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Land Arts of the American West

Land Arts of the American West

A wide-ranging exploration of human interactions with the land over thousands of years, as well as a model for teaching art and design in the field.

October 2008
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422 pages | 8 x 10 | 436 color illus. |

Land art encompasses the full spectrum of human responses to a specific landscape over time. From the perspective of architect Chris Taylor and artist Bill Gilbert, land art ranges from the inscription of pictographs and petrogylphs to the construction of roads, dwellings, and monuments, as well as traces of those actions. It includes gestures both small and grand, directing our attention from potsherd, cigarette butt, and mark in the sand to human settlements, monumental artworks, and military/industrial projects such as hydroelectric dams and decommissioned airfields.

In Land Arts of the American West, Taylor and Gilbert present the results of a remarkable ongoing collaboration in which they investigate and create land art with students from the University of Texas and the University of New Mexico. The land arts program was started by Bill Gilbert in 2000 and has developed as a collaboration between Gilbert and Taylor since 2002. The description of the program in this book is organized around places that the authors and their students visit during a two-month journey each fall, ranging from Native American sites such as Chaco Canyon, to man-made industrial structures such as Hoover Dam and Lake Mead, to monumental earthworks such as Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty in the Great Salt Lake.

Each place in Land Arts comes alive through color photographs accompanied by descriptive information about the site's natural and human history; students' journal entries that present first-person experiences of the place; and essays by experts in archaeology, art history, architecture, writing, activism, studio art, and design who join the group as they travel. Woven throughout the text is a conversation among Taylor, Gilbert, and writer William L. Fox, who draws the authors out about the land art program's origins, pedagogic mission, field operations, interactions with guest lecturers, and future directions.

  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • Practicing Land Arts: Learning to Learn
  • Muley Point
  • Double Negative
  • Great Basin Geomorphology
  • Land Mark Making by William L. Fox
  • Lake Mead
  • Practicing Land Arts: Field Trials
  • Bosque del Apache
  • El Vado Lake
  • A Native American Sense of Place: Tending the Roots of Culture; An Interview with Mary Lewis Garcia
  • Spiral Jetty
  • The Problem of Return by Ann Reynolds
  • Practicing Land Arts: On Site, Part One
  • Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness
  • Chaco Canyon
  • Chaco Canyon and the Interactions of Nature, Culture, Art, and History by J. J. Brody
  • Roden Crater
  • Wupatki
  • CLUI-Wendover
  • Out There with the Center for Land Use Interpretation: An Interview with Matthew Coolidge
  • Very Large Array
  • Deming
  • Practicing Land Arts: On Site, Part Two
  • Colorado Plateau Geomorphology
  • Tipover Canyon
  • The Lightning Field
  • Turkey Springs
  • Chihuahuan Desert Geomorphology
  • Marfa
  • Boquillas Canyon
  • Juan Mata Ortiz
  • Ollas, vacas, y ferocarriles: Una conversación en el vado; Una entrevista con Héctor Gallegos y Graciela Martínez de Gallegos
  • Pots, Cows, and Trains: A Conversation at the Crossing; An Interview with Héctor Gallegos and Graciela Martínez de Gallegos
  • Cebolla Canyon
  • Practicing Land Arts: Parallel Practices
  • Anaya Spring
  • Peripheral Vision by Lucy R. Lippard
  • Apache Creek
  • San Rafael Swell
  • Sun Tunnels
  • Otero Mesa
  • Blue Notch
  • Practicing Land Arts: Future Directions
  • All insets by Amanda Douberley
  • Land Arts of the American West: Program History
  • Land Arts of the American West: Bibliography
  • Photo Credits
  • Index

Chris Taylor is a Harvard-trained architect who teaches architecture at Texas Tech University. In conjunction with the Architecture Workers Combine, he explores the direct and interstitial forces creating landscape with built work in New Mexico, Arizona, Texas, and Pennsylvania.

Bill Gilbert holds the Lannan Chair in Land Arts of the American West in the Department of Art and Art History at the University of New Mexico. His art practice explores the dialogue between environment and cultures in the Southwest. He has exhibited his work in the United States, Ecuador, the Czech Republic, Canada, and Japan.


Land Arts of the American West is a field program designed to explore the large array of human responses to a specific landscape over an extended period of time. This book frames a moving target—a work in progress. Our experiment in the effect of place on art and design pedagogy has evolved during our seven years in the field. And yet the core investigation holds.

Moving between the land and studio, our inquiry extends from the geologic forces that shape the ground itself to the cultural actions that define place. Within this context, land art includes everything from pictographs and petroglyphs to the construction of roads, dwellings, and monuments as well as traces of those actions. It includes gestures both small and grand, directing our attention from potsherd, cigarette butt, and mark in the sand, to human settlements, monumental artworks, and military-industrial projects like hydroelectric dams and decommissioned airfields.

We learn from the fact that both Mary Lewis Garcia and James Turrell form vessels out of earth, that the Native Americans and Michael Heizer carve images into the surface of the continent, and that the buildings of Chaco and antennae of the Very Large Array are both massive structures constructed to read the heavens. Seemingly boundless, our exploration is in fact both contained and marked by the geographic and cultural boundaries of place.

Land Arts of the American West operates as a collaboration between artist Bill Gilbert and architect Chris Taylor. Each year we travel more than 8,000 miles with fourteen students to live and work for over fifty days in the landscape of the Southwest. Our itinerary is constructed from a mix of investigative sites, where we encounter significant cultural interventions, and work sites, where we produce work in a direct dialogue with environment and community. We operate in the field with a "no-trace" ethic, making every effort to minimize the impact of our work and evidence of our inhabitation. As we travel, we are joined by a diverse cast of guests, who expand the depth of our interdisciplinary conversation by introducing a range of perspectives, including those from archeology, art history, architecture, writing, activism, studio art, and design.

Each student is allowed two duffle bags for their personal supplies, including a sleeping tent. The program provides a mobile kitchen and the basic tools for living outdoors. We travel in three vans loaded with students and gear, following an itinerary that varies from year to year. To date, Austin, Texas, marks our farthest eastward extension. We have traveled west as far as Hiko, Nevada, north to Park Valley, Utah, and south to Juan Mata Ortiz, Mexico.

We make still and moving images, sounds, objects, spaces, events, and texts. Working on-site and living as a nomadic group, students navigate issues of culture, place, community, and self while developing skills of perception and analysis unattainable in a standard classroom setting.

Graduate and undergraduate students participating in the program enroll in four courses: ARTIFACTS: production, use, apprehension; SPACE: expanse, thresholds, limits; PLACE: land, civilization, persona; and MAPPING: body, landscape, memory. These initial footholds serve as the basis for our readings and seminar discussions and provide a set of conceptual frames for beginning the process of developing field-based practices.

Our engagement with artifacts begins with material production and extends through use to acquired meaning. We investigate definitions of space as we move into unknown territories in search of limits, thresholds, and boundaries. As our awareness of the land gains cultural and personal definition, undifferentiated space becomes place. As our encounter with place unfolds, we utilize the language of mapping to record our evolving perceptions of the history of marks inscribed on the land. After our time in the field, the participants negotiate their return and the impact of this experience on the trajectory of their work as we prepare exhibitions for presentation on both campuses.

This book contains distinct voices woven together to tell the story of Land Arts. Our field experience, accumulated over the years, is the primary material. It is organized by site and structured to allow the diversity of the places we explore to reveal the cadence of our experience in the field. Images with descriptions and journal entries present first-person experiences, while supporting, baseline information for the sites and topics appear through insets written by Amanda Douberley.

The spine framing our field experience is most fully elucidated in the six-part interview "Practicing Land Arts," conducted by author William L. Fox with codirectors Bill Gilbert and Chris Taylor. This conversation defines the program's origins, pedagogic mission, field operations, and interaction with guests, and charts a view of the future.

Contributions from several of our guests in the field punctuate the rhythm of this book. These essays and interviews contribute vital layers to the interdisciplinary dialogue of Land Arts.

Each year Jerry Brody has led our investigation at Chaco Canyon. In "Chaco Canyon and the Interactions of Nature, Culture, Art, and History," he interprets the traces of history in Chaco Canyon by exploring the various cultural overlays and the shifting dialogue concerning their meaning.

Poet and author William L. Fox has traveled with the program to a majority of our sites. He writes extensively about the deserts of the West, combining art and science to explore the cognitive dissonance that isotropic spaces engender. In "Land Mark Making," he charts the development and limits of human perception in response to landscapes that are foreign to our evolutionary history.

The origins of the Land Arts program trace from our collaboration with Mary Lewis Garcia. In "A Native American Sense of Place: Tending the Roots of Culture," she discusses her experience as a Native artist living in dialogue with contemporary dominant culture.

Our interactions with Matthew Coolidge in Wendover, Utah, have greatly propelled our thinking of the expanded frame of Land Arts, and Wendover has been an important launch site for many participants. In "Out There with the Center for Land Use Interpretation," he shares his history of creating new modes for examining human involvement in making landscape.

The writing of cultural critic Lucy Lippard has profoundly influenced the dialogue in contemporary art for over thirty years. Her suggestion that art be a local agent of political change strikes an increasingly strong chord in our program. In "Peripheral Vision," she broadens the historical conversation to encompass multilayered contemporary cultural realities, calling for the arts to craft a definition for the New West.

The expanse of arid environment in the Western Hemisphere is separated into numerous political units. In Land Arts we cross the border between the United States and Mexico to investigate how the response to land varies between nations. In "Ollas, vacas, y ferocarriles" ("Pots, Cows, and Trains"), Héctor Gallegos and Graciela Martínez de Gallegos discuss their pottery practice in the larger context of their lives as members of the ranching and agricultural community of Juan Mata Ortiz.

Through the work of Robert Smithson, Ann Reynolds helps us understand the loss inherent in the transition between environment and gallery—"site and nonsite"—as a pivotal opportunity rather than a logistical rift to circumnavigate. In "The Project of Return," she presents the elements of displacement and return in Smithson's Yucatán work as a generative tool for our translations.

The proof of any pedagogic model is its effect on students. We have sought to support ideas expressed in the essays and interviews with examples of the students' work to demonstrate the connection of theory to actual practice.

Telling this story to you now is one part of our return from the field. Whether you use this book to construct a land arts investigation of your own or to watch from a distance, we hope the questions developing here will affect your relationship to the physical and cultural environment we all participate in shaping.


“Land Arts of the American West is notable for presenting an unusually wide array of artistic exploration and intervention in the Western landscape, and for having a remarkably large frame of historical reference. . . . Given the range of sites presented and the depth of analysis that many of them receive, I can imagine that this book would have broad appeal not only to people interested in art, but also to those intrigued by landscape, land use, and Western history.”
John Beardsley, Harvard University Graduate School of Design, author of Earthworks and Beyond: Contemporary Art in the Landscape