Finding Inspiration: Women in Conversation with the Land

Female land artists whose work we admire.

Nature has long been a great muse of human artistry. But by the 1960s and 70s, artists began imagining ways to think beyond the four cornered depictions of natural environments on canvas, instead looking to the landscape itself as their medium. Land artists of the time offered a vision of art made up of dirt, plantlife, stone, and sky; art that might grow moss or erode, that could disappear on a rainy day or transform a landscape indelibly. Often, histories of the land art movement focus on projects that lean towards expressions of supremacy and domination. They also tend to paint the picture of land artists as quintessentially male — those with a “western, cowboy bravado” as art critic Suzaan Boettger described.

In reality, a number of female artists helped define the movement, enriching it with works that sought to converse with the landscape rather than subjugate it. In her 1970s Silueta series, Cuban-born Ana Mendieta used her own body to engage with the landscape, capturing herself — often in the form of a silhouetted imprint — pressed into the earth using natural materials like clay, water and plants. For Mendieta, this exploration of agency and mark-leaving feels radical rather than exploitive. Nancy Holt, the wife of artist Robert Smithson, documented the earth works of Smithson as well as contemporaries Michael Heizer and Richard Long, helping establish a visual archive of site-specific works that were decidedly difficult to access. Holt soon began producing her own installations — such as Hydra’s Head (1974) installed along the Niagara River, inspired by the region’s Seneca Indians, and made to reflect the stars of the water snake constellation above. With her most acclaimed work, Sun Tunnels (1976), Holt installed four concrete cylinders in the Utah desert to frame the sun as it rises and sets during the summer and winter solstices, with small holes cut out to cast constellations inside the tunnels. In Wheatfield – A Confrontation (1982), Agnes Denes planted, cultivated, and harvested two acres of wheat on a former landfill near Wall Street and the World Trade Center in Manhattan. She also engaged in regenerative projects, like Finland’s Tree Mountain – A Living Time Capsule, which lives on as the world’s first man-made old growth forest. Maya Lin, a contemporary artist, carries the flag — 2008’s Storm King Wavefield covers more than 11 acres of the Storm King Art Center with rows of undulating hills. The built landscape invites intimate exploration of the valleys between the swelling peaks. 

In many ways, the art world is a microcosm of the greater world. So much of art and design history — not to mention history history — has focused on the contributions of men, especially white men. The art that is most studied and celebrated, the artists whose names are most known, informs future generations of creation and creators. But the feminine, and feminist, perspective is a crucial counterpoint to the prevailing narrative. The work of these women inspires us to engage with our environments differently, considering how we look at the land itself. It also offers a new telling of a period of art that often focuses on strictly male perspectives. Rather than demonstrating man’s control over nature, these offerings of new ways of thinking and seeing amongst nature are worth revisiting now more than ever.