Down to Earth

John Haber
in New York City

Feminism and Land Art

In the 1970s, men were tearing the human landscape apart. They were burying a shed in earth, filling a lake with sand and stone, ripping deep into the land and piling it high, cutting through low houses and river skylights, and depositing the debris in bins on the gallery floor.

And what were women doing? They were building, saving, planting, and growing. They were creating tunnels in the earth for sunlight to penetrate and platforms in the sky. They were binding trees and building stairwells for others to climb. They were leaving seeds and time capsules underground, waiting for recovery to unfold of itself. Jackie Ferrara's Wave Hill Project (Frederieke Taylor gallery, 1980/2008)

So argues "Decoys, Complexes, and Triggers: Feminism and Land Art in the 1970s." It asks whether recovery can still begin or has continued all along. It also implicitly asks who gets to define feminism, earthworks, the late 1970s, and the origins of today's diversity. In a postscript, I ask what the relegation of feminism and land art to an alley in Long Island City has meant for an understanding of the past.

Between monument and open air

In 1979, Jackie Ferrara started her own Hudson River School, but few took much notice. With so much of the action already in Soho, she constructed her Wave Hill Project on the gently sloping lawns of Wave Hill, New York's largest private park, overlooking the river.

Her project's wooden stairs lead up to a platform, before forming a pyramidal tower at the far end. A treacherous gap in the middle could almost supply the missing symmetry. It calls attention to the work's craft, form, and materials. It also disrupts one's attempt to see a narrative with a triumphant ending. In a quiet alcove of the Bronx, far from the subways, she created a sculpture with space for unknown actors, a platform without an orator, a stage with the orchestra pit in the middle, a trap door without a hinge, and a monument to no one, not even to herself.

That project has vanished long ago, but a model rests for a while in the pebbled courtyard at SculptureCenter. It appears less towering than in a photograph of the original, which looked down upon the Hudson, but still taller than earthly museum visitors. The show includes models, recreations, photographs, and video by ten artists, but not solely as a history lecture. Like Ferrara's, the work all rests between sculpture, architecture, extensions of the earth, and preservation of half-remembered landscapes. Her own best-known sculpture—cubes of wood penetrated by a single channel—presents an enclosure, but with the temptation to look inside. These artists are simultaneously looking in and looking out.

Even now, Robert Smithson and Gordon Matta-Clark loom almost as large as the scale of their work. They left image after image of themselves in action. They also left theoretical as well as physical structures, with a lingering influence on everything from installations to new media. Walter de Maria still has his New York Earth Room in Soho, where not even a weed can grow, and William Lamson drags himself across a parched earth on video. Michael Heizer's titanic City of dirt still rises somewhere inaccessible out west. "Decoys, Complexes, and Triggers" presents a striking contrast, and it goes well beyond formal differences.

By their nature, earthworks and land art resist an easy museum retrospective, and so do these women artists. They were not building monuments, not even Smithson's "Monuments of Passaic." They left instead the Sunken Pool and Perimeters/Pavilions/Decoy, a ring of sunken chambers, of Mary Miss. They left Nancy Holt's Sun Tunnels, Jackie Winsor's Burned Piece and Exploded Piece, Lynda Benglis with her Night Sherbet of poured polyurethane foam, Michelle Stuart with canvases of graphite and earth, Suzanne Harris's Inhabitant, and Wheatfield by Agnes Denes—long since harvested of its thousand pounds to give way to the luxury rentals of Battery Park City. Often they leave one uncertain what one means by "above ground," as with Alice Adams's Shorings, a slurry wall in the open air. One cannot climb Ferrara's pyramid, but one can ascend Stairs (These Stairs Can Be Climbed), by Alice Aycock, only to run up against the museum ceiling like a second floor.

They were most certainly not building memorials to themselves, no more than Grace Knowlton with her Dirt Piles. Holt did document earth art as filmed performance—but that of her husband, Smithson. It was very much his performance, and the show omits it. Miss, Winsor, and Aycock give interviews, but not at the physical center of their work. Miss, still wide-eyed and youthful in her thirties, credits Robert Morris and Leo Steinberg as influences, and she speaks of how art lets her to "distance myself from myself." Holt's tunnels, Stuart's East/West Wall, Denes's harvest, and Aycock's Tropico de Cancer align their work not with the artist's impulse or the course of civilization, but with the seasons and the sky.

Nonsites and temptresses

A different kind of self-effacement appears in a shared vocabulary of materials and forms. The artists rely on wood, bricks and other preindustrial materials low to the ground. Unlike Richard Serra or Joseph Beuys, they avoid rolled steel and abrupt cuts into the gallery. Benglis's synthetic globs of bright color seem apart, but she exhibited together with Winsor, and the context alters one's understanding of her work as painting. One circulates the work, like traditional sculpture, and it does not thrust itself in one's face or present the risk of entrapment. Visually, however, it almost always opens sightlines to penetration.

The exhibition insists on that openness. Its title locates the art's practice in indirection. One could describe it, in contrast to Smithson's poles of site and nonsite, as a refusal to disassociate inside and out. Miss's 1979 Screened Court presents not so much an open court or a closed screen as degrees of enclosure. Four tall screens define the axes for the concentric octagons within. The pit within Wave Hill Project extends the spacing between wood slats, creating an interchange between materials and open air.

One can easily see the resemblance between different artists—and the break with a textbook history of the 1970s. From Ferrara's upward promise, one moves easily to Aycock's stairs in the same humble wood. One can seek feminist associations, too, but at a price. They might include the craft tradition or the orifices of the Sun Tunnels. However, more than one artist never thought of her practice as feminist, and they were not making overtly political art. Unlike Ana Mendieta in collaboration with Hans Breder, they were not identifying a woman's essence with the earth.

The curator, Catherine Morris, avoids that reduction, too. Rather, she locates the art's feminism in its temptations and instability, even as Mierle Laderman Ukeles spoke instead of "maintenance art." The recreation of Aycock's 1974 Stairs makes me think of the ladder that John Lennon one ascended for Yoko Ono, but with no sure footing back—just as her "The Riverbed" takes me back to feminism and land art. This and other decoys might be extending the view of the same period in "WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution," closing just up the street at P.S. 1. They could also be countering it, with continuities that the blockbuster leaves out. They could be insisting on feminist histories, like art histories, in the plural.

One such history might turn this show upside-down. Do complexity and instability mark women's art? That could make it the exemplar of Smithson's entropy and nonsite, as well as the ancestor of all those installations today touted and dismissed as "Undone," "Unmonumental," and overblown. Conversely, associating women with decoys, like the age-old siren or temptress, may reduce their complexity most. For all that, however, this superb exhibition recovers affinities among artists and a neglected history. I have often confused Aycock's and Ferrara's stairs—or Ferrara's and Winsor's hollow artifacts—and that alone should tell me something.

A larger show might have told me even more. Winsor's cement, nails, and burnt wood push the vocabulary of land art to its limits. She has also made art of hemp twined around steel rods and logs. A less polemical exhibition could have had room for sculpture like hers and Ferrara's cubes. It would have allowed less of an affront to museum culture, but it would have done still more to recover a style and its affinities. Denes buried her time capsule alongside rice for, she hoped, a century—and its time may come.

An Apatow moment

"Decoys, Complexes, and Triggers" brings a disappointing personal history and yet a ray of hope. Certainly when even the Guggenheim Museum devotes six floors to a woman, there is hope. Louise Bourgeois fills the entire ramp and then some. Only David Smith has had so full a retrospective there in recent years, quite apart from shows elsewhere of David Smith for his paintings and Cubi, and even he could not match her fecundity. After all, she has outlived him by over forty years. Just as important, Louise Bourgeois and other women are giving the present moment an ancestry, most obviously with "WACK!" at P.S. 1, "Role Play: Feminist Art Revisited" at Galerie Lelong, and now at SculptureCenter.

Jerry Saltz frequently notes the disproportion of male artists in Chelsea, with statistics that would do the Guerilla Girls proud. By comparison, I can offer only anecdotal evidence and chance impressions. Naturally some institutions have a better track record than others. Men dominate emerging artists at the Studio Museum in Harlem, MoMA seems fixated on finding art big and blustery enough for its atrium, and Biennials sometimes settle for female alcoves. Still, the Whitney has recently had stellar shows of Beth Campbell, Kara Walker, Kiki Smith, and Lorna Simpson. The Jewish Museum has dedicated an exemplary string of shows to Chantal Akerman, Joan Snyder, Eva Hesse, and Louise Nevelson, plus a room for "exclusions" in its current look at Abstract Expression.

The Guggenheim by comparison seems an embarrassment, but it reflects, one can hope, only a passing fashion. Perhaps art's equivalent of Hollywood, like the real thing, is just having its Jude Apatow moment. A former auto welder like Smith may have known his own over-the-top male gestures, but Matthew Barney or Cai Guo-Qiang have more to do with entertainments and provocations elsewhere—including Takashi Murakami or Jean-Michel Basquiat in Brooklyn, soft-core painting from John Currin, and any number of trashy installations that border on architecture. And these things appear at venues upscale enough to afford them. That still leaves plenty bubbling up from beneath. If I had to name shows this year that I most vividly remember, I should hardly know where to begin.

For hope, I could point to a cavalcade of exhibitions on precisely the question—the place of women in contemporary art. The Brooklyn Museum created its Sackler Center for that purpose, even if most of it goes to Judy Chicago. Its "Global Feminisms" descended into mindless cheerleading, but "The Feminine Mystique" in Jersey City made a good antidote. Even the Guggenheim picked a woman, Tacita Dean, for its last yawn of a Booker Prize and let women photographers steal the scene of its "Family Pictures." Women have also had central places in surveys of the 1970s quite apart from feminism—such as Jennifer Bartlett in the Broida collection, Benglis in "High Times, Hard Times," and Marina Abramovic and Carolee Schneemann in one after another regurgitation of shock art at P.S. 1. As for my own oversights, if I had to name shows this year that I most wish I had found words to review, I should pick Judith Bernstein in January at Mitchell Algus and Carrie Mae Weems in February at Jack Shainman.

These shows have to do with more than political correctness or even political art. They do exactly what good criticism does—supply a new context for the familiar and unfamiliar alike. Not coincidentally, they follow many years of gender studies, as not just advocacy but insight—into artists male and female, past and present. I simply had to feature feminism in my thematic index when I created this site in 1994. All these critical and curatorial efforts are about creating a past within the confines of the present, what some feminists like to call finding "our mothers." However, therein lies a problem, especially in a time of success, of a greater public, and of banking on results.

For all of what "WACK!" calls in its subtitle "art and the feminist revolution," these are not revolutionary times. To return to where I began, I shopped around this review of an equally important history of the 1970s, "Feminism and Land Art," but the print editor wanted something closer to the New York scene—something young, something in Manhattan, and something hot. Ancestors are so yesterday. I also keep learning about artists with extraordinary work and no hope of a gallery, and it cannot be coincidence when they are also grown women. As it gets harder for artists to sustain a career on the margins, the burden has to fall hardest on groups marginalized in the recent past.

BACK to John's arts home page

"Decoys, Complexes, and Triggers: Feminism and Land Art in the 1970s" ran at SculptureCenter through July 28, 2008.


Browse or Search by artist or critic Browse by period in art's histories Browse by postmodern ideas Check out what's NEW Some of my own favorites Museums, galleries, and other resources online Who is Haberarts? Return HOME