In the 1960s and 1970s, the avant-garde turned its back on the “ruthless commercialization” of art in America, understanding that the commodification of the object was driven by business above all. Determined to make work that could defy the system while simultaneously offering a space for cultural critique, the land art movement was born. Artists including Christo and Jeanne Claude, Robert Smithson, Nancy Holt, Walter De Maria, and Michael Heizer transformed the natural landscape into extraordinary spectacles that combined elements of installation, sculpture, and architecture.
In 1970, 29-year-old Italian photographer Gianfranco Gorgoni (1941–2019) ventured into the Utah desert alongside Robert Smithson, embarking on what would become his career as a “roadie, stuntman, and documentarian” as an art critic once quipped.
“For me, seeing these expanses of desert where Heizer, Smithson, and De Maria were realizing large works was an almost mystic experience,” said Gorgoni, whose documentation of the movement is chronicled in the new book and exhibition Gianfranco Gorgoni: Land Art Photographs. “Getting lost in those parched, sandy stretches, there were incredible places; more than the work itself, the place where the work was situated mattered.”
The American Landscape Redux
Like the Nazca Lines of Peru, photography allows us vantage points of massive artworks we would be otherwise unable to view from the ground — an understanding that profoundly informed the work of land artists, who came of age in post-war America at the dawn of the Space Age. In December 1946, LIFE magazine published the very first photographs of earth made from outer space, as seen from a V-2 rocket flying some 65,000 miles overhead.
As a new image of the planet’s vast landscapes began to emerge, land artists saw canvases for their sculptural work. Much like the modernist cultures they were trying to escape, most brought their belief in dominion over the land to their work. Many reshaped the landscape for their use, seeing it as raw materials rather than sacred space.
“There was the tension of the construction process, the use of the bulldozer, the motorcycle, the explosion of the earth,” Gorgoni said. “With land art I was photographing a not yet finished piece, or at least a piece always in the process of change in relation to the meteorological and environmental conditions. In general I prefer to arrive on the scene where art is made when there is the confusion of the working process. I need this to discover the angles of interpretation that the work requires.”
A Search for Creative Harmony
Land Art, by nature and design, is intentionally remote — requiring a pilgrimage of sorts. For most, such journeys are unlikely and photography becomes the primary mode of experience of the work, requiring the artist to be able to work from a limited vantage point that can somehow convey the majestic magnitude and scope of the work.
Gorgoni understood this from the start, proposing a photography book project titled The New Avant-Garde to gallerist Leo Castelli in 1970. Castelli funded the project, recognizing the importance of Gorgoni’s role in the story of Land Art. In Gorgoni’s images, Castelli saw intimacy and veracity perfectly aligned with the creative energies of the artists at work, becoming both historical documents as well as art in their own right.
“Gorgoni turns the photographic image into a ceremony, where he is a sacerdos, an officiant who ritualizes an event or situation, rather than an impersonal tool of their art and life. What results is a crucible of moments, rare and intense, recorded with a new, more participatory approach, where the artist is a shaman who carries out magical gestures,” Germano Celant writes in an essay for the book.
“It is not longer a question of two individuals, photographer and artist, who assume parallel positions, but rather the search for creative harmony that is distinguished only by a diversity of language. Thus it is understandable why Gorgoni’s photography is enchanting and mesmerizing. It has a presence in and of itself and concedes nothing to the seduction of the document, rather it offers itself as an original impulse, gleaned from and infused by the poetic and fantastical power of the artwork itself.”
By Miss Rosen
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer focusing on art, photography, and culture. Her work has been published in books, magazines, including Time, Vogue, Aperture, and Vice, among others.