12 Majestic, Must-See Examples of Land Art

Image of two people standing in front of a pyramid with grass and flowers growing out of it. Agnes Denes, "Living Pyramid." Photo via Flickr.

When Land art emerged in the 1960s and ‘70s, it was a time of rebellion, liberation, and general disdain for mainstream society. The feminist movement was on the rise, environmental concerns were gaining more attention, and there was a growing defiance against the commercialization of society and the traditional fine art that dominated the art world. In the midst of turmoil, artists looked to nature to reflect a simpler, less commercial existence and inspire a shift away from consumerism. This shift came to be known as Land art, also known as Earthworks or Earth art.

What is Land Art?

Land art is any work of art that blends with its environment, generally resulting in large-scale pieces that are integrated directly with nature and most often made up of site-specific elements. While contemporary works of art were transportable and sold for profit, artists of the Land art movement reject commercialization and instead created large-scale installations in rural areas that often speak to the power, expanse, and beauty of nature. In the ’60s and ’70s, this forced audiences to travel to remote areas in order to view these works of art, which reinforced an interest in rural living over urban areas.

What is the Difference Between Land Art and Environmental Art?

While similar in nature, there are a few key differences between Land art and Environmental art. Land art refers to art that is rooted in the site in which it was created, often with surrounding elements integrated directly into the piece. This rendered examples of Land art unmovable without losing its main message. Environmental art, in contrast, refers to an indoor or transportable piece that includes natural elements or speaks to a current environmental or social issue.

Environmental art often incorporates science or politics into each piece as well, such as in the example of Chris Jordan’s Midway: Message from the Gyre piece, which highlights the detrimental impact of mass consumption on our environment. 

A Brief History of Land Art

A broken circle made of earth and sand with water integrated throughout. A stone sits in the middle.

Robert Smithson, “Broken Circle and Spiral Hill,” 1971. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

While the framework for Land art is rooted in examples from art history including Stonehenge in the United Kingdom, the ancient pyramids in Egypt, and the Nazca Lines in southern Peru—which began decades earlier—the modern movement itself didn’t take hold until the 1960s. In the Land art movement, while many artists still drew from ancient works, most had roots in either conceptual art or minimalism. 

One of the most notable examples of early exhibitions solely dedicated to the movement is Earth Art, a 1969 exhibition at the Andrew Dickson White Museum of Art at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. Curated by Willoughby Sharp, a local activist and artist, the exhibit merged art and activism, questioning the need for boundaries in art and society. As this pivotal exhibition gained acclaim, so did the Land art movement. While the popularity of the movement took hold in the United States and the United Kingdom, Land art in the 1960s and ’70s emerged in rural areas across the globe. Popular Land art practitioners included Robert Smithson, Nancy Holt, and Andrew Rogers. The movement, however, began to wane in the mid-1970s when the economy stalled and private funding was not as readily available. Even though the traditional forms of Earthworks are less common today than they were in the mid-20th century, guiding principles and characteristics of Land art can be seen in contemporary art movements such as Ecological art and environmental sculpture.

Key Characteristics of Land Art

The guiding principles of Land art include communicating a respect for the earth, bearing a crucial connection to the site of the piece, and a thought-provoking message to inspire social or ecological change. By following these principles, Land artists helped to promote a more positive relationship between the audience and the earth, which was especially important during a time of such rapid urban development.

One problematic aspect of Land art was its lack of accessibility, which contradicted the ideology of the movement in which art belongs to everyone. Because of the remote locations selected for many key works, it wasn’t possible for everyone to view them in person. To help capture their essence in situ, photography and videography were used to capture the installations, which was then presented in more accessible locations such as museums and galleries. Although photography and video prevent a viewer’s complete immersion in the piece, the message behind the work was clear and helped expand Land art’s influence to a broader audience.

Famous Land Art Examples

Richard Long, “A Line Made By Walking” (1967)

Black and white image of a line in the grass leading to a grouping of trees

Richard Long, “A Line Made By Walking,” 1967. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

One of the first examples of Land art, A Line Made By Walking, was created by artist Richard Long in 1967 by walking the same path over and over again in Wiltshire, United Kingdom. Due to the ephemeral, fleeting quality of the work, it was unable to be commercialized and was applauded for having redefined the definition of what art could be.

Michael Heizer, “Double Negative” (1969)

Black and white image of a deep, rectangular hole in the rocky earth.

Michael Heizer, “Double Negative,” 1969. Photo via Flickr.

Combining elements of both of minimalism and conceptual art, artist Michael Heizer created the site-specific piece Double Negative in Moapa Valley, Utah in 1969. Using dynamite, Heizer created a 30-by-50-foot-wide gap in the earth, which drew attention to the negative space between the two sides of the gorge. By working with what isn’t there—even though this destruction was man-made—this piece underscored human impact on the environment.

Robert Smithson, “Spiral Jetty” (1970)

Image of the spiral jetty jutting out into the water from the land.

Robert Smithson, “Spiral Jetty,” 1970. Photo by Eve Andree Laramee via Wikimedia Commons.

One of the most notable pieces of Land art is undoubtedly Spiral Jetty, which was created by sculptor Robert Smithson in April of 1970, and is considered to be his greatest work. Using natural materials including black basalt rocks, salt crystals, and earth, Smithson documented the construction of the 1,500-foot-long spiral in an eponymous film. Nestled off the shore of the Great Salt Lake in Utah, the piece is a testament to the fleeting beauty of nature and the importance of preservation, as Spiral Jetty was created to eventually be washed away by the earth’s natural erosion.

Nancy Holt, “Sun Tunnels” (1976)

Image of concrete tunnels in a field with sun shining on them.

Nancy Holt, “Sun Tunnels,” 1976. Photo by Calvin Chu via Wikimedia Commons.

Using nature as her medium, Nancy Holt’s Sun Tunnels challenged the traditional definition of what art could be by re-framing how we view the natural world. Resting in the middle of the Utah desert, Sun Tunnels are comprised of four carefully placed concrete cylinders. The audience is invited to step inside these tunnels and perfectly view the sunrise and sunset during the summer solstice and winter solstice. The cylinders are also adorned with holes so that constellations, such as Perseus and Capricorn, can be viewed inside. By using concrete, a mundane and industrial material, Holt was able to draw the viewer’s attention away from the cylinders themselves and to the beauty of the landscape, encouraging them to see the world in an entirely new way.

Walter de Maria, “The Lightning Field” (1977)

Image of a field during sunset with poles sprinkled throughout.

Walter de Maria, “The Lightning Field,” 1977. Photo via Flickr.

Similar to Nancy Holt’s Sun Tunnels, The Lightning Field was created by Walter de Maria in 1977 and used unconventional materials to draw attention to the power of the natural world. The piece is comprised of 400 steel poles arranged in a grid across a large field in Quemado, New Mexico to attract lightning during storms. Subject to the unpredictability of nature, this display can take on many forms depending on the weather, which is intended to highlight earth’s ephemerality and fluid climatic conditions.

Agnes Denes, “Wheatfield A Confrontation” (1982)

In 1982, amid the towering skyscrapers of New York City, Agnes Denes created a Land art piece that deviated from the more traditional characteristics of Earthworks. Rather than setting her composition in a remote location, Denes chose to feature it on a $4.5 billion plot to comment on the world’s twisted morality. On the plot, Denes planted and successfully harvested over 1,000 pounds of wheat during a four-month period, which was then donated to famished countries. Her work called for a return to compassion and community.

Marinus Boezem, “The Green Cathedral” (1987)

Birdseye view of trees in the shape of a cathedral.

Marinum Boezem, “The Green Cathedral,” 1987. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

While the Land art movement predominantly took place in the United States and United Kingdom, its influence spread across the globe. One prominent example of the movement’s influence is The Green Cathedral, created by Marinus Boezem in April of 1987 in Southern Flevoland, Netherlands. By using Lombardy Poplar trees to recreate the likeness of Notre-Dame Cathedral in France, Boezem developed a stunning and immersive installation that proves nature’s beauty can easily rival man-made structures.

Andres Amador, “Earthscapes” (2004)

Image of a flower drawn in the sand next to the ocean.

Andres Amador, “Earthscapes,” 2004. Photo by Eugene Kim via Flickr.

Calling upon geometric and free-form shapes, artist Andres Amador’s Earthscapes are patterns drawn in the sand. His first Land art piece took shape on Ocean Beach in San Francisco in 2004, and its fleeting beauty was captured on camera just before the tide washed it away. He has since created hundreds of Earthscapes around the world. Amador hopes that his designs will remind other artists to bring back joy in their work.

Andrew Rogers, “Bunjil Geoglyph” (2006)

Birdseye view of an eagle made out of rocks in a field.

Andrew Rogers, “Bunjil Geoglyph,” 2006. Photo via Flickr.

The Bunjil Geoglyph was created on March 3rd, 2006 by artist Andrew Rogers as a tribute to the indigenous people of Wathaurong, Australia. The work depicts Bunjil, a mythical protector and spirit of the Wathaurong aboriginal people in the form of an eagle, to both honor the land’s rich history and ensure its preservation for years to come. Constructed in You Yangs Regional Park in Victoria, Australia, Bunjil’s wingspan covers 100 meters of land and was made primarily with rocks found in the area.

Lita Albuquerque, “Stellar Axis: Antarctica” (2006)

Image of a snowy field with blue balls throughout.

Lita Albuquerque, “Stellar Axis: Antarctica,” 2006. Photo via Flickr.

The first site-specific artwork in Antarctica, Stellar Axis consisted of 99 blue spheres that correlated both in size and location to the stars above. However, as time passed and the earth and stars began to shift from their original position, the piece served as a reminder of the importance of honoring our earth’s past and preserving its future. Land artist Lita Albuquerque unveiled this piece in 2006 after years of work, in hopes of reviving society’s connection to something greater.

Michael Grab, “Stone Balance” (2008)

Michael Grab, an artist and photographer, is best known for his Stone Balance pieces created in various environments and climates beginning in 2008. What started as an experiment in Boulder Creek, Colorado has now become a global event, as Grab travels and builds these pieces in remote and well-populated areas around the world. His works are created for temporary enjoyment, and their eventual destruction is a reminder of the fleeting nature of the world and infers the value of staying present.

Maya Lin, “Storm King Wavefield” (2009)

Image of a grassy field with wave patterns, with trees behind.

Maya Lin, “Storm King Wavefield,” 2009. Photo via Flickr.

Juxtaposing elements of nature are brought together in this imposing and impressive work by artist Maya Lin in the Storm King Art Center in Mountainville, New York. Bringing the fluidity of water to a grassy knoll that is inextricable to its surrounding environment, Lin created an Earthworks piece that is both intimidating and accessible. While from a distance the rolling hills seem larger-than-life, up close they are an inviting and beautiful depiction of nature in unique forms.

The influence of Earthworks pieces can be seen across decades and genres of artists’ work. Land art challenged the standards of traditional art, encouraging artists to explore social and political issues through their work. This integration is a hallmark of contemporary art⁠—including newer movements like the Sustainable art⁠ movement—as consumers and artists alike become more environmentally, socially and politically aware.

Sources: Tate | Art & Education | The Art Story