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Formations of Erasure: Earthworks and Entropy 

A project by the Center for Land Use Interpretation 

April 25 - June 2, 2001 

Formations of Erasure: Earthworks and Entropy is a contemporary photographic display 
about the interaction of earthworks with the sculpting forces of erosion. Earthwork 
(sometimes called Land Art) sites are places where the earth itself is used as a medium 
for artistic expression, where artists have used soil, rock, or other terrestrial materials, 
sometimes on a large scale, to create pieces that explore cultural or formal issues relating 
to the landscape. This exhibit features a selection of earthworks, represented in large 
color photographic prints (all recent additions to the Center for Land Use Interpretation 
Photographic Archive), where the earthworks have been transformed by natural and 
human erosion to become a new kind of landform - a formation that blends the 
intentionality of the artist's hand with the subsequent "entropic" forces of decay. 

The following sites are represented in contemporary photos taken by the Center for Land 
Use Interpretation (CLUI), accompanied by interpretive text panels also written by CLUI: 

1. Robert Smithson, Spiral Jetty, 1970, Great Salt Lake, Utah 

2. Robert Smithson, Amarillo Ramp, completed after Smithson's death in 1973 by Nancy 
Holt and Richard Serra, Amarillo, Texas 

3. Robert Smithson, Partially Buried Woodshed, 1970, Kent State University, Ohio 

4. Nancy Holt, Star-Crossed, 1979, Miami University, Ohio 

5. Michael Heizer, the site of Rift 1, a part of his Nine Nevada Depressions, 1968, Jean 
Dry Lake, Nevada 

6. Michael Heizer, Double Negative, 1969-1970, Morman Mesa, Nevada 

7. Michael Heizer, Effigy Tumuli, 1983-1985, Buffalo Rocks State Park, Illinois 

8. William Bennett, Jamesville Quarry, 1976-1986, Jamesville, New York 

9. James Pierce, Pratt Farm, 1970-1982, Clinton Maine 

10. Various artists, Art Park, 1974-, on the Niagara River, near Lewiston, New York. 
Numerous artists, including Alice Aycock, Alan Sonfist, and Dennis Oppenheim, used this 
site. Nancy Holt and Laurie Anderson also worked on sites in this 200-acre park. Text 

Digitized by the Internet Archive 
in 2018 with funding from 

Storefront for Art and Architecture; National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC); and Mr. Robert M. Rubin 

Additional text panels: 

Introduction text (sent as attachment) 

WHAT IS AN EARTHWORK? (2 panels, sent in hard copy) 

About the Center for Land Use Interpretation 

The Center for Land Use Interpretation (CLUI) is a nonprofit organization involved in land 
and landscape issues. The Center employs a multimedia and multidisciplinary approach to 
increase and diffuse knowledge about how the world's lands are apportioned, utilized, 
and perceived. Photo-documentary projects, guidebooks, publications, bus tours, and 
site-specific installations are some of the techniques employed by the CLUI. The Center is 
supported by grants from public sources and private foundations, as well as donations 
from individuals and by the proceeds from the sale of publications. 

For more information on CLUI see their website: 

This exhibition was originated by the Center for Land Use Interpretation, and shown in 
their gallery, in Los Angeles, September 15 - November 18th, 2000. 

Introduction text, by the Center for Land Use Interpretation 

Earthworks, sculptures made on and with the land, represent a lasting 
dialogue between the earth and the artist. In some cases, the 
discussion continues long after the artis has left, reverberating in 
popular journals and scholarly mediums. But this dialogue also 
continues, undernoticed, out in the field, where the physical form 
continues to interact with the environment. Paying attention to this 
aspect of the conversation, we can learn something more about the 
meaning these creations may harbor. 

In the landscape, entropy transforms the potential energy stored in 
built forms into the kinetic energy of erosion. When a hole is dug or a 
pile mounded, erosion is active in the process as well, and when an 
earthwork is complete, erosion takes over, modifing the form 
according to its laws, using gravity, water and wind. Over time, the 
structure receeds from the pure, intentional form of the the artist's 
idea, into a new state that cannot be created soley by human hands, a 
dynamic form that represents a collaboration between humans and the 
nonhunam world. 

But erosional decy cannot be described simply as a force of nature, 
and it does not necessarily exist in opposition to human endeavor. 
Decay is a condition opf life that begins at birth. If the creation of an 
earthwork is compared to an act of birth, the life of the piece is played 
out after the artist has left, by its life long journey into phtsical 
nonexistence, and beyond memory. 

For even when no traces of the earthwork remain visible at the site, 
the earthwork remains. Its image, burned into innumerable 
publications, renewed and circulating endlessly, is, to many people, 
the only evidence that exists at all. But the life of an earthwork takes 
place outside the frame, in the landscape, for all to see, part of the 
common vocabulary of American landforms. 

Some of the most monumental “earthworks” are still under construction (and therefore 
have not yet begun to decay), such as Star Axis, a sculpture/observatory carved into a 
hillside in New Mexico, which was started in the 1970’s by Charles Ross. Also in this 
category are Roden Crater, James Turrell’s piece in Arizona, and Complex City, Michael 
Heizer’s mile-long sculpture in Nevada. 

Of the countless fixed, outdoor sculptures done for campuses, office parks, public parks 
and private collections, many have elements of an “earthwork,” but ultimately depend 
too much on concrete or other non-native construction materials to fully be defined as 
such. Examples include Beverly Pepper’s 1974 piece Amphisculpture, at AT&T’s 
national control center in New Jersey (pictured); Nancy Holt’s 1976 Utah piece Sun 
Tunnels, and Walter De Maria’s Lightning Field. These fall more squarely in the “land 
art” category. 

Many earthworks in the country were examined for this exhibit, 
but are not shown here because they are maintained (for the time 
being), held in stasis by vigilant grounds keepers who keep the 
entropic forces at bay. Pictured above is one such case, Herbert 
Bayer’s Earth Mound , located at the Aspen Institute in Colorado. 
This piece was done in 1955, predating the pioneering earthworks 
of Michael Heizer by a dozen years. Herbert Bayer has made other 
earthworks which are also well-maintained, such as Mill Creek 
Canyon Park , in Washington State, which is near the similarly 
well-tended Johnson Gravel Pit piece by Robert Morris. Other 
earthworks which are well-maintained include Maya Lin’s Wave 
Field , in a courtyard at the University of Michigan, and Richard 
Fleischner’s Sod Maze , on the lawn of a mansion in Newport, 
Rhode Island. These pieces are suspended in an uneroded state 
and, like the earthworks still under construction, we will have to 
return to them, at least in the context of this exhibit, after they 
have been released into the outside world . 


Terminology and definitions of this genre vary, but 
generally an earthwork is considered to be a sculp¬ 
ture made outdoors, integrating existing elements of 
the site into the form of the sculpture. However, 
unlike the broader category of “land art” or “earth 
art,” which includes outdoor art that may be tran- 
sient, temporary, or conceptual, earthworks tend to 
be fixed in place, and use earthen material, such as 
stone, gravel, or soil, as the primary sculptural 
material. Another type of land art, called “environ¬ 
mental art” by some, includes a broader range of 
material, such as water and flora, and explores earth 
processes with a more systematic or ecological 
approach. Earthworks may be further defined by 
including only works that primarily use material 
that is native to the site, and not imported material 
such as paints, lumber, and concrete. This is the 
definition used to select sites for this exhibit. 

Landscape architecture, land art, or earthwork? 

The Grand Rapids Project , made by Robert Morris in 1974, is a piece that illustrates the margins of such - at tiim 
seemingly arbitrary - definitions. The piece was built on an eroded hillslope in a city park near downtown Grar 
Rapids, Michigan. Construction involved recontouring the hill and adding paths, one ringing the top of the hi 
(aroimd a huge, concealed water tank), and another set of paths along the graded face of the hill, which meet in tl 
middle forming a visible ‘X’ on the hillside. Erosion was controlled by a drainage system, with buried pipes. 1 
some degree this piece is a civil works project, where a slope was stablized, protecting recreational areas belo 
and a storage tank essential to the city’s water supply at the top. It is also landscape architecture, as the site h; 
many of the functional and esthetic elements of a park. It is also like an earthwork, as it is made mostly of shape 
earth, and, perhaps more significantly, because it was made by an established artist who has made other eartl 


The Spiral Jetty is a basalt spiral 1500 feet long, and 15 feet wide, which 
protrudes from the shore of the Great Salt Lake, on submerged land leased 
from the government. Given his preoccupation with entropy, it is fitting 
that each of the three existing earthworks designed by Smithson in the 
United States are severely degraded, and each in a different way. The 
Spiral Jetty is usually invisible, lying a few feet under the fluctuating sur¬ 
face level of the lake. Smithson built the piece in 1970 at a time when the 
lake was at a particularly low level. The Dia Foundation of New York, 
which acquired the piece from Smithson’s estate in 1999, has pledged to 
make the site more accessible, and may even be considering adding rocks 
to make it visible more often (Smithson said he would raise the level 15 
feet if it became submerged). For the present, the piece only occasionally 
rises to the levels of perceptibility, within the visual conundrum that is the 
Great Salt Lake. 

A mile down the shore from the Spiral Jetty is another jetty, once used for an 
oil pumping operation. The site is littered with debris, and Smithson was 
inspired by it, saying “The mere sight of the trapped fragments of junk and 
waste transported one into a world of modem prehistory. The products of a 
Devonian industry, the remains of a Silurian technology, all the machines of 
the Upper Carboniferous Period were lost in those expansive deposits of 
sand and mud.” 


While Spiral Jetty is submerged, Smithson’s other spiral earthwork, 
Amarillo Ramp, is now high and dry. It was originally built in a shallow, 
artificial irrigation pond which was drained by the property owners a few 
years after the construction of the ramp. The earthwork consists of a 398 
foot long mound in the shape of 4/5ths of a circle, which rises from 
ground level to approximately 12 feet in height. No efforts to preserve the 
structure have been made, and the piece is changing slowly by erosion due 
to water and wind, by the footsteps of the occasional visitor, and cattle. 
Robert Smithson died in a plane crash while surveying the site in 1973, 
along with the pilot and a photographer (the crash site is just a few hun¬ 
dred yards from the ramp). The piece was finished by his widow Nancy 
Holt, and Richard Serra. It was commissioned by Stanley Marsh, who 
owns over 200 square miles of ranch land around Amarillo, on which he 
has had several other sculptures built, including the Cadillac Ranch. 

The ramp is coated in a shaggy hide of brush, though the gener; 
the piece is very much intact. 


Robert Smithson conceived and executed this piece while he was staying 
at Kent State University for a week as a visiting artist in January, 1970. It 
was too cold for the “mud pour” work he had expected to perform, so this 
substitute was hastily developed by Smithson and some of the students. 
Intended as an illustration of entropy, dirt was dumped on an empty shed 
by a backhoe until the center beam of the wood and stucco structure 
cracked. Before he left the campus, the piece was officially transferred to 
the University and valued at $ 10,000, and Smithson said that he expected 
the piece to just “go back to the land.” But many unforeseen events con¬ 
spired to alter the piece physically and contextually. After Smithson’s 
death in 1973, his widow, Nancy Holt, lobbied to have the shed’s remains 
preserved, but in 1975 it was partially burned by arsonists. Despite their 
obligations to preserve the piece. University officials considered the 
remains an eyesore, and over the next decade grounds keepers removed 
all of the pieces that fell to the ground. By 1984, all that was left was the 
mound itself (pictured above) and some portions of the foundation. 

A few months after the piece was “built” the famous Kent State shooi 
occurred (where students protesting the Vietnam War were killed by Nati 
Guardsmen), and soon afterwards someone commemorated the even 
painting “May 4 Kent 70” on the woodshed. The lettering, visible ffon 
road and remaining on the shed for years, linked the shed and the “brea 
point” of the beam, to the cultural shift that many consider the Kent J 
shootings to represent. Today the remains are hidden in a grove of trees, i 
of which were planted some time ago to obscure the ruin. The grove is 
rounded by the new Liquid Crystal Materials Science building, a foo 
field, and a parking lot. 

A few months after the piece was “built” the famous Kent State shootings 
occurred (where students protesting the Vietnam War were killed by National 
Guardsmen), and soon afterwards someone commemorated the event by 
painting “May 4 Kent 70” on the woodshed. The lettering, visible from the 
road and remaining on the shed for years, linked the shed and the “breaking 
point” of the beam, to the cultural shift that many consider the Kent State 
shootings to represent. Today the remains are hidden in a grove of trees, most 
of which were planted some time ago to obscure the ruin. The grove is sur¬ 
rounded by the new Liquid Crystal Materials Science building, a football 
field, and a parking lot. 


In 1979, Nancy Holt was commissioned to do two works on the grounds 
of Miami University in Ohio, a piece called Polar Circle , and this piece 
called Star-Crossed. Polar Circle was destroyed not long afterwards, 
apparently by accident, by the University grounds crew. Star-Crossed has 
survived, but is in a degraded state, and is officially closed (as a sign next 
to the sculpture indicates). The piece is made primarily of earth, originally 
mounded to a height of 14 feet, covering two concrete tubes, one aligned 
north-south and the other east-west, held in place by a buried steel frame. 
Until recently, the grounds crew of the University has been attempting to 
maintain it as part of the landscaping of the property, and it has not been 
treated as an artwork with special conservatorial needs. Some years ago, 
due to insufficient irrigation, the grass covering died, and the soil, thus 
exposed to erosion, slowly slumped down the steep slopes. The sculpture 
was rebuilt, but with the existing clay subsoil mixed into the topsoil, mak¬ 
ing for a less resilient form. Efforts to preserve the piece are said to be 
moving forward, under a new director at the art museum. 

The higher end of the north-south tunnel has a path leading to it up the side 
of the mound, and visitors were encouraged to look through the tube to the 
oval pool, which appears as a circle when viewed through the tunnel. The 
pool, now empty, was meant to reflect the sky, so while you are looking 
down, you are seeing up. 

Located behind the art museum on campus, Star-Crossed is a few feet 
shorter than the original height of 14 feet. The base is wider, and the top is 
sharper. While attempts to revegetate the sculpture with the original grasses 
failed, there are hopes that a recent “hydroseeding” - the application of a 
green slurry spray of fertilizer and seed that highway departments use on 
medians - may have been successful. 


Desert dry lakes are the most entropically evolved of landforms. They are 
composed of the constituents of the melted landscapes that surround them, 
mixed into a stratified mud, pressed flat by gravity. Like a skin that heals 
itself, runoff moistens the mud so that disturbances to their surface 
become erased over the years. Jean Dry Lake (pictured above), south of 
Las Vegas,-has thus totally absorbed Michael Heizer’s Rift 7, a zig-zag 
trench dug into the lake surface in 1968, as part of his Nine Nevada - 
Depressions. This series of pieces was located primarily on dry lakes 
throughout the state, comprising a “520 mile earthwork.” Heizer, Dennis 
Oppenheim and Walter De Maria sometimes travelled together during 
1968 and 1969, creating temporary works in the desert and on other dry 
lakes (Massacre and Black Rock, in Nevada, and especially Coyote and El 
Mirage in California). All traces of these works seem to have disappeared, 
and we are left only with the lingering images of them, filling the pages of 
land art books. Appropriately, in this age of virtuality and image , these 
same dry lakes are favored locations for the image production industries 
of advertising and television. Like the earthworks artists, they know that 
work set on dry lakes - these terminal landscapes - make images that 
linger in the mind, long after they are gone. 


An earthwork created by the artist Michael Heizer from 1969 to 1970, the 
piece consists of two gouges in the edge of a mesa in southern Nevada. 
The 30 foot wide, 50 foot deep cuts, made by dynamite and bulldozers, 
face each other from either side of a “scallop” on the eroded edge of the 
natural landform, suggesting a continuous, invisible, negative form 
between them. The piece, totaling almost 1,500 feet from end to end 
(including the space between), is now property of the Los Angeles 
Museum of Contemporary Art. To date, no efforts have been made to pre¬ 
serve this site, and the walls of the man-made canyon are crumbling, due 
to weathering and human visitation, as the piece’s location, though 
remote, is well known, and usually accessible by car. Heizer has made 
comments about wanting to encase the eroding walls in concrete to arrest 
the decay, and other improvements are under discussion. Meanwhile, he 
continues to work on Complex City at a location 125 miles north of 
Double Negative , which, when it is complete, will probably be the largest 
sculpture in the world. 

Rubble from the walls of the artificial canyon is col¬ 
lapsing into the sculpture, threatening to positively fill 
the “negative” space. 


The Effigy Tumuli earthwork consists of five geometrically abstracted 
animal forms, created on old mining land along the Illinois River. Now a 
state park, the sculpture is in flux, parts eroding, parts overgrown, others 
nearly bare. It is one of the largest artworks in the country, and the shapes 
are so large that they can only be discerned from the air. On the ground, 
one experiences mounded earth, paths, interpretive signs, drainage con¬ 
trol gullies, and patches of grass, shrubbery and exposed earth. Michael 
Heizer was commissioned to make the sculpture in 1983, by the president 
of the Ottawa Silica Company, who had an interest in art and whose com¬ 
pany owned the site. The property had been strip mined for coal, and was 
a polluted and eroded barren landscape, with highly acidic soil. For this 
“reclamation art” project, instead of drawing on his vocabulary of 
abstract forms, Heizer used figurative forms, creating mounds shaped like 
animals native to the region. There is a snake, catfish, turtle, frog, and a 
water strider (the legs of which can be seen in the photograph above). He 
considered these figures to be evocative of the Indian mounds that can be 
found throughout the midwest, and intended his sculpture to be a state¬ 
ment for the Native Americans. 

A trail wanders through the 1.5 mile long site, and interpretive signs, each 
with a map of the site, help to give visitors a sense of what they might be 
looking at. Heizer seemed pleased that the forms were imperceptible from 
the ground, saying the piece “requires a chronological development of per- 

A drainage infrastructure at the site, with corrugated pipes and coarse rock 
gullies, helps route water around the earthworks. A plastic/organic material 
called Excelsior Netting covers each of the sculptures, in an attempt to pro¬ 
mote growth of the dozen or so different types of seeds spread over the 


Located in an unused comer of the massive Jamesville Quarry in upstate 
New York, this piece was never completed, and has been untouched since 
1986. The environment surrounding the piece resembles the erosional 
canyons of the Southwest in form and scale, but was made instead by 
human hands and machines, removing the beds of limestone to make 
cement and aggregate. The intervening years have hardly altered the 
piece, as human erosion has been virtually non-existent in the restricted- 
access quarry. Much of the displaced rock on the fringes of the wedge- 
shaped sculpture is just where it was left when the last stone was moved 
by William Bennett, the artist who began work on it in 1976. Work 
slowed to occasional summer visits starting in 1979, when Bennett moved 
away from the area. He hopes to return to work on the piece in the future, 
but no longer plans to make the large inverted pyramid form, which was 
originally intended as the target for the alignment of the existing “wedge.” 

Visitors were meant to walk into the piece starting at the shallow end, fol¬ 
lowing the eight inch wide path (the “keel” of the wedge), for eighty or so 
feet to the end, at which point the visitor would be six feet under the surface 
level, facing a stone wall. Turning around to exit, the viewer looks straight 
down the wedge, outward at a distant target, like a gunsight. 

A kind of optical instrument, the sculpture looks both inward, into the 
rock, and outward, into the space of the quarry; a microscope on one end 
and telescope on the other. 


°ratt Farm is a private park with numerous sculpted forms composed pri¬ 
marily of mounded earth and arranged rocks, all of which are overgrown 
md disintegrating. Around 20 distinct pieces were constructed on the 17 
acre property by James Pierce, an art historian and photographer (now 
*etired), who created them during the summers between 1970 and 1982. 
He calls the site a “garden of history,” and the subjects referenced in the 
L orms range from prehistoric, such as tombs and burial mounds, to more 
*ecent historical representations, including a piece called Quebec 
Expedition , depicting Benedict Arnold’s ship in an earthen outline (the 
ship sailed past the site on the Kennebec River in 1775, on its way to the 
siege of Quebec). The large Earthwoman sculpture, pictured above, was 
uspired by the famous “Venus of Willendorf,” a small prehistoric carving 
}f a woman, which is estimated to be 30,000 years old. Perhaps due to the 
mcient themes and mythic forms at Pratt Farm , local folklore has recent¬ 
ly formed about the place, with stories of satanic rituals performed there. 
Campsites and beer cans can be found in the wooded fringe, and the more 
fragile balanced stone and wood pieces have long since been destroyed. 
Mr. Pierce still owns the property, and it is occasionally, but only partially, 
nowed. He lives some distance away and rarely visits it now, and expects 
;o sell the property in the future. 

Depending on the season, the general shape of the Turf Maze is sometimes 
visible. The triangular labyrinth form was constructed between 1972 and 
1974 and is 120 feet long on each side, made by cutting one foot deep ruts 
in the earth. It is based on the plan of a 17th Century topiary maze. 

The Janus is one of the more distinct forms remaining at Pratt Farm. A 
small pyramid with piercings at the top, the Janus is, like many of the 
shapes at site, a reference to ancient military fortifications. 


There are numerous sites where earthworks are now invisible, having 
been fully transformed into entropic monuments. The grounds of Art 
Park, an important development site for emerging earth artists of the 
1970’s, harbors many examples. Located on reclaimed land next to the 
Niagara River, near Lewiston, New York, the 200 acre state park had a 
well supported artist-in-residence program that began in 1974. The pro¬ 
gram was initiated a year after Smithson’s death by one of his longtime 
friends and supporters, and it was with his spirit in mind that this outdoor 
art program on former industrial land was conceived. While some artists 
like Nancy Holt and Laurie Anderson preferred to work closer to the dra¬ 
matic landscape of the gorge at the south end of the property, the plateau 
area (pictured above) was used by numerous artists, including Alice 
. v/U’viv, j . ilUii uwui i o i , ctilCi i. iiC OtiilciCC of ll ic plateau, 

a former industrial spoils pile, was created as a sort of land art project 
itself, filled in by Helen and Newton Harrison as part of their “Art Park 
Spoils Pile Reclamation” project. Most works were temporary, however, 
and the plateau is studded with the vestiges of removed and filled in art¬ 
works: bits of concrete, cable, rebar, and crushed stone, a veritable land 
art proving ground.