Suzaan Boettger: “Collection Experiences: ‘Owning’ Environmental Sculpture”


– I will now turn this
over to Suzaan Boettger. She will give us a historically
contextualized overview of the issues and works of art regarding the intersection of
earth and site-specific art that emerged in the 1960s and its collectors and patrons. Please give Suzaan a warm welcome. (audience applauding) – Thank you. Thank you, Ian, thank you, Samantha for your generous
conception of this symposium with Margaret Laster assisting
you, very adventurous and your gracious administration of that. And my appreciation, I want to say to dear friends and colleagues who showed up with
enthusiasm and curiosity. A sip. Let us go then to when the evening was
spread out against the sky, not like Eliot’s patient
etherized upon a table, but with Robert Smithson at 28, animatedly talking and gesturing as he was so wont to do. It is July 1966. He is on the eve of signing on to be an artist consultant to a New York firm proposing a design for the future Dallas Fort Worth Airport. The process inspired
his idea for sculpture between runways flat on the earth. He would go on to conceptualized what he called land projects of the earth and four years later in 1970, in Utah’s Great Salt Lake, built a 1,500 feet long coil, the Spiral Jetty, famously photographed
by Gianfranco Gorgoni. That evening, Smithson left his downtown Greenwich Street apartment
not for the place he regularly carried on,
the artist saloon salon, Max’s Kansas City on Park Avenue South, but further up Park Avenue. He and his wife and partner Nancy Holt partied in the sky at
the home of collectors, Barbara and Eugene Schwartz, who 21 years later
during the time when fate had brought me to that penthouse to administer their collection, made the cover of New York magazine as exemplars of ’80s Art Fever. That is the delirium of begging a big one like their Keifer,
“Germany’s Spiritual Heroes” sold the next year to Eli Broad, and presently on view in that museum. Or their Frank Stella, Die Fahne Hoch!, that Smithson would have
stood before that night and we can do so when
the Whitney shows it. We start with the artist
designated as the avatar of postmodern radicality,
mingling with collectors, because their seeming incompatibilities are the subject of the day. And Smithson not only
because his Spiral Jetty is considered the icon of earthworks, that earliest form of land art that developed into distinct tangents such as Michelle Stuart’s
astronomically-oriented Stone Alignment/Solstice Cairns of 1979. And not because his work coalesces all the contradictions of the
art of that tumultuous ’60s when painting became temporarily obsolete, yet color transferred to sculpture. Then sculpture as a three-dimensional
object you encircled such as the 63 David Smith
stretched into an environment you traversed per Walter De Maria’s demand at his mid-’70s Lightning
Field in New Mexico for a minimum of 18 hours and
a sleepover with strangers. Being married, David and
I won the sole double bed. Oops. Not just because Smithson
made what some think of as the model of art as gallery
and collector thwarting being huge distance mutable, but which became a popular pilgrimage site prompting extensive merchandising. All these productively complicate a work of art’s collectability but more relevantly no work
of art in the late ’60s influenced the course of art as much as did Smithson verbally. In 1972 he summarized for an interviewer, “Art has tended to be viewed
in terms of isolation, “neutralization, separation. “Art is supposed to be free “from the experiences of the world “and I’m more interested an
art as part of that experience. “All these factors come into it.” A few months later, midst
its coverage of Documenta, art form reprinted
Smithson’s participation in that German international exhibition. Not a sculpture. It was an 850-word
proclamation of independence testimonially signed. “Cultural confinement,” Smithson asserted, “Takes place when a curator imposes “his own limits on an art exhibition “rather than asking an
artist to set his limits. “Museums, like asylums and jails “have wards and cells, “in other words neutral
rooms called galleries. “All is reduced to visual fodder “and transportable merchandise.” He could say that because the
John Weber Gallery in SoHo which as the successor to
the Dwan represented him, did not give grubstakes for earthworks. At the time he had the
gift of being able to make personal conflicts his dread of oppression displayed in his 1959 Purgatory, speak to public once here the emerging practice of
institutional critique. So today we first need to
consider some of those factors that made the artist want to be and the art appear to be uncollectible. Abstract expressionism and
its dilution and color fields had painted themselves into a corner. The arena of art making
that displayed most strongly that sense of potentiality
endemic to the ’60s was that of sculpture. And the expanding economy
and expansive social mood dominated by those of
us whose post-war births ballooned the birthrate became young adults
swelling artist’s ambitions and sculpture into engorgement. In 1969 for an exhibition
as bluntly titled as the forms it displayed,
scale as content. Ronald Bladen’s X occupied the
atrium of the Corcoran in DC. Size mattered and performed intransigence. Absolutely site-specific, X rose inside the colonnade
by being made on the spot out of common plywood and like Alice, seemed to want to break
through classicism’s columns. “Those years were exhilarating,” critic Lucy Lippard recalled. There was a sense of possibility of rebellion against
the looming authorities and institutions of the recent past, a desire for new ways of
conceiving of, experiencing and distributing art. Over the decade of the ’60s, the increasing proportion of citizens against the Vietnam War produced
a sea-change of skepticism manifested in what political
theorist Herbert Marcuse called as part of youths’
demands for a liberated society, the great refusal of multiple
forms of conventionality considered repression. X’s challenge to (speaks
in foreign language) to art as portable domestic sized collectible propelled those refusals outward. As we see in Stuart’s Cairns in Oregon, Nancy Holt’ Sun Tunnels in Utah, and Dennis Oppenheim
and his Branded Mountain in the Bay Area and Cancelled Crop in the Netherlands where the grain was symbolically
withheld from the market as a surrogate refusal
of art commodification. In Smithson’s library,
“Art and Confrontation: “The Arts in an Age of Change,” an anthology published shortly after France’s May ’68 nationwide
strike denounces, quote, “The subjection of artists to restrictions “that are inherent in
merchandise fetishism. “And revolution is
hopeless unless accompanied “by a fervent aspiration toward purity.” This was the zeitgeist so
perfectly expressed by Oppenheim in the spring of ’68 that
it was repeatedly quoted. In the New York Times,
Grace Glueck reported, “It stems from a need to
get out of the galleries “says Oppenheim in what may be “the understatement of the year.” “I have a need to get
out of the galleries,” he told National Observer. The fact that the occasion
that prompted Oppenheim to utter this mantra was a show in a would-be commercial establishment did not appear to the
critics to be disingenuous. Dennis Oppenheim’s sculpture
is alive and growing at John Gibson heralded the press release put out by the adventurous art dealer whose projects for commissions dealt in a kind of future’s
potential works made upon order. Oppenheim personified the conflict of both disdaining the constraints and market association of a gallery, and longing for the recognition
that an exhibition elicits. And collectors mostly
did not feel the need to follow anyone out of the galleries. The experience of collecting was not only being thwarted but extended. The idea of environmental
art began with minimalism’s promotion of interactive absorption. Placed on the floor in a grid, Robert Morris’ four 22-inch
square mirrored cubes from 1965 being cubic are
in orientation individually neither horizontal nor vertical. The ray becomes lateral, a stage for movement throughout
the dispersed slow elements which fluctuate between
boxes outlined in black and planes vaporizing into ambient space. And we only know that by
getting in the middle of it. As Gaston Bachelard would say, “The resonances it evokes now
you see it, now you don’t, “reverberate in us. “Mobile experience of
the reductive art objects “engenders corporeal
awareness of one’s own height, “girth and ironically, transience.” The French philosopher
of the poetic imagination who all sculptors read at that time wrote, “We must participate actively
in the creating imagination “to situate awareness in the present.” In its simplistic Marxism, “Art and Confrontation”
claimed in the last analysis, the condition of the artist
depends on the market. For a while in the early
’70s that did not pertain. Some were freed from economic constraints on the production of challenging sculpture by the unconstrained
support of Virginia Dwan who had inherited wealth. She funded the land purchase against and construction of Michael Heizer’s Double Negative northeast of Las Vegas. Heizer cut two long troughs into a Mesa, the walls 50-feet high. With a chasm in between
they span 1,500 feet. It’s an isolation, depth and expanse you can only begin to comprehend by on the ground experience
after an arduous trip up the Mesa and around to find it, as I did during dissertation research in arid 115 degrees,
lizards skittering by. Heizer had voiced the period’s
antagonism against galleries and their affluence of customers but his way out of the art
market was a return to reverence stating, “One of the
implications of Earth art “might be to remove completely “the commodity status of a work of art “and allow a return to the adia of, “well I’m thinking of religion. “In the desert,” he continued, “I can find that kind of unraped,
peaceful, religious space “artists have always tried
to put into their work. “Those figures of speech are charged “especially by a sculptor penetrating “what was known as the
Virgin River Valley.” Heizer’s analogies also
call up an earlier revulsion against filthy lucre and the retreat to an
isolated religious space seen across the Frick’s Garden
Court St. Francis in Desert Bellini’s tender portrayal
of the mendicant friar who refused to touch money. Both works of art also
promote French philosopher Simone Weil’s statement, “Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer. “Experiencing anything
with meditative focus “for the time being it becomes ours “even as it possesses us.” Heizer, like Oppenheim,
ameliorated his idealistic reluctance to be associated with commerce by showing with a sympathetic dealer who was not actually
making money doing so. Virginia functions
simultaneous as a dealer, patron and collector as she became owner of the Double Negative and in 1985 donated it to the Museum of
Contemporary Art Los Angeles. So here’s the irony that
sculptor Clement Meadmore pointed out shortly after
Dwan’s Earth Works show in October ’68. While the artists are pretending not to be interested in art, dealers are proving that for themselves, art is indeed a primary involvement. A sampler of works in
Earth Works demonstrates the period’s disparate
ownership destinations. Smithson’s Nonsite Bins
containing ore from the vicinity of its corresponding site at
Franklin Mines, New Jersey along with aerial photographs, a text and a snapshots are seen here. It was soon purchased by
the Chicago collector, Lewis Manilow who in 1979 donated it to the institution where he was founder and president of the board, Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art. Morris’ pile of scavenged earth peat, grease, felts,
brick and bits of metal, earth work evocatively captured
the devastated social body in fall ’68 after that
year’s public assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, the general strike in France, police brutality against protesters at the Chicago Democratic Convention, and the unceasing virulence
of the Vietnam War, when draft took a wide
swath of our brothers. It was not collected at the time, more like swept up, but it has been recreated. It is now on view at Dia
under, in a white box where without knowledge of 1968, its insolence can appear
insular, even forlorn. Behind Morris’ pile was an early example, maybe the first of what
Sol LeWitt would later sell as designated art instructions. John Weber the director of Dwan’s gallery produced it according
to directions sent by Walter de Maria from
Munich where he had made his first earth room. Its title etched on the
metal plaque in the center, “The Color Men Choose When
They Attack the Earth” ostensibly refers to that of Caterpillar earth-moving equipment. de Maria was a reticent person who in his work made grandiose gestures. His 20-foot wide statement
can be taken as the show’s sole address of emerging environmentalism but it would also be
the artist’s only one. And it was the only work
to have directly sold from this show for $3,000 but de Maria’s correspondence
with Robert Scull suggests that the collector received it in return for funding the creation of some of de Maria’s ephemeral
drawings on desert playa after being auctioned in
1986 to Dakis Joannou, it was purchased in 2006 by
The Menil Collection in Houston where we can see it. Scull was also the funder of Heizer’s Nine Nevada Depressions
dug on government-owned lake beds in Nevada. One of these, Dissipate,
five shallow trenches in the configuration of matchsticks dropped onto paper was
documented in Earth Works by a six-foot square back photograph. Dissipate was recreated twice, temporarily as a 40th anniversary homage by a camper of The
Burning Man Congregation, and permanently for The
Menil’s verdant lawn. Again, the relocation absolutely
neutralized its audacity which we have to say, is also
true of Caravaggio cubism and every every other radical style that history and institutions
have incorporated and defamed. Scull was the other major collector who had both the will and resources to fund acres for artists. He made a fortune from his
father-in-law’s taxi fleet, a business then known
for its ties to the mob, by inaugurating the
installation of two-way radios and renaming it Scull’s Angels to emphasize that their
cars were guardians who could fly to customers
upon their calls. While his support of Heizer
was on view in Earth Works, manic journalist Tom Wolfe described Scull and his wife Ethel pictured recently at the Warhol extravaganza at the Whitney, as folk heroes of heroes
of every social climber who ever hit New York. In a blaze of publicity they
illuminated the secret route collecting whacked-out art. But it was Scull who made
an astute distinction, if one buys a work of art
he’s still a collector. The minute a collector says to an artist, “I see you’re struggling. “Here is some money. “Don’t give me anything now.” Now you’re dealing with it in
terms of involving yourself in the creative life a human being who has got something that
you find very significant or some poetry that makes
you shell out money, and say, “Here, do it.” And then you become a patron and that’s a whole other trip. So it’s appropriate that The
Frick Center for Collecting leaps forward to the 20th century with the trip of funding uncollectibles because it adapted the pre-modern practice typified by Rembrandt of
being professionally sustained by patrons such as cloth merchants and self-styled intellectual, Jan Six, who Rembrandt portrayed twice. Another dealer who
needs to be acknowledged for his patronage of Smithson
was Douglas Christmas. They became friends while working together on a Vancouver project where
Christmas had a gallery. Then Christmas substantially
funded Smithson’s film on the jetty and showed
it in his LA ACE gallery. Like Rembrandt, these modern
recipients of patronage have a closer relationship than they would to collectors who just buy things. Heizer made a portrait of Virginia highlighting it at an
exhibition of her collection. And a later terrace, and on a later terrace Smithson hung out here and was Virginia’s. But such social leveraging of support for the creation of whacked-out art (audience laughing) did not seem to have been, seem to have been common knowledge as indicated by Warren
Miller’s 1972 cartoon in which a man resembled Scull beguiles of a voluptuous babe. And I can tell you’ve
already read that offer. In his anti-institutional
voice that summer, Smithson typed a private and folks, never before seen before this moment riposte across an enlarged copy. “To those who consider things sanely “as it is evident that divine
providence councils the rich “to use well those goods that they possess “in transitory fashion if they
wish for eternal recompense.” He quoted William of Aquitaine in 910 granting land for Cluny the monastery as stated in the book in his library, “Art and Architecture in Medieval France.” But Smithson’s caution
also presciently applied to artists’ ambitions. In November 1973, four months
after Smithson’s death, de Maria wrote Virginia seeking support for a larger Lightning field than the initial one in
Arizona she had funded. Noting, “I have come to realize “that the land or earth
movement as a whole “is best advanced through
fewer major statements “rather than a profusion of smaller ones, “as he had been doing. “He promised fame. “A lightning field with the dimensions “of a mile square of land could constitute “one of the major
sculptures of the movement “and perhaps a major statement
of 20th century art.” It worked. Eventually funded by the Dia Foundation, the Lightning Field has
appeared on many book covers and inspired musicians and poetry. It is maintained by a group
of private collectors, foundation, Gagosian
Gallery, Gucci and Prada. In 1969 the sculptural transgressions on the Dwan Gallery’s
floor had joined others designated as impossible art. A decade later another cartoon by Miller showed an earthen pile as a
businessman’s office decor. Again, as throughout the history of art, what once was considered
obstreperously alienating had been assimilated. Yet notable about land art of the ’70s was not only a return
to prominent patronage but how it offered a new
set of collecting experience which was the collecting of experience. In the 1970s several artists constructed remotely located naked eye observatories suggesting an intrigued
not only with astronomical but cosmic universes. With its constellations
cut into concrete pipes whose orientation make them lenses onto the rising and setting of the sun at solstices and equinoxes, Holt combined Heizer’s
sense of compression between his tall walls and the expansion implied
by Smithson’s spiral. Built and owned privately by Holt, it was acquired last year by Dia. Morris’ Observatory was
commissioned by Netherlands’ countrywide sculpture
exhibition Sonsbeek in 1971 then public funding enlarged it at the new post-war town of Lelystad, an hour northeast of Amsterdam. Oriented to Solstice
and Equinox sight lines, it has two concentric rings of earth, four notched openings and is a lushly beautiful
site to run around in and out through these apertures. In the Heizer mode of working endlessly in a remote desert
hermitage is Charles Ross’ huge Star Axis begun in 1976
on a Mesa in New Mexico, a hybrid of intricately designed sculpture and precisely aligned observatory. Over many years Virginia has
been a substantial contributor. Ross established the nonprofit
Land Light Foundation as a vehicle for tax-deductible donations. At his Arizona mountain Roden Crater, James Turrell carved the
caldera of an extinct volcano into a symmetrical bowl
with subterranean channels from which to view the hemisphere above since 1974, although as time goes on, he won’t acknowledge that early date. Turrell has received funding from the NEA, every major foundation,
many private collectors such as Count Panza but
it remains unfinished, as if a cash cow. A couple of decades ago David
and I climbed up to the top with the rancher caretaker who told me that Turrell was
buying the surrounding land grazing cattle and running
them to Kansas City stockyards. A few years ago when I was
living nearby in Flagstaff during an NEA seminar for a few weeks, his Skystone Foundation refused admission informing me that no
one could yet view it. That is unless offering a donation like the 10 million that Kanye West, our latest patron of the uncollectible, gave Turrell last December
so that as the rapper put it, “Roden Crater could be experienced “and enjoyed for eternity.” Or maybe he meant for eternal recompense. Here is Kanye with his new
chum a couple of weeks later at Turrell’s show at MASS MoCA, his art patronage perhaps an echo of that of his one-time
mentor and current pal, Jay-Z, become celebrity visitor
to the Louvre with Beyonce. But no matter, last
summer at an easy drive outside of Den Haag, above North Sea Dunes where assign promises
the presence of light can be so tangible. I experienced Turrell’s
smaller 1996 Celestial Vault. My guide was the perfect link to The Frick now a year later. The eminent Rembrandt
scholar Gary Schwartz on the left with his wife Loekie and contemplating the universe. And here I am zoned out, daydreaming, experientially owning the
great Celestial Vault, now recollected, recollected in memory, and on iCloud. And you too can give this work and the hemisphere above attention what Weil aptly called, “The rarest and purest form of generosity “and collect memories
of transient ownership.” The Celestial Vault and most other magisterial works of
land art wait for you. Thank you. (audience applauding)

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