Harrison Studio, and the alpha order of their publications, the dominant phrasing (at least per Google’s algorithm) is “Helen and Newton,” not the other way around. The sense from the literature and lecture circuit was that Newton was the “alchemist” and builder; Helen the scholar and theorist who also brought photography and text to the practice; this is rhetorically embraced in an early scripting of their collaboration that casts Newton as “Lagoonmaker,” her as “Witness.” (But this was not to render her passive—in The Fifth Lagoon, 1975, the Witness holds the Lagoonmaker in check when he wants to take over the Salton Sea). Together, their activist interventions (including the notable “Lagoon Cycle,” fifty installments beginning in 1972; Hog Pasture: Survival Piece #1, back-credited to include Helen, from 1970–71; Portable Orchard, 1972–73; and the most recent Force Majeure, 1993–2011) have become legendary, their importance only increasing with our reluctant acknowledgment of the Anthropocene.

Sea Grant, The Second Lagoon from the “Book of the Lagoons,” subtitle Can You Put a Lagoon in a Tank, 1982, photography, drawing, oil color, ink on archivally processed photopaper. Photo: Harrison Studio.

Newton Harrison, the surviving partner and the oft-interviewed “voice” of the practice, has always been remarkably open about the gifts Helen brought to their fifty years of art-making together. He also recalls the struggles it took to win that desired equality. (Negotiating a fifty-fifty split in his full-time-equivalent faculty position with Helen at the University of California, San Diego, proved the devil to negotiate with the Cal system. But doing so allowed her to teach, and confirmed her full access to the system’s crucial research libraries.) Newton celebrated Helen as “the brains” who brought the science of climate change into their thinking as early as 1974; she was “a genius at research” who could find the most amazing things in public records; her readings of scientific papers informed their position as “transdisciplinary” artists; and finally, her productive arguments with him defined the dialectical nature of their collaboration. Helen said simply, “he has the first word, and I mostly have the last word.”1 Historians can observe the incremental effect of Helen on the partnership. Ebbing away are earlier characterizations of Newton as a “techno-artist” (as Max Kozloff described him in a 1971 Artforum review of the “Art & Technology” show) or as a solo earth-systems artist in colloquy with Hans Haacke, Robert Smithson, and Robert Morris. Gradually, the partnership with Helen led the Harrison Studio into a class by itself. By the 1980s, the collaboration had forged a unique model of commissioned engagement with municipalities, nations, NGOs, and local ecosystems that went way beyond “site-specific” think pieces, aiming at providing sustainable interventions in urban form and/or on a geographic scale. If Newton was the sculptor who aspired to “terraforming” (a sci-fi term once reserved for shaping other planets, it is now imagined for rescuing our own), Helen was the biotheorist and planner who envisioned the essential step between science and policy as the “creation of empathy for a place,” as William Fox put it.2

In the magisterial recent publication from the Harrison Studio, The Time of the Force Majeure: After 45 Years, Counterforce is on the Horizon (Munich: Prestel Verlag, 2016), there is a rousing call for a new species of hominid: the “inspired generalist” seeding a “new species genetically tuned to maintaining the well-being of the polycultures from which we have evolved.” Helen did her best to be that new hominid, sensing and being the biome and the ecotone. Believing in poetic condensation, she put everything she had into their art. Mobilizing what John Berger referred to as the “undefeated despair”3 of our relations to extraction, geopolitics, ecoterrorism, and turbocapitalism, Helen Mayer Harrison gave us hope and a recipe for how to evolve as anthropogenic agents of our own precarious future.

Caroline A. Jones is director of the history, theory, and criticism program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.


1. Helen Mayer Harrison, with Newton Harrison, in Beth Stephens and Annie Sprinkle, “Interview with the Harrisons,” Total Art Journal 1:1 (Summer 2011): 7.

2. The Time of the Force Majeure: After 45 Years Counterforce is on the Horizon​, (Munich: Prestel Verlag, 2016).

3. John Berger, “Undefeated Despair,” Critical Inquiry, 32:4 (Summer 2006): 602–609.