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FROM THIS EPISODE

During the 1960's and 70's, as artists questioned the very nature of what could constitute a work of art, a particularly dedicated number of them began working with the very substance of the planet. Earthworks by Robert Smithson and Michael Heizer, massive excavations into the desert landscape, may be the best known so the movement is often thought of as based in the expansive American landscape. Curators Philipp Kaiser and Miwon Kwon have done years of research to prove otherwise. Ends of the Earth: Land Art to 1974, their exhibition at the Geffen Contemporary at the Museum of Contemporary Art opens May 27 and includes artists from Britain, Japan, Israeli, Argentina, Iceland and elsewhere as well as the United States. Animated by Conceptual art concerns and the politically charged consciousness of the times, artists embraced the big issues: the impact of the atomic bomb, space exploration and rapid development of the environment.

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Robert Morris: Earthwork aka Untitled (Dirt), 1968/2012
Earth, grease, peat moss, brick, steel, copper, aluminum, brass, zinc and felt
Collection of the artist

The show includes many big piles of earth including a piece by Robert Morris that was included in Willoughby Sharpe's seminal 1969 show Earth Art at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York as well as a sculpture of wood planks, dirt, plants and neon by Neil Jenney, now better known as a painter and a spiral of whitish mud on the floor by English artist Richard Long as well as a gallery filled with 31,000 photographs of the original earth art show, covered in raspberry jello, taken by Les Levine.

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Gunther Uecker: Sandmuhle (Sand Mill), 1969

From the German Zero group, Gunther Uecker's mound of sand is piled around a knife sticking up vertically with an electric switch that makes it turn in a tight circle. From the Italian Arte Povera group, there are blocks of packed earth mounted on the wall by Pino Pascale. From Japan, there is a 1960's period television broadcasting a constant image of the sky by Fluxus artist Yoko Ono.

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Alice Aycock: Clay #2, 1971/2012
1500 pounds of clay mixed with water in wood frame
Each: 28 x 28 x 6 in.
Courtesy of the artist

The political undercurrent of the show incorporates the women's movement and the show includes a notable number of women including a grid of sixteen shallow wood containers of red desert mud that cracks as it dries by Alice Aycock, a mound of coal with a film projection by Mary Kelly and paper rubbings of earth by Michelle Stuart.

It is not all dirt, however. The exhibition includes many photographs and films of pieces that had taken place in the landscape and the curators note how the movement grew internationally through the media -- even the mainstream media. At the entrance to the show, there is a 20-minute film of the Swiss artist Jean Tinguely with his self-destructing mechanical sculpture commissioned in 1962 by NBC television.

The impact of the entire exhibition is that of wonder at a time when the idea of a limitless possibility for art was in play as a global phenomenon. Ideas that went to the ends of the earth. Are these ideas dead? Not for Michael Heizer. The big rock is unveiled at LACMA at the end of June.

Land Art continues through August 20.


Banner image: Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison's Hog Pasture: Survival Piece #1, 1970-71/2012; Wooden container of earth with light box of equal size above, planted with R. Shumway Seedsman's Annual Hog Pasture Mix; Courtesy of the artists

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