5 Artists Famous for Environmental Public Art

Environmental public art combines awareness about different environmental issues and artworks.

Aug 9, 2023By Anyla Kabashi, MA Semiotics, BA Art History


famous artists environmental public art


Environmental public art aims to educate its audience about ecological issues and how they impact society. Artists like Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Andy Goldsworthy, Maya Lin, Ned Kahn, and Agnes Denes all focused on different aspects of environmental issues in their artworks. These artists’ work raises awareness regarding environmental concerns by using organic materials and juxtaposing natural elements with those made by humans. Continue reading to learn more about this fascinating topic.


What Is Environmental Public Art?

Sunflower Field by Agnes Denes, 2021, via e-flux


Environmental art, in general, is created in response to or in collaboration with the natural environment. It can take many forms such as sculptures, installations, or performances, and it can be temporary or permanent. Environmental art can even improve human-made structures by using sustainable materials or creating new public spaces. Public art, on the other hand, refers to the art displayed or performed in public areas like streets, parks, or public buildings. It can serve many purposes and it can be political. Environmental art and public art have merged in recent years as more and more artists are creating works that are both focused on environmental issues and are displayed in public spaces.


History of Environmental Art

Ancient rock art, via World Economic Forum


To understand art and nature as an artistic medium, we must look at its history. Environmental art can be traced back to prehistoric times, with early humans creating rock art and other forms of visual expression on natural surfaces. The earliest examples of this are cave paintings dating back to around 40,000 BCE. Prehistoric humans created these early forms of environmental art to express their understanding of the natural world and their relationship to it.

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As societies grew, environmental art continued to develop. During the Renaissance, for example, artists began to create paintings and sculptures that depicted nature in a more realistic and detailed manner. In the 19th century, the Hudson River School in America was a group of landscape painters who represented the American wilderness in a romantic and sublime way. Nature is often seen as a source of inspiration, with many artists using natural forms and landscapes as subjects throughout art history. But nature can also be a medium in art. Some artists use earth, rocks, and plants to create artworks. On the other hand, artists can reflect on and critique human interactions with nature.


The Three Sphinxes of Bikini by Salvador Dali, 1947, via ArtsDot


In the 20th century, movements, such as conceptual art, were established and gained momentum. Conceptual art aims to make an artwork’s meaning more important than its form. This idea opened up a possibility for projects not created for aesthetic pleasure only. Environmental art is closely associated with Land art, sometimes known as Earth art. Land art is an important avant-garde movement of the 1960s and 1970s that was led by American artists. It evolved from Minimalism and conceptual art, which advocated for simplicity. The dissatisfaction with the conventional art market’s control and hierarchy was growing as well.


Artists such as Robert Smithson and Michael Heizer began creating large-scale Land artworks that incorporated natural materials and the surrounding landscape into the work. In the 21st century, artists began using new technologies and mediums to create works that address environmental issues. Many artists use sustainable materials and methods to develop environmentally responsible art. Here are some of the best-known artists whose works focus on environmental issues in public spaces.


1. Christo and Jeanne-Claude

The Gates by Christo and Jeanne-Claude, 2005 via Guy Pieters Gallery


Christo and Jeanne-Claude worked together to create large-scale installations in public places. They were one of the first artists to pioneer this way of working. Two of their most famous installations are The Gates in Central Park in New York City and Wrapped Reichstag in Berlin. Their installations are temporary and aim to interact with the natural surroundings using steel and fabric.


In 2005, Christo and Jeanne-Claude installed The Gates in New York City. However, its conceptualization began much earlier, in 1979. The Gates are a reference to Japanese torii gates, which symbolically designate the place where one enters the sacred realm. In the context of Central Park in NYC, the gates aim to tell us that we are entering a holy site repeatedly. Our natural surroundings are sacred places. We need to co-exist with it, take care of it, and respect it rather than exhaust it. The Gates allows us to reflect on why nature should be part of what we hold sacred.


The installation consisted of 7,503 gates along the park’s footpaths draped with saffron-colored fabric. Each had a height of 16 feet and a width of 18 feet. The installation was up for 16 days and attracted millions of visitors. It remains one of the most memorable public art installations of the 21st century. The documentary The Gates (2005), directed by Antonio Ferrera, Albert Maysles, David Maysles, and Matthew Prinzing, follows the artistic duo as they create the installation. The film examines the meaning of the work and its impact on the environment and the New York community.


2. Ned Kahn

Wind Portal by Ned Kahn, 2002, via ARTS Blog


Ned Kahn is an American environmental artist. He is best known for creating large-scale, interactive installations that respond to wind, light, and water. Some of his notable projects include the San Francisco International Airport’s BART Station and the de Young Museum in San Francisco.


Wind Portal is an art project installed in the BART Station of San Francisco’s International Airport. It features 200,000 mirror disks attached to the ceiling that respond to air currents created by the movement of people in the terminal while reflecting the environment and people. As air flows over the disks, they move and create patterns that change with the velocity and direction of the wind. It is considered one of the largest and most complex interactive installations. It has received widespread recognition for its innovative use of technology and ability to create a sense of place and connection to the environment. This work explores the invisible aspects of nature, in this case, the wind and air flows. It visualizes these phenomena so that the audience can observe them and know how they affect our surroundings.


3. Andy Goldsworthy

Andy Goldsworthy on the Roof, 2004, via The Met: Watson Library Digital Collections


Andy Goldsworthy is a British artist who creates sculptures and installations using natural materials such as stones, leaves, and branches. His works are often temporary and constructed in harmony with nature. Andy Goldsworthy on the Roof was a temporary installation at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The artist created two domes from organic materials such as stone and wood, creating a natural and organic landscape within the city’s heart. Using raw materials and integrating the installation into the museum’s roof garden emphasizes the connection between architecture and nature. This project can bring awareness and inspire individuals to be more in tune with nature, even inside concrete objects.


4. Maya Lin

Vietnam Veterans Memorial, West end of Constitution Gardens NW by Maya Lin, 2014, via Wikipedia


Maya Lin is best known for designing the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. The memorial is a public artwork that symbolizes remembrance of the sacrifices made by those who served in the Vietnam War. The minimalist design uses simple, direct lines and shapes to convey a sense of loss and respect for the fallen soldiers. The memorial does not directly address environmental issues. However, as a work of public art located in a prominent and heavily visited location, it serves as a reminder of the importance of preserving and honoring our shared cultural and historical heritage. It also highlights the impact people can have on their environment and the importance of considering the long-term effects of our actions.


5. Agnes Denes

Wheatfield – A Confrontation: Battery Park Landfill by Agnes Denes, 1982, via New York Times Magazine


Agnes Denes is a pioneer in environmental art. She is best known for her large-scale installations addressing environmental and social issues. In addition to her environmental installations, she is a writer who has published several books and essays on environmental art and its role in society.


One of her most famous works is Wheatfield – A Confrontation: Battery Park Landfill, Downtown Manhattan. In 1982, the artist planted and harvested a 2-acre wheat field facing the Statue of Liberty on a landfill in downtown Manhattan, two blocks away from Wall Street and the World Trade Center. Two hundred truckloads of soil were delivered and 285 holes were excavated and cleansed of rocks and debris by hand. The seeds were also planted by hand. The field was washed of wheat smut, weeded, fertilized, and treated for four months, and an irrigation system was installed. On August 16, the crop was harvested, yielding over 1000 pounds of golden wheat. The installation aimed to raise awareness about environmental issues such as pollution, waste, and the loss of green spaces in urban areas. The field also served as a reminder of the beauty and potential for growth in seemingly inhospitable environments.


The Aims of Environmental Public Art

Surrounded Islands by Christo and Jeanne-Claude, 1983, via AnOther Magazine


Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Andy Goldsworthy, Maya Lin, Agnes Denes, and Ned Kahn have all pushed boundaries of traditional art forms and challenged conventional notions of what art can be. Their work has also significantly impacted the art world by blurring the boundaries between art and nature, art and design, and art and architecture. Most importantly, their projects motivate us to reconsider how we interact with nature.

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By Anyla KabashiMA Semiotics, BA Art HistoryAnyla is passionate about exploring different artistic discourses and visual culture through history and philosophy. She holds a BA degree in Art History from the University of Zagreb and a MA in Semiotics from ELTE University.