Trou­ble­mak­ers: The Story of Land Art

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TROU­BLE­MAK­ERS: THE STORY OF LAND ART, doc­u­men­tary, not rated, Cen­ter for Con­tem­po­rary Arts,

3.5 chiles The prob­lem with some of the most iconic ex­am­ples of land art, such as Robert Smith­son’s Spiral Jetty, which is pe­ri­od­i­cally sub­merged and hid­den from view by the ris­ing wa­ters of Utah’s Great Salt Lake, is that most peo­ple will never get to see them in situ. Some ex­ist in re­mote, dif­fi­cult to reach lo­ca­tions, as is the case with Nancy Holt’s Sun

Tun­nels, in Utah’s Great Basin Desert. Holt, like her hus­band Smith­son, was a part of the land art move­ment. Other land art projects were tem­po­rary, de­signed to de­grade over time or, per­haps more per­ti­nently, to erode. In their place we have doc­u­men­ta­tion in the form of books, recorded videos, and pho­to­graphs. Di­rec­tor and art his­to­rian James Crump’s new doc­u­men­tary, Trou­ble­mak­ers: The Story of Land Art, takes three of the move­ment’s pi­o­neers as sub­jects: Robert Smith­son, Wal­ter De Maria, and Michael Heizer. Th­ese artists strug­gled against the sta­tus quo, tak­ing their art out­side the mu­se­ums and gal­leries to en­gage di­rectly with the en­vi­ron­ment, and cre­at­ing works on a mas­sive scale. The film cov­ers a pe­riod from the late 1960s to the early ’70s, when the artists hung out at Max’s Kansas City, a New York night­club where they could feed off one an­other’s ideas. As the ti­tle sug­gests, Smith­son, De Maria, and Heizer were dis­senters who at­tempted to free them­selves from the con­straints of the mar­ket, but also from the con­straints of art. Land art showed that there were no lim­its to size. Mon­u­men­tal earth­works and staged events such as Smith­son’s “pours,” in which he doc­u­mented as­phalt, con­crete, and glue run­ning over ter­rain, brought ge­og­ra­phy, pol­i­tics, and place into the frame­work of con­cep­tual art.

The artists were work­ing at a time of in­creased political ac­tivism and coun­ter­cul­ture ide­al­ism. Un­der the po­lit­i­cally charged at­mos­phere that swept the coun­try in 1968, the year that land art is con­sid­ered to have its start, sev­eral move­ments were chal­leng­ing au­thor­ity and us­ing art as forms of protest and dis­sent. Crump jux­ta­poses archival footage from the Viet­nam War with im­ages of U.S. ven­tures into space to un­der­score the idea that the con­text in which the artists were con­struct­ing their earth­works was one of ex­tremes. On the one hand, there was the hor­ror of war, and on the other, hope­ful am­bi­tion.

Crump’s in­sight­ful doc­u­men­tary draws on his knowl­edge of art his­tory. The film shows that the land artists were, for the most part, on their own, work­ing with­out fi­nan­cial back­ing or rep­re­sen­ta­tion. An ex­cep­tion was art col­lec­tor and phi­lan­thropist Vir­ginia Dwan, whose New York gallery pro­vided Smith­son with a grant to com­plete Spiral Jetty.

The film in­cludes in­ter­views from artists Carl An­dre, Wil­loughby Sharp, and Charles Ross, among oth­ers, and ben­e­fits from their per­spec­tives. Most of th­ese artists were con­tem­po­raries of De Maria, Smith­son, and Heizer, and were as­so­ci­ated with land art and re­lated move­ments. Their nar­ra­tives of­ten play out over stun­ning vi­su­als of the South­west and desert re­gions where many prom­i­nent ex­am­ples of land art ex­ist, in­clud­ing De Maria’s The Light­ning Field, 400 light­ning-con­duct­ing stain­less steel poles lo­cated in Ca­tron County, New Mex­ico. While not all earth­works stand the test of time, the legacy and in­flu­ence of the land art artists en­dure. Ul­ti­mately, The Trou­ble­mak­ers re­spects its sub­jects with­out glo­ri­fy­ing them. — Michael Abatemarco

Michael Heizer: Cir­cu­lar Sur­face Pla­nar Dis­place­ment Draw­ing, 1970

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