In my column for this month’s Modern Painters magazine, I take a look at one of the most important artworks in MOCA’s “Ends of the Earth” land art survey.
As you likely know, land art is typically considered within the context of Postminimalism, as a response to the tidiness of Pop, Minimalism and other 1950s and ’60s art movements. And for good reason. But as author Suzaan Boettger noted in her 2002 “Earthworks: Art and the Landscape of the Sixties,” the peak years of land art overlap almost exactly with the rise of the environmental movement in America.
Throughout the 1960s, Americans suffered environmental disasters and progress in whipsaw fashion: Books such as Rachel Carson’s 1962 “Silent Spring,” helped spark public awareness. America learned about the damage done to nature by DDT, then banned it; the stewardship of public lands—particularly the very forests that had been such a major source of private wealth in the 19th and early 20th centuries—was codified by the 1964 Wilderness Act; and in the next year 80 people died when a weather inversion suffocated New York City with smog for four days. But nothing catalyzed the nascent environmental movement like the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill. That disaster that generated pictures much more dramatic than DDT or smog could. It even prompted President Nixon, whose old congressional district was a short drive from the beaches on which the spill washed up, to say he’d consider banning offshore oil drilling.
My column examines the likely relationship between the Santa Barbara oil spill and Robert Barry’s elegant, smart and almost philosophical “Inert Gas Series,” documentation of which is on view now at MOCA. The relationship between the two may surprise you…
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