Earth, Body, Electronic, and... Christo


Artists of the 1960s and 1970s were working in a time of revolution both artistically and politically. Man's dominion over nature, politics, and social organization were constantly called into question. Race and identity were key issues for many striving for equality. Through these events, artists looked both inward and outward attempting to alter our understanding of our world.

Artists working with landscape

As the ideas of site specificity, material, and concept grew with the Minimalist aesthetic, some artists turned to site-specific “Earthworks.” These works deal with geological time and prehistory and the frightening vastness of the American West.

Michael Heizer

Heizer’s works deal strictly with the idea of site specificity. The art defines itself in its precise interaction with the particular place for which it is conceived. In his “Dirtwork” projects, produced in Nevada in 1967, Heizer created temporary works such as trenches and drawings with motorcycle tracks. He also drew with pigment in soil. The works survive through photographic media as many were extremely temporary, and the common viewer would never be able to get to the locations that Heizer produces the work.

Michael Heizer Displaced Replaced Mass, 1969

In Displaced-Replaced Mass (1969): Heizer moves three solid granite boulders 60 miles from the High Sierras to the Nevada Desert in depressions in the ground. He is literally taking mass that had been displaced from years of earth shifting back to sea-level where it had began.

Michael Heizer Double Negative, 1969-70 (Google Map View

In 1969, Heizer disappears into the Desert and comes back in 1970 after creating Double Negative. To produce this work, he procured a site, equipment, a crew and gouged 240,000 tons of rhyolite and sandstone out of the Virgin River Mesa in Nevada. The cut is 30 feet wide, 50 feet tall and 1,500 feet long (with a small canyon through the center). The work is considered an existential assertion of man’s place in the chaos. Heiser nots, "In the desert, I can find that kind of unraped peaceful religious space artists have always tried to put their work (Fineberg 325)." Heizer attacks the idea of art as a portable object. Rejects the institutions of a museum and gallery as he cannot actually sell his works. Deals with the political nature of the 60’s in rejecting the direction of things.

Walter De Maria

Walter De Maria Lightening Field, 1977 (Google Map View

Walter De Maria is most known for his series of works using the same stainless steel poles for a system of ordering in nature. The Lightning Field (1977) rests out in New Mexico where he created a grid of poles 1 mile x 1 kilometer with 2 inch diameter poles. The grid is most dramatic with a passing storm as it attracts lightning from the sky. The work is site specific and ever changing with the chaos of electricity as it is brought to some order through the measured grid of poles.

Robert Smithson

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Robert Smithson Spiral Jetty, 1970

Robert Smithson explored nature with a darker tone as he questions his personal identity, good and evil, and Christianity. Science Fiction and Geology provided a means of escaping these issues and working with nature. He creates a lot of Non-sites, literally displacing the sites by means of photographs and taking elements (rocks, earth, etc) from the place to the gallery.

Many of his works, although site specific, can be re-created in similar locations. Spiral Jetty (1970) is Smithson’s best known work because of it’s temporary nature and idea of order and life in general. It is located in a remote corner of the Great Salt Lake in Utah. It has been destroyed through time by the fluctuations in the lake.


The work's well documented history gives a sense of time and space. It was a momentary, site specific work, but has persisted through other media. It was placed in an industrial area that seemed like something out of science fiction future. The salt from the water outlined the rock and earth, and the organisms gave the water a red color.

The Atmosphere of the late 1960’s

Artists took up a radical stance attacking the values of established institutions of government, industry, and culture. The question arises, should art of private expression still exist?

Germano Celant, a notable art critic of the time, wrote a manifesto entitled, Arte Povera promoted the notion of art, free of convention, a power structure, and a market place (Cullinan The Politics of Arte Povera). This however deals with a group of Italian artists that attacked the corporate mentality with art of unconventional materials and style such as the Neuvoaux Realists had done.

Kusama-Naked_Event_New_York_Stock_ExchanThe Vietnam War also creates a heated debate that gives rise to a range of radical forces for change in Western Culture. There were performances geared to liberations: Yayoi KusamaNaked Event (1968) which was staged at several locations in Manhattan and later at Woodstock Festival in August, 1969.

Art was focused on the minimal and the presence of it in nature which pushed many artists to Art Theory and a purely “conceptual art.” Consumerism was out of control and many artists reacted against that as well, taking note of the Pop artists. Others reacted in different ways: Douglas Huebler created an exhibition which consisted simply of a catalog entitled, “January 5-31, 1969” where he mentions, "The world is full of objects, more or less interesting: I do not wish to add any more (Fineberg 341).

Sol LeWitt had been dematerializing the art object with his conceptual “wall drawings” and other minimal work. Concepual art is made to engage the mind of the viewer rather than his eye or emotions.

Joseph Kosuth

As many artists turned more and more to the concept and theories on art, poetry and language become an important aspect of the overall experience. Kosuth made explanation an art form. “Art as Idea as Idea” examined verbal assumptions and definitions with disconcerting literalness similar tot he work being done by Jasper Johns and Bruce Nauman.

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Joseph Kosuth One and Three SawsOne and Five ClocksOne and Three Chairs, and One and Three Pans, 1965

In One and Three Saws (1965) and the other works from this series, he places three distinct realities of an object onto the wall. The art I call conceptual is based on the understanding of the linguistic nature of all art propositions.

Piero Manzoni

Piero Manzoni Socle Du Monde (Pedistal for the World), 1961

Manzoni redefines art to include the entire world (Pedistal for the World, 1961). He was Influenced greatly by Yves Klein’s notions of art and the performance where anything created or signed by the artist was that artist’s work.

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Piero Manzoni Artist Shit, 1961

“Shit” were cans of the artist’s excrement that he sold for the same price per gram as gold. Artwork such as this comments on performance and the nature of the art market.

Gilbert and George

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These two artist’s performances merge the idea of life and art as they physically become art pieces and focus on such an idea throughout their career together.

Vito Acconci

Much is focused on the artistic experience itself. And Acconci focused on the relationship of the artist with the viewer physically creating situations that he would document such asFollowing Piece

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Vito Acconci Following Piece, 1969

His body and experience becomes the work of art as he discovers means of recording such actions.

Body Art

In the Late 60’s and early 70’s a lot of artists turn to their body as a canvas, and expression through experience. These works exaggerate the ideas of the happenings and performance pieces of the 50’s. Many artists were expressing themselves through the idea that art is a direct individual experience between the artist and nature. Some artists took these experiences to the extreme by putting themselves in dangerous situations and causing themselves bodily harm in order to reach such heightened levels while recording the action by photography or written notes.

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Rebecca Horn 1974

Some of the more tame artists such as Rebecca Horn and Adrian Piper created situations for themselves that made them different from the cultural norm and documented how they and others coped with such situations. Rebecca Horn creates many body sculptures that act as props to exaggerate such interactions.

Ana Mendieta

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Ana Mendieta Tree of Life Series, 1977

Mendieta is a Cuban born artist who focused on her own body in nature expressing her sensuality of experience. In her Tree of Life Series (1977), Mendieta places herself literally into nature. In her work, the female body is a primal source of life and sexuality like the Palaeolithic Venuses. There is a literal transformation of body to nature by covering herself and becoming one with the landscape similar to personifications of nature and the occult practices that came to the Caribbean with the Yoruba slaves in the sixteenth century. There are many feminist issues that play an important role in interpreting this work as well as the sense of the materials in nature while photography documents and communicates the artistic vision.

Performance Art

Performance art took on new levels stemming from the Fluxus movement, happenings and the Judson Dance Theater.

Nam June Paik

Nam June Paik was an artist of the Fluxus movement. His work investigates sensations of the body in real time juxtaposed with the notion of collapsed and recombinant time as with television (time that can be reconfigured at will). He states, "We are moving in TV away from high fidelity pictures to low fidelity, the same as in painting. From Giotto to Rembrandt the aim was fidelity to nature. Monet changed all that. I am doing the same (Fineberg 352)." His work demonstrates a change from content-level perception to process level perception. How we see and what we see simultaneously. The works collage music, performance, and sculpture.

Nam June Paik TV Bra, 1969

TV Bra (1969): In an effort to integrate sex into music and our perceptions through media.

Nam June Paik Video Fish, 1975-79

Video Fish (1975) : Tanks of live fish stand in front of TV monitors where a videotape of a fish loops around. Switches reality of the idea. His use of Television and video comment on the impact of these media to the everyday world and how we view it.

Direct Link to Tate Gallery

Political Commentary

Hans Haacke wanted the artist to engage in direct political action challenging the status quo. He created works such as a ballot box where visitors could express their opinions on political topics. The Student worker revolution in Paris (1968) students took to the streets of Paris in May 1968 throwing red paint on the decorative statues and all the old sculptures. The old sculptures symbolized the stability of the tradition-oriented governing aristocracy that remained intact since the French Revolution.

Marcel Broodthaers

Broodthaers took his commentary to the museums fuelled by the 1967-68 revolution on the streets of Paris. He began creating his own “museums” critiquing on the idea of the systems of classification and the over-all authority of the museums over the notion of history.


Fuelled also by the student worker revolution in Paris, the guerrilla tactic of “situations” or street events that would shake the passer by out of their conventional habits of looking and thinking. These situations were critiques of western capitalism and how it depoliticizes citizens and replaces participation with passive consumerism.

Political Action

Dubuffet had mentioned, "the arts that have no name, the art of speaking, the art of walking, the art of blowing cigarette-smoke gracefully or in an off-hand manner. The art of seduction. The art of dancing the waltz, the art of roasting a chicken (Fineberg 356)." De Kooning also mentioned that "Painting is a way of living today (Fineberg 356)." While Yves Klein stated, "life itself is absolute art (Fineberg 356)." And Beuys also stated, "Man is only truly alive when he realizes he is a creative, artistic being, even the act of peeling a potato can be considered a work of art if it is a conscious act (Fineberg 356)." Many artists wanted to substitute actions in real time rather than work in traditional media. This action of art in real time led way to a need for artists to make use of their art for political action.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude

With increasing frequency, the words and images with which a problem is described limit the range of possible solutions one can see, as demonstrated in the events stemming from the revolutions in Paris. By symbolically attacking the status quo, and by appropriation made change seem possible to artists.

Art in Real Events demonstrated that appropriated political insight with aesthetic beauty could create a mass critical debate on values. The first artist to communicate on a scale that enabled him to compete with corporations in shaping public perception of events was Christo. His work undermines convention by changing the context of how we see an object. In producing a Christo artwork, everyone finds themselves doing their usual job for something that has no practical purpose which is the truth of situationist methodology as described by Guy Debord. The irrationality of the situation and scale causes everyone to re-evaluate the world around them.

Christo explains,

The project is teasing society and society responds, in a way, as it responds in a very normal situation like building bridges, or roads, or highways. What we know is different is that all this energy is put to a fantastic irrational purpose, and that is the essence of the work (Fineberg 357).

Without the cooperation of the public, they could never gain the permits or sell the drawings, collages, prints, and other developmental tools which finance the work. This is all due to the architectural scale of his pieces.


In the beginning, Christo worked with found materials, wrapping them to form his basic premises of removal of context. He would wrap oil cans, bottles, and create other such packages:

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Christo Wrapped Oil Cans and Wrapped Package

Wrapped Coast (1969) was the first attempt to increase the scale of their work to a non-art context:

Christo and Jean-Cleaude Wrapped Coast, 1969

This work was mostly created with the help of enthusiasts and artists. In Christo's later Valley Curtain (1972):

Christo and Jean-Claude Valley Curtain, 1972

In this piece, he moved his work to a level which required engineers and professionals. The first attempt in 1971 failed after union labor lazily allowed the curtain to be taken by the wind, but the following summer, Christo and Jeanne-Claude finished the piece. Professional photographers document every step of the process. In the beginning, the photographers would shoot the proposed sites, and Christo might paint on top of the photographs to give a sense of relation of sculpture to the site.

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Christo and Jean-Claude Running Fence, 1976

Running Fence (1972-76) is an 18 foot high, 24 ½ mile-long line of fabric panels that ran across Sonoma and Marin counties North of San Francisco. It was so large you couldn’t see the entire project from the air. The project took four years of negotiations with 59 private land owners, a 450 page environmental impact statement, 18 public hearings for permits, $3.2 million. It was paid for entirely from the sale of the artist’s original drawings, wrapped objects, and collages. No one pays to see the art work. They do not accept grants or sponsorship. They do not profit from films or souvenirs. Christo also stops making anything relating to a project after it has been completed. They make no money, but exploit capitalisim in order to create a product. Most of the effect is during a certain display period until their relevance diminishes (1-3 weeks).

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Christo and Jean-Claude Surrounded Islands, 1983

Although he had begun ideas for several sites in the 1970’s, Christo and Jeanne-Claude were not able to gain permission to wrap the Reischstag in Berlin or the Pont Neuf in Paris or do their “gates” project in Central Park. In 1980, they are asked to do a major project for a government-sponsored Festival of the Arts in Miami. They rejected the commission, but went out on their own to create it after essentially rejecting the government funding.

The site was a bay in Miami that in 1936, The Army Corps of Engineers had dredged the bay to create a channel for ocean going ships and placed the excavated material in 14 piles creating a chain of islands between Miami and Miami Beach. Christo and Jeanne-Claude studied environmental issues and engineering logistics in order to gain permission for their vision. They scientifically tested everything.

Surrounded Islands (1983) so closely resembled the preliminary sketches that people had an odd sense of deja-vu. The work blended into the visual surroundings of the flora and deco atmosphere. It was experienced mostly through the media as it was difficult to get a good view of the entire thing from the ground. This also allowed for a connection with a mass audience and a creation of a mass dialogue. Christo states,

I think the project has some kind of subversive dimension and this is why we have so many problems. Probably all the opposition, all the criticism of the project is basically that issue. If we spend three million dollars for a movie-set there would be no opposition. They can even burn the islands to be filmed and there would be no problem. The great power of the project is because it is absolutely irrational. This is the idea of the project, that the project put in doubt all the values (Fineberg 364).

The success of this venture allowed Christo and Jeanne-Claude to soon wrap Pont Neuf in Paris and complete their other envisioned projects.


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Pont Neuf Rapped, 1972-1985Wrapped Rieschstag, 1974-1995, and The Gates, Central Park, 1975-2005

Pont Neuf Wrapped (1972-85) transformed the context for viewing the bridge to underscore the power of individual creative vision over the stable and anonymous monolith of social convention (Revolution, 1968). The conservative mayor of Paris even helped them do it. It is interesting to note how Christo will wrap prominent political and public structures in Europe, but focus more on aesthetic abstract forms that interact more freely with the American landscape.

Further Reading: Smarthistory, Christo and Jeanne-Claude's The Gates, 1979-2005. I also encourage you to visit their website as it contains an archive of images and video information.

Later Work

Christo and Jean-Claude Umbrella Project, 1991

The Umbrellas Japan-USA (1984-91): 1,340 blue (Japan) and 1,760 Gold (California) 12-18 miles. These later works demonstrate a contrast of Objects vs. fabric as he had done with the Gates. There is a freedom in the placing the objects on the landscape. These later works are almost more romantic and highlighting than the restrictive use of fabric and knots of his wrapping pieces.

Works Cited

Fineberg, Jonathan. Art Since 1940, Strategies of Being. Second Edition. New Jersey: Prentice Hall. Print. 2000. 
Sayer, Henry M. A World of Art. Seventh Edition. New York: Prentice Hall. Print. 2013.

Further Reading and Viewing

Harris and Zucker. SmArtHistory.org. KhanAcademy. Web. 2014.


Recommended Reading

  • Battcock, G. & Nickas, R., eds. The Art of Performance: A Critical Anthology. New York, 1984.
  • Broude, Norma & Garrard, Mary, eds. The Expanding Discourse: Feminism and Art History. Icon Editions, 1992.
  • Crow, Thomas. Modern Art in the Common Culture. Yale University Press. 1999.
  • Foster, Hal, ed. The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Post-Modern Culture. Bay Press, WA. 1983.
  •                 The Return of the Real: The Avant-Garde at the End of the Century. Cambridge, MA, 1996.
  • Frascina, Francis & Harris, Jonathan, eds. Art in Modern Culture: An Anthology of Critical Texts. Harper, 1992
  • Hall, Doug & Fifer, Sally Jo, eds. Illuminating Video: An Essential Guide to Video Art.  New York: Aperture in Association with the Bay Area Video Coalition, 1990.
  • Harrison, Charles & Wood, Paul, eds. Art in Theory: An Anthology of Changing Ideas. Colchester, Vermont, 1992.
  • Hertz, Richard, ed. Theories of Contemporary Art. 2nd ed. Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1993.
  • Hertz, Richard & Klein, Norman, eds. Twentieth Century Art Theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ.
  • Huyssen, Andreas. After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Post-Modernism. Bloomington, Indiana, 1986.
  • Johnson, Ellen, ed. American Artists on Art: 1940-1980. New York, 1982.
  • Lippard, Lucy. From the Center: Feminist Essays on Women’s Art. New York.
  • Owens, Craig. Beyond Recognition: Representation, Power and Culture. Englewood Cliffs, 1990.
  • Stiles, Kristin & Selz, Peter, eds. Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art: A Source Book of Artists’ Writings. Berkeley: University of California, 1987.
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