Art of Awareness: Understanding Environmental Art in 8 Works

Environmental art can crop up anywhere, from dusty, barren deserts to epic snow-peaked mountain tops. Our list reveals 8 of the most outlandish and experimental environmental projects of all time.

Oct 11, 2020By Rosie Lesso, MA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine Art
agnes denes nancy holt
Detail of Wheatfield – A Confrontation by Agnes Denes, 1982 (left); with Sun Tunnels by Nancy Holt, 1973-76, Great Basin Desert, via Holt/Smithson Foundation, Santa Fe (right)


Environmental art exists out there in the great beyond, forming a meaningful connection with the ‘environment’ around it. It is a hugely varied style of art that has cropped up in sites all around the world from city parks and street corners to the great unspoiled wilderness, encouraging us to contemplate our complex and sometimes conflicting relationship with the world around us. But more often than not environmental art is made for wild outdoor settings, celebrating our deep-rooted connection with the natural world. 


In recent times there is also an ecological message in much environmental art, promoting awareness of the climate change crisis and the damaging effects our lifestyles are having on the ecosystem. From sprawling interventions in remote locations to giant perforated tunnels and alleyways filled with shards of shattered glass, we examine 8 of the most powerful and influential examples of environmental art throughout history.


Raising Awareness: The History Of Environmental Art

Storm King Wavefield by Maya Lin, 2007-08, via Storm King Art Center, Orange County


Human beings have been making their mark on the universe for millennia, from stone circles to monolithic totems of power. Throughout the Renaissance period, this harmonious relationship with nature shifted to one of mythology and narrative, persisting throughout the emergence of Romanticism, Realism, and Impressionism. But in the twentieth-century artists gradually returned to the direct, physical engagement with the land of ancient times. 


In the 1950s and 1960s, artists began experimenting with more interactive, audience-led art forms that extended beyond the traditional gallery setting. Pioneering American artist Allan Kaprow was one of the first to explore what he called ‘happenings’ and ‘environments’ that explored the natural connection between art and the environment around it. Land Art and Earth Art emerged throughout Europe and the United States during this time as a branch of environmental art that celebrated the rhythms of nature, such as tide times, lunar phases, solar cycles, and star patterns. 


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As issues surrounding the destruction of the natural world became more urgent and pressing throughout the 1970s and 1980s, various conceptual artists including Joseph Beuys and Agnes Denes made environmental art with a greater sense of political agency, promoting awareness of the degenerative effects of industrialization and capitalism. Since this time, artists producing environmental art have increasingly moved towards the preservation or regeneration of nature, highlighting just how vital the landscape is to our very survival. 


1. Robert Smithson, Spiral Jetty, 1970

Spiral Jetty by Robert Smithson, 1970, via The Holt/Smithson Foundation, Santa Fe


Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, 1970, is one of the most instantly recognizable icons of environmental art. Made for the vastly impressive terrain of Rozel Point at Great Salt Lake, Utah, this huge spiral spread across 457 meters of the lake’s shoreline and was made from 6,650 tons of rock and earth.  Lying horizontal across the land, visitors can walk across the galaxy-like spiral jetty, contemplating just how small our place is in the vastness of the universe. Although all the material for the work was gathered on-site, Smithson was criticized by some for moving and changing the natural shape of the land. In spite of this, his installation has helped transformed the stunning site into a world-famous landmark. While the spiral is still in place today, it has slowly altered in texture and surface over time by the natural forces of entropy.


2. Nancy Holt, Sun Tunnels, 1973

Sun Tunnels by Nancy Holt, 1973, as reproduced in Art & Place: Site-specific Art of the Americas, via Phaidon Press


Nancy Holt’s famous Sun Tunnels, 1973, were designed for the Great Basin Desert in Utah, in a desolate location between the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevada range. Holt arranged four huge, concrete cylinders made from the same substance as urban underground drainage systems onto the ground to form an open x-shape. But instead of being crammed into a city, her pipes are surrounded by miles and miles of dry, barren wilderness that reach out across the flat horizon. 


Sun Tunnels by Nancy Holt, 1973, as reproduced in Art & Place: Site-specific Art of the Americas, via Phaidon Press


Viewers can enter into these tunnels and find spectacular, circular views of the wide-open space around them. Holt also designed her tunnels to interact with the sun and stars, lining one axis of the x up with the rising and setting sun of the summer solstice and the other with the winter solstice. Two times a year, if one visits at exactly the right time, one circular tunnel will frame the sun exactly and be set alight with blinding sunlight. With this naturally harmonious environmental approach to art, Holt emphasizes just how closely intertwined our existence is with the cycles of nature.


3. Richard Long, A Line In The Himalayas, 1975

A Line in the Himalayas by Richard Long, 1975, via Tate, London


In British artist Richard Long’s A Line in the Himalayas, 1975, he celebrates the solitary and primordial act of leaving behind a human trace in nature. An avid explorer, Long has been traversing some of the world’s most remote locations alone since the 1960s, leaving behind circles and angular lines that reflect on the geometric patterns of the universe. To create this particular work, he trekked up the Nepalese Himalayas to a high-altitude point, where he gathered and arranged white stones into a narrow, straight line. Set amidst this sublime, empty landscape, it is almost impossible to gauge the scale of the line and it is unlikely that it would have remained in place for long. This lends the work a fragile, Romanticist quality, emphasizing our insignificance within the vastness of this wild and inhospitable terrain.


4. Walter De Maria, Lightning Field, 1977

Lightning Field by Walter de Maria, 1977, via The Independent


Walter de Maria’s Lightning Field, 1977, drums up the same terrifying awe and wonder as the great landscape painters of the Romanticist era. Situated in the high desert of western New Mexico, 400 polished and pointed stainless steel poles or ‘lightning rods’ are arranged into a one mile by one-kilometer grid and spaced 220 feet apart. The area is known for its recurrent lightning storms which can occur up to 60 days a year between July and August – shards of lightning occasionally catch the tips of the rods, as documentary photographs reveal. 


But Maria has only released a small number of photographs of the site and prohibits visitors from taking or sharing their own, shrouding the entire work and its site into dark mystery. Maria also only permitted six visitors per day, a policy maintained through the Dia Art Foundation today so it is only the most hardcore who make this rare pilgrimage, but it acts as a powerful means of protecting and preserving this patch of land and the vast expanses that surround it.

5. Agnes Denes, Wheatfield: A Confrontation, 1982

Wheatfield – A Confrontation by Agnes Denes, 1982, photographed by John McGrall, via Architectural Digest


Agnes Denes’ Wheatfield – A Confrontation, 1982, is one of the most powerful and influential protests against global warming and economic inequality ever made. In the underdeveloped Battery Park landfill site in Manhattan, she planted and maintained an entire two-acre field of wheat, which she then harvested and shared amongst people across the globe. Set amongst the towering, capitalist skyscrapers of Wall Street it became a theatrical symbol of resistance, confronting the dirty, damaging waste of the urbanized city just a stone’s throw away, and its ruinous divide between rich and poor. Although temporary, Denes’ Wheatfield gave a rare glimpse of an alternative future in which people could live and work in close harmony with nature. She argued, “It is an intrusion into the Citadel, a confrontation of High Civilisation. Then again, it is also Shangri-La, a small paradise, one’s childhood, a hot summer afternoon in the country, peace.”


6. Joseph Beuys, 7000 Oaks – City Forestation Instead Of City Administration, 1982

7000 Oaks – City Forestation Instead of City Administration by Joseph Beuys, 1982, via Tate, London


Pioneering conceptual artist Joseph Beuys began the project 7,000 Oaks – City Forestation Instead of City Administration in 1982 at Documenta 7, a huge international art fair in Kassel, Germany. His concept was simple: to plant 7,000 oak trees throughout the city of Kassel. Each tree was paired with a heavy chunk of basalt stone – before the planting process began, Beuys piled up the pieces of stone on the lawn of the Museum Fridericianum (seen in the image here), and every time a tree was planted, a piece of stone was taken away from the pile and laid next to the new tree. 


This hulking mass of rocks highlighted the enormity and ambition of the ‘city forestation’ task at hand, which took Beuys over five years to complete. A prime example of Beuys’ oeuvre, the project came to define his regenerative approach to art, along with what he called ‘social sculpture’, with a moral imperative to improve the quality of life for everyone in society through art.


7. Maya Lin, Groundswell, 1992-93

Groundswell by Maya Lin, 1992-93, via Architectural Digest 


Contemporary architectural designer and artist Maya Lin’s Groundswell, 1992-93, hovers on the border between natural and built environments, neatly merging the two into one. Made from 43 tons of shattered car safety glass, this installation filled an otherwise vacant, overlooked space in the Wexner Centre of Columbus, Ohio with undulating waves of glistening matter. Combining two shades of recycled glass allowed Lin to mimic the color and texture of water, a quality further emphasized by the careful arrangements of wave-like forms that seem to ebb and swell in and out of the space. 


References to both her eastern and western family roots were made through similarities with the Japanese gardens of Kyoto and the Native American burial mounds of Athens, Ohio. Typifying the ‘environmental’ approach to making art, Lin considered how her installation would respond to all aspects of the building, incorporating its forms and arrangements into the entire Wexner Centre’s design. But perhaps more importantly, she filled a once unused space with the patterns and forms of nature, lending it a meditative and contemplative tranquillity.


8. Andy Goldsworthy, Tree Painted With Black Mud, 2014

Tree Painted with Black Mud by Andy Goldsworthy, 2014, via The Independent


British artist Andy Goldsworthy made Tree Painted with Black Mud, 2014 in the land surrounding his home in Dumfriesshire, Scotland. In keeping with all his artistic practice, the work responds elegantly to its surroundings with an ephemeral intervention made entirely from locally found materials. Here he has painted black stripes onto the mossy tree’s surface with mud gathered from the surrounding area, transforming it into a striking work of art. 


Goldsworthy imposes a sense of structure and order into nature, applying patterns of repetition onto the tree’s surface that mimic the language of Minimalism or Op Art. They lend the tree a jarring, synthetic quality that seems out of place with its surroundings, a reminder of the harmful effects industrialized order has had on the intrinsic beauty of nature. But as with many of his artworks, Goldsworthy’s intervention here will not last, a harsh reminder that so much of natural life is inescapably transient.


Legacy Of Environmental Art

Blue Trees Symphony by Aviva Rahmani, 2016, photographed by Robin Boucher, via HuffPost


Environmental art continues to prove popular today with many contemporary artists, particularly those embracing the potential for regeneration opened up by Joseph Beuys and Agnes Denes. As issues around climate change become more pressing, artists have recognized the vitally important role art can play in preserving or improving the spaces we inhabit. The term ‘ecological art’ or ‘ecovention’ is more commonly applied to this recent area of development. Projects within this genre include Aviva Rahmani’s Blue Trees Symphony, 2016, in which she painted a series of trees with naturally derived blue pigments in order to copyright and prevent them from being cut down, and Anne Marie Culhane’s Grow Sheffield, founded in 2007, which encourages community members to grow their own locally sourced food.

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By Rosie LessoMA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine ArtRosie is a contributing writer and artist based in Scotland. She has produced writing for a wide range of arts organizations including Tate Modern, The National Galleries of Scotland, Art Monthly, and Scottish Art News, with a focus on modern and contemporary art. She holds an MA in Contemporary Art Theory from the University of Edinburgh and a BA in Fine Art from Edinburgh College of Art. Previously she has worked in both curatorial and educational roles, discovering how stories and history can really enrich our experience of art.