PRINT October 1976

Site Inspection

THIS IS AN ARTICLE based on visits to the sites of Earthworks in Arizona, Nevada, Texas and Utah. I am not an enemy of the culture of reproductions, but the documentation of large outdoor sculpture, intimately bound to the landscape, presents exceptional difficulty to photographs. They have their own conventions, for one thing, and for another, some of the works I suspected were being embalmed in single images. This turned out to be the case: the photographs of Robert Smithson’s Amarillo Ramp that are usually reproduced were taken when the creek it stands in was dammed up. In fact it belongs half in the water, for Smithson allowed for seasonal variations in the state of his sculptures. He assumed multiple states, not just one. The sculptures by Walter de Maria, Michael Heizer, and Smithson that I visited are all site-specific, in that they have been located by the artists in places that are unique to each work. The form of the sculpture cannot be separated from the terrain it occupies (it has zero mobility), and the distances that have to be travelled are a part of the content also. In what follows I shall have to indicate the topography as part of the system of the sculpture.

The discrepancy between site and documentation is inherent in the medium, but it can be used purposefully. For example, to compare Smithson’s film the Spiral Jetty with the Spiral Jetty as it lies in the Great Salt Lake is to experience a startling divergence. Part I of the film deals with the construction of the jetty, but of course what we see in Utah is the end-state of the work. Part II concentrates on vertical views of the jetty, shot from a helicopter which, taken with cues on the soundtrack, emphasize the spiral as a solar form expanding out to spiral nebulae. The movement of the camera is frequently vertiginous, and as the helicopter goes higher and the spiral shrinks, its crystalline structure becomes evident. Thus the film presents us with a disquisition on the morphology of the spiral.

What is it like at Rozel Point? The 15-foot-wide jetty winds its two-and-a-half turns out into the lake for 1,500 feet, and when you stumble along it on ankle-wrenching loose rock, you feel very close to the water. The ridge behind is low and as the spiral stretches out from the beach, it echoes the far-off line of mountains across the lake. On site, the prevailing impression is of a vast lateral plane expanding from the jetty, embracing miles of water and rock. Thus the film and the object exist in a complementary not an explanatory relationship. (Still photographs of horizontal views are misleading, too, because they tend to exaggerate the rockiness of the foreground.)

And there is another factor, not given in the documentation. There have been attempts to drill oil in the area and not far from the jetty are ruined oil rigs, which led Smithson to comment: “This site gave evidence of a succession of manmade systems mired in abandoned hopes.”1 On the way to Rozel Point you pass the Golden Spike Monument where, out in a lonely landscape, two locomotives confront one another, face to face, on a single track. This stand-off, as it appears to be, actually commemorates the meeting of the rails, built from East and West, of the first transcontinental railroad.

FROM THE VALLEY where the Virgin River creates a skinny belt of green in the desert, Heizer’s Double Negative is hard to see; from this angle the main feature is the fanning out of the rock-spill where the excavated earth from the two cuts was pushed down the cliff. On the mesa, however, the scale is impressive, big but not enormous, pitched with a sense that is very different from the portentous look photographers often give it. To get up there you go from a paved road with soft shoulders and hairpin bends to a dirt road, with an immense panorama of pink, lavender, and blue mountains to the side. The mesa, though high, is flat. The edge is not visible from far away as a rule: just sudden plunges. Double Negative, cut into the edge of the mesa, is one of the few mediating forms between the top and the drop. Each cut is 50 feet deep and 30 wide, sloping down at the inner end, originally for the earth-moving equipment and now providing slippery access. Right up to its abrupt edge the mesa is a desolate place. Wind continually hisses through the low scrub, sometimes rising to a moan. Otherwise it is silent. My lips were already cracked from the dry heat in Overton, the nearest town, and the wind was not a cooling one.

The strata exposed by the cuts are red, pink, and grey, crumbling and soft near the top, eroded by wind and lack of moisture, like the whole land, but firming up a few feet down. The geometric clarity of the cuts has softened in seven years, and the sides are taking on the rounded edge and the natural collapse-curves of the sides of the mesa. In fact there has been a rockfall in one of the cuts recently. Heizer plans to clear this and to line the cuts with cement, using a local rock to insure color homogeneity. He lined some of his early Nevada Depressions, which are now buried, but the decision to do so here shows that he is now committed to preservation. The logic of the work, in fact, which is oddly systematic, requires it. The notches of Double Negative face each other across a canyon: one hits the edge of the mesa at right angles, the other, which is longer, hits sideways on, but the interior spaces are on a single axis. There is in fact a clean sequence of parts: first the slope or ramp, second the boxlike cut, and third the spill; then comes the intervening space and, in reverse, spill, cut, and slope. The total length of the piece is about 1,500 feet, somewhat over a quarter of a mile. Deterioration of any of the parts means the loss of this sequence.

At one point, 1970, Heizer said he wanted “my work to complete its life-span during my life-time. Say the work lasts for ten minutes or even six months, which isn’t really that long, it still satisfies the basic requirements of fact.”2 However, even when most concerned with the esthetics of expendability, Heizer reveals another interest entirely. “I’m mainly concerned with physical properties, with density, volume, mass and space. For instance, I find an 18-foot-square granite boulder. That’s mass. It’s already a piece of sculpture.”3 The notion of a ten-minute work of art involving an 18-foot-square granite boulder is fascinating and it reveals something of the connections that exist between early Earthworks, on one hand, and Minimal and Conceptual art on the other. The influence of Minimal sculpture’s unitary solids on Earthworks has been suggested by several writers, but we should bear in mind too the speculative and verbal activity associated with Conceptual art.

However, the full development of Earthworks is inseparable from monumentality, and it is only on this basis that the core works of the movement can be understood. Smithson, Heizer, and de Maria have all created large works of long duration and slow use which are the opposite of brief or expendable works.

The problem of monumental art is that in cities it is never big enough. When Barnett Newman’s Broken Obelisk was set in front of the Seagram Building on Park Avenue it became a 26-foot-high small sculpture. This despite the fact that Newman was using well-rehearsed public forms, the pyramid and the obelisk. Earthworks, even at their present scale, would not work in cities either: there is just too much interference from a lively and complex environment. Hence the only place to realize large works is not in the country, exactly, but in Continental America, which is to say in places where there is no prior cultivation, or very little. What is needed is thinly populated states with low real-estate values. Hence the placing of Earthworks in Nevada, Utah, Arizona, and Texas where, incidentally, the land is usually of no value and can be leased from the government.

Of course, convenience is never the decisive factor, and the fact that the frontier was more recently in the Southwest than in the Northeast is important. To make art on a large scale out of doors it is necessary to command survey procedures and construction techniques. The artist experiences the development of the work as practical control and social cooperation in contrast to the supposed isolation of the city-based “fine” artist. The Earthworks artists preserve the purity of their inspiration no less than their specialized peers, but they realize it in terms of engineering. The romanticism of the frontier finds expression in an ethic of physical labor. (Heizer and Smithson have both talked of the satisfactions of work in these terms. Apart from present geological and topographical problems, there is the sanction of the American past, such as the Indian burial mounds; one, the Serpent Mound in Adams County, Ohio, is 1,254 feet long, 20 feet wide on an average, and between 4 and 5 feet high. These long-running, low, indigenous works are certainly a part of the background of ideas that made Earthworks possible.

Heizer, in making Double Negative, removed rock and earth, but did not introduce materials from off-site as part of the structure. Smithson, in the Spiral Jetty and Amarillo Ramp, created finely articulated forms; but he did so with what was at hand, material collected on the shore and carried out into the water. De Maria’s Las Vegas Piece disturbs the landscape scarcely at all and though the poles of his First Lightning Field are imported to the site, they form a fine screen, not a bulky object. Smithson’s interest in containing and intersecting forms, Heizer’s in the displacement of large masses, and de Maria’s in illusive space are each absolutely different, but all are highly responsive to the given terrain. This is because of their realization that duration and scale are in themselves expressive, and that they are best achieved by works of art that do not compete materially with the landscape. The clear air, the aridity, the absence of trees, the erosional contours, all convey a geological sense of the uncovered landscape, the wilderness to which the sculpture is attuned.

Solitude characterizes the Spiral Jetty and the Double Negative and Las Vegas Piece. Although the works are big, they are in no sense social. They are best experienced singly by spectators; only in that way can there be a proper acknowledgment of the sense of being alone that these works induce. The remoteness of the sites as well as the scale of the landscape contribute to this effect. Earthworks communicate a cisatlantic sense of the resonantly empty. It is possible that the theme of the American Sublime, associated with Clyfford Still, Newman, and Mark Rothko, which certainly has no descendants in current abstract painting, may be present in the tie of Earthworks to the land. Though the landscape references of field painting can be over-stressed, the Sublime was assuredly linked to landscape painting in the 18th and 19th centuries. And it was associated precisely with the kind of sites—mountain, desert, lake—where the Earthworks are, and with such states of feeling as solitude.

THERE IS AN AMUSING account by Calvin Tomkins of a day spent not finding de Maria’s Las Vegas Piece.4 It is a scratch on the ground but a highly regular one, a square of four half-mile sides with half-mile extensions on two sides, the whole oriented north, south, east, and west. This geometric figure is the result of a single cut by a bulldozer with a six-foot blade, kept in a strict path.

To get there, you leave the highway at the Camp Elgin turnoff, follow a dirt road through a cattle guard and a deserted corral, and park exactly 1.2 miles beyond a crossroads. Then there is a walk of about three-quarters of a mile. The earthy is crumbly, Yucca trees stick up here and there, and the sour odor of sage brush is strong. Then, among the random scatter and clumping of vegetation, you step onto a straight cut, like the traditional railroad line perspective drawing. I arrived at 6:30 A. M. The cut is shallow with banked sides, pushed there by the original scraping. On the path are loose stones, dry twigs and roots, animal droppings, chipmunk holes, and some renewal of sage growth. As you walk along the deposit the growth thickens and thins; occasional jack rabbits spring away disturbed.

Las Vegas Piece is on a slope, and consequently furrowed by arroyos: at times the bulldozer crossed existing channels, but new ones have formed, washing away sections of the path. The corners are very soft compared to the definiteness of the long straight paths. The density of natural growth can define a straight line better than a right angle. The low visibility of the piece turns into insistent form once you enter, or board, it. It is a path: the invitation to walk is a demand. Owing to the incline of the site, you can see the mountains and foothills to the north, but to the south only the tops of the range are visible over the rising foreground. The light hardened and the heat mounted through the morning as I traversed the fragile but stubborn geometric diagram.

De Maria’s First Lightning Field (another bigger one is planned on another site) is approached-with almost as many delays as Las Vegas Piece. It is 40 miles out of Flagstaff, Arizona. After the highway you drive along Meteor Crater Road, before turning off on a dirt road. You park by a ruined cottage and cross the shallow Diabolo Canyon. Then there is a walk of a mile or so, uphill, though gently, over dry scrubby ground.

The Field consists of a regular grid of slim polished steel poles, two inches in diameter, 18 feet high and 30 feet apart, in five rows of seven. Knowing this, you look out for them as you ascend, squinting at the sky, which was clear, bright, and pale blue the afternoon I was there. It is hard to be sure when the posts are visible. They appear dubiously, and it is some time before you can be sure they are there. The mirage gradually hardens. The long approach is necessary if the forms are to be so gradually divulged, but even when you reach the site, the illusiveness is not given up. Five rows of seven posts, or seven of five, spaced regularly on flat terrain sounds like a perspective schema, a bare-bones version of the spatial platform of Renaissance art.

However, the ground is largely covered with low brush and the convergence of parallel lines is hardly perceived. On the contrary, depth perception is confused by the multiplication of slim, shining forms. As you move around within the area the changing axes also mix up the exact location of the posts. The posts, thin against a bright sky, produce an effect of stillness resulting from the suspension of orthogonal perspective. Both the approach to and the occupancy of First Lightning Field, therefore, have to do with a kind of dematerialization, a dismissal of mass or legible spatial cues.

The present Field may be relocated, but at present it is on the Chilson Ranch. De Maria records that it took him two years to find the site; it is between Meteor Crater and the volcanic San Francisco mountains, dark but streaked with snow in the distance. Thus de Maria associates his work by its position with volcanic origins and meteor impact, both topics of the science of planetary formation. There may be an undercurrent of imagery from de Maria’s works of the ’60s, such as the stainless steel ingots entitled High Energy Bars; the poles in the Field look as if they could transmit energy. In addition there is the notion that the rods will attract lightning and this recalls the “danger” of his spike sculptures. However, in the new work these themes are distilled far beyond the overtness of their earlier appearance.

THERE HAS BEEN SOME discussion about the status of Smithson’s Amarillo Ramp, inasmuch as he was killed before its completion. However, he had staked the piece out himself and the form of the work seems compatible with other works for which his total responsibility cannot be questioned. In addition there are drawings by Smithson that are close to the present form of the work. It is smaller than the Spiral Jetty, but the site is in some ways comparable. In both cases one comes on the work by topping a ridge and getting a clear, sudden view of the whole form: there is both the panoramic landscape and the sculpture, diagrammatic in its clarity. Then, a slower approach down the bank to a beach from which the work projects into water. In Utah the form is a spiral in shallow relief, sliding out into the heavy, placid water. In addition, the Texas site includes nearby the apparatus of an irrigation system for the ranch, an acknowledgment of technology, like the oil rigs at Rozel Point. At Emmen, Holland, there are two related pieces, Spiral Hill, a conical construction with a three-dimensional three-turn spiral, and Broken Circle, a geometric figure half on dry land, half extended into the water of the flooded quarry. This relates to several other projects dealing with the interface of earth and water in a circular format.

The Amarillo Ramp curls up and out into the Tecowas Creek, starting at ground level on the shore and rising to a height of 30 feet. It leads around and points back to land, but the circle is not closed; the water line of the creek runs between the two ends, one flat and one raised (the raised end is like a blunt serpent head). Outside the ramp the water ripples in a prevailing southwest wind; on the protected inner side, however, the water is stagnant. The day I was there bright blue dragonflies raced or hovered over the yellow water. (It is true that Smithson did not see the work but it is not hard to figure out the difference between moving and standing water; the two states of water, the increase of entropy, is typical of Smithson’s thought.) The ramp is ten feet wide, with an easy gradient that offers a definite solicitation to walk. Thus from the first schematic view of the work, you move to physical participation; and as you climb, the ramp turns into a viewing platform, directing attention back on the landscape.

Heizer’s new piece, Complex One/City, 1972–74, 140 feet long and 23 high, is the first of several projected sculptures. To build it, he formed a company, hired a general manager, and secured the support of Virginia Dwan. It sounds like an Earthwork, but the materials are cement, steel, and earth, with the earth shoveled up behind the frontal face of cement. In conversation Heizer insisted on the connection of the work to painting, but in fact architectural analogies seem more like it. There is the general resemblance to war architecture, hefty and armored, and more specifically the shadow play of the projecting horizontal T-form is like a fragment of a brise-soleil. The cement was poured in situ for each form, like a collection of monoliths. The finish is very neat, with subtle angles honed just right so that cracks of light show between the main mass and the projecting or free-standing parts. It is re-arranged by both changes of light and spectator movement. This nuancing is very different from the single gestures of space possession or domination of materials marked in his earlier work, and which is essential to Earthworks.

Clearly Heizer has changed his mind since he said: “My work is in opposition to the kind of sculpture which involves rigidly forming, welding, sealing, perfecting the surface of a piece of material.”5 This is exactly what he is doing now in a sculpture that extrudes from the earth and neither cuts into it nor defines it as a zone. Despite its location in Nevada, Complex One/City is not an Earthwork. What it amounts to will become clearer when Complex Two is built. Piranesi in Nevada?

Smithson, Dennis Oppenheim, and Heizer had all expressed serious reservations about the art gallery, as space and as system, by 1970, but none of them got away from it. On one hand the size of Earthworks obviously precludes gallery presentation, but there is an ethical side to the argument. Heizer: “One aspect of earth orientation is that the works circumvent the galleries and the artist has no sense of the commercial or the utilitarian.”6 The fact is, however, that the production of Earthworks was never severed from the support system for gallery-bound painting and sculpture.

Robert C. Scull, a collector, supported Heizer’s Nine Nevada Depressions in 1968. Virginia Dwan supported Double Negative and Walter de Maria’s Las Vegas Piece, both in 1969, as well as Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (in cooperation with the Ace Gallery). First Lightning Field was supported by Virginia Dwan and at present it occupies land belonging to the Burton Tremaynes, collectors. Without Virginia Dwan, it is hard to see what major Earthworks would have been constructed. Even if we consider her participation after 1971 (when she closed her gallery) as private patronage, there is no real difference, inasmuch as collectors, patrons and dealers are related as part of the support system as a whole. Though his position hardened later, Smithson held the most rational view of the Earthwork/art gallery situation, handling it by his general theory of site/non-site. He saw a relation between “some place (physical),” the site, and “no place (abstraction),” the nonsite, which constitutes, of course, the relation between the thing signified and the signifier in language. Thus he worked with the fact that the interplay of outdoor site and its indoor coordinates and samples was artificial, but so was language.

In what’s written above I have made certain assumptions on the basis of an implicit definition of Earthworks which I should declare. Perhaps this can be done by mentioning the artists that I have omitted, giving reasons. Carl Andre and Robert Morris, though associated with Smithson in the formative years of 1966–67, have done only occasional works that can be considered Earthworks and neither has welcomed the label. Morris has linked his Observatory, 1971, for instance, with ancient architecture and Andre’s use of the ground plane is definitely an indoor matter. Oppenheim, whose name was closely linked with Smithson and Heizer at first, has worked at the scale of Earthworks, but always with temporary materials, such as ice (Annual Rings, 1968) or agricultural process (Directed Seeding, 1969). His interest in process did not lead him to move from expendable configurations to monumental works of longer duration which is, I take it, an essential requirement of Earthworks. Heizer, in various shallow cut pieces of 1968, was also making expendable art. I asked him lately about visiting Dissipate (Black Rock Desert) or Isolated Mass/Circumflex (Massacre Dry Lake), but he said they were no longer visible, filled in and blown over long since. These low-lying works led to the large and more durable later pieces.

The Earthworks I have in mind are decisive contributions to the landscape, solid manifestations, “some place (physical),” compared to the more conceptual first phase of Earthworks. Will Insley’s One City, an ongoing series of plans, models, and descriptions, is a purely conceptual piece. It is the reverse of Christo, who treats construction as performance, producing events rather than long-term site-specific sculpture.

De Maria estimates that between 40 and 50 visitors have seen Las Vegas Piece in eight years and he reckoned between 20 and 30 for First Lightning Field. How many of these people were artists and are they themselves working in this style? There are other artists who make Earthworks not discussed here because I take them to be a second generation. However, their work makes the point that the works of Smithson, Heizer, and de Maria are developable, that is to say, verified by the experience of other artists, which I take to be a high compliment.

Lawrence Alloway


1. Robert Smithson. “The Spiral Jetty,” in Arts of the Environment, ed. Gyorgy Kepes, New York, 1972, p. 223.

2. Michael Heizer. “Discussions with Heizer, Oppenheim, Smithson,” Avalanche 1, Fall, 1970, p. 70.

3. Ibid.

4. Calvin Tomkins, The Scene: Reports on Post-Modern Art, New York, 1976, pp. 138–142.

5. Heizer. p. 70.

6. Heizer. p. 62.

I am grateful to Warren Maxey in Nevada, Mike Cavannagh in Arizona, and Stanley Marsh in Texas for getting me to the Earthworks.