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Troublemakers and the Angst Behind Land Art

Charles Ross during the construction of Star Axis in 1976.
Charles Ross during the construction of Star Axis in 1976.

"My new brush is a Caterpillar." It's a suitably brash, bold statement that gels with the theme of director James Crump's documentary on the Land Art movement, Troublemakers. By directing a lens—a wide-angle one—on a movement that sought to remove artwork from galleries and reshape both the landscape and the commercial aspects of the art world, Crump doesn't just bring attention to the personalities and patrons behind these massive non-commercial works. By putting the cultural confluences and anti-establishment fervor in focus, he asks important questions about which, if any, artists are willing to take the kinds of risks that created such massive earthen sculptures. In a post-Hirst era of hyper speculation in the art world, who has the patience (and funding) to fashion a spiral of earth in the middle of a lake, like Robert Smithson, create a massive city in the desert, like Michael Heizer, or reshape a volcanic crater, like James Turrell?


Crump, an art historian who also made the 2007 film Black White + Gray: A Portrait of Sam Wagstaff and Robert Mapplethorpe, put his access to rare footage and interviews to good use, especially shots of works in progress, creating a fast-paced, engaging film. But the documentary is at its best when it's setting the scene, explaining how the counter-cultural tide of the late '60s and the era's questioning of any and all authority, as well as the nascent birth of the environmental movement, led a cadre of New York artists to buck the establishment and, in a move as much machismo as manifesto, set out west to the desert.

"Nearly at a half-century away from some of these works, we need to ask ourselves, is there a new generation that would assume the position taken up by Heizer and Smithson," Crump told Curbed in an interview. "They had to dig and find the patrons to fund these projects. They had hostility to artistic commerce and the commodification of objects. They had to create a means to do this work themselves."

It's nearly 50 years since some of these works have been created, and Crump feels like it's time to rediscover and reconsider what these works meant. At a time when you can look up the coordinates of these artworks on your iPhone, instead of having to make a desert pilgrimage as was required back in the '70s, it may be even more important to look at this lost age.

·The Big Dig: A Map of Land Art Across America [Curbed]
·Troublemakers: The Story of Land Art