Chapter 26: Minimalism and Earthworks

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The Minimalist movement began in the 1960s. It rejected the use of emotion and narrative in art, instead placing an emphasis on the physical properties of an artwork, including form, material, and placement.

Minimalist works remove all trace of the artist’s hand; in some cases, artists did not participate in the fabrication of the artwork, which would be outsourced to a factory for production.

Minimalism was seen to represent a sort of truth in art, as artworks rejected illusionist or any technique that made artworks appear to be something other than what they were. Minimalist paintings, for example, emphasize flatness, acknowledging that they are paint on a flat surface rather than trying to appear three-dimensional.


Earthworks, also known as land art, is an artform that draws attention to the landscape it occupies. The artistic movement developed in the 1960s and was closely tied to the environmental movement. Earthworks are often composed of natural materials local to the site they occupy.

Earthworks can change and evolve with environmental conditions over time: they are often documented in photography or film and displayed in museum or gallery space in that format.

Postwar European Art

Postwar European art was created in response to the destruction experienced in Europe during WWII. Works often reflect the artist’s experiences, traumas, and personal associations with the war.


Although many works of art can be described as “minimal,” the name Minimalism refers specifically to a kind of reductive abstract art that emerged during the early 1960s. At the time, some critics preferred names like ABC, Boring, or Literal Art, and even No-Art Nihilism, which they believed best summed up the literal presentation and lack of expressive content characterizing this new aesthetic. While scholars have recently argued for a broader definition of Minimalism that would include artists in a number of disciplines, the term remains closely linked to sculpture of the period.

Donald Judd’s Untitled (1969) is characteristic in its use of spare geometric forms, repeated to create a unified whole that calls attention to its physical size in relationship to the viewer. Like most Minimalists, Judd used industrial materials and processes to manufacture his work, but his preference for color and shiny surfaces distinguished him among the artists who pioneered the style.

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We're looking at a sculpture that, in many ways doesn't really seem to be—

A sculpture.


It's not free-standing.

It's not. It's more like a relief.

But it's not really a relief.

Not really, because there's no background it's attached to.

And they're isolated units, all the same.

That's right. This is a work by Donald Judd, and it's a piece of minimalist sculpture, and it was done in 1969, and it's an untitled work. He would have had the exact same form replicated over and over again. So, each one of those boxes that you see there were not made by him, and it was also made in a factory. So it has a kind of a machine-made aesthetic to it.

It somehow seems like it's made to sort of interact in the space of a gallery.

Absolutely. In fact, he's very specific in giving instructions on how to hang this, how to attach it to the wall. That each one be spaced 6 inches apart. And usually, the first time it was made, it was supposed to be evenly spaced all the way to the ceiling. So it would be somewhat dictated by the height by the normal height of the ceiling. Of course, that would change depending on what space you're hanging it.

But this one doesn't do that.

I think that's because the photograph that you're looking at, in particular.

It's made of something that has a reflective surface.

High sheen to it, the outside of it is brass and then, it's difficult to see here, but there are plexi kind of windows that are the tops of each one of these boxes. So you can see through it. And sometimes, depending on which piece it is, they're intensely colored, like pink, or kind of a yellowish color, or translucent. So, it interacts with the space and creates a kind of a shadow and coloristic effect on the wall, the blank wall of the gallery.

So should we be thinking back here to sculptures made of bronze?

I think so, but also the negation of that. One of the things that Judd and other minimalists are trying to do are to be of their time. So there's that whole tradition that he's continuing of modern art, you know, where you choose the materials and the themes of your own time. And here, to choose something that is brass, which can be used in older art, but to make it look like it's sheet metal, something that comes out of a factory. And in fact, is not made by him, but made by other workers, is very important, and the plexi is an altogether new material.

So it really speaks to our factory, industrial culture.

Exactly, and it is what it is. It doesn't disguise itself. He's very explicit about not trying to make illusionistic art. So he doesn't want to make a sculpture look like a person or a space that isn't there. And so they're clearly boxes, and the plexi allows you to see that they're not solid. So there's a clarity and a literal quality that he wants to bring out.

And it also reminds me of skyscraper, other kinds of modernist forms.

Right, and does evoke that and just the sheer replication of the same form over and over again.

Very modern.

It suggests machine production and one thing being—

Going shopping and seeing everything the same in the grocery store.


900 versions of the same thing.

Right. Kind of a product-like quality to it. It's easy to see how the clean qualities of it, the shininess of it, and also the plexi. Maybe at first glance, it seems oversimplified, but on further scrutiny, there's a lot of color and reflection and light at play.

What most people find disturbing about Minimalism is its lack of any apparent meaning. Like Pop Art, which emerged simultaneously, Minimalism presented ordinary subject matter in a literal way that lacked expressive features or metaphorical content; likewise, the use of commercial processes smacked of mass production and seemed to reject traditional expectations of skill and originality in art. In these ways, both movements were, in part, a response to the dominance of Abstract Expressionism, which had held that painting conveys profound subjective meaning. However, whereas Pop artists depicted recognizable images from kitsch sources, the Minimalists exhibited their plywood boxes, florescent lights, and concrete blocks directly on gallery floors, which seemed even more difficult to distinguish as Art. (One well-known story tells of an art dealer who visited Carl Andre’s studio during the winter and unknowingly burned a sculpture for firewood while the artist was away.) Moreover, when asked to explain his black-striped paintings of 1959, Frank Stella responded, “What you see is what you see.” Stella’s comment implied that not only was there no meaning, but that none was necessary to demonstrate the object’s artistic value.

Given these facts, it may seem odd to learn that hundreds of essays and books have been written about Minimalism, many by the artists themselves. It is significant that, although Minimalist art shares similar features, the artists associated with the movement developed their aesthetic ideas from a variety of philosophical and artistic influences. Through their writings, Minimalist artists put forth distinctive positions about the work they produced. In addition to his role as a sculptor, Judd was a prominent art critic, and his reviews provide eloquent explanations of his intent—shared by Stella and Dan Flavin—to eliminate the illusionism and “subjective” decision-making of traditional painting. Robert Morris, whose sculpture was influenced by avant-garde dance and performance, published a series of texts arguing for sculpture to be understood in physical and psychological terms, and Sol LeWitt introduced the term conceptual art to explain the use of seriality and systemic structure in his cubic grid-like forms.

In this way, the artists, along with critics and art historians over the past 50 years, have developed a critical discourse that surrounds the art objects, but which is essential to understanding Minimalism itself. Likewise, such artists as Richard Serra, Bernd and Hilla Becher, Maya Lin, and Rachel Whiteread, who use the Minimalist practice of the early 1960s as a point of departure for their own creative exploration, continue to contribute to the movement’s legacy and our understanding of its significance today.


Like Minimalism, Earthworks further blur the line between art and real life. The makers of these works moved out of the studio and employed new mediums. Rather than the traditional paint on canvas, artists of earthworks began to use soil, plants, or other physical materials available at the site. One important aspect of these works is their non-marketability. These works cannot be bought or sold or transported to accommodate a larger viewing audience. These works require the viewer to come to a specific geographical location and to engage with the work directly (and perhaps become part of it!).

Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty is an example of this kind of work. Located along a remote portion of the shore of the Great Salt Lake in the state of Utah in the USA, the viewer cannot merely stumble across the work, but must intentionally travel to its location, forcing the viewer to connect with the features of the land around it. 

Robert Smithson, Spiral Jetty, 1970 (Great Salt Lake, Utah) (photo: Gianfranco Gorgoni) ©Holt-Smithson Foundation

Figure 26.1 Spiral Jetty, Robert Smithson, 1970 (Great Salt Lake, Utah) (Photo: Gianfranco Gorgoni) ©Holt-Smithson Foundation.

The physical jetty is only part of the work, which is actually a triad of the “sculpture” in the landscape, an essay by Smithson, and a film documenting the project. But, as time has marched on, the work has become embodied in the minds of the general public in a single photograph, the image taken by Gorgoni, who hovered about the work in a helicopter and captured the piece from the perfect angle so that it looked colossal, while the hills looked minuscule.

This is due, in large part, to the fact that the jetty became submerged only a few years after it was made, and remained that way for decades. Only in the past ten years has it resurfaced and been available for visitation. Though Smithson may not have ever intended or even considered that people would take the time (and trouble) to visit, which begs the question that art historian Hikmet Sidney Loe posed, “Who is this work for?” Matthew Coolidge, president of the Center for Land Use Interpretation, said the work was for Gorgoni, that Smithson had literally made it for the photograph. They all agreed that the sculpture itself is the “gesture,” but the documentation is every bit as much a part of it.

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In 1970, Robert Smithson hired several people to help him create Spiral Jetty. We're standing right in the middle, at the edge of the Great Salt Lake in Utah.

But we're not seeing this the way that it existed when Smithson first created it, where it was an intersection between the land and the very odd water of the Great Salt Lake.

This is a terminal basin, a huge lake that had been largely freshwater, but there is no outlet, so the water, once it flows here from rivers and streams, collects and then simply evaporates. Which means that the water is dense with minerals.

And especially with salt, very much like the Dead Sea in the Middle East. And this is one of a handful of these terminal basins that exist in the world.

Almost nothing can live here. There are a few fish that live at the outlet of some of the freshwater rivers, and--

And there are brine shrimp and algae. In fact, there's a particular kind of algae that makes the water turn pinkish-red, and that was true when Smithson created Spiral Jetty. But today as we look out at the lake, it's blue.

With help from the Dawn Gallery, which represented him, Smithson was able to bring a front-loader and dump trucks, a tractor, to help move these basalt stones and sand and some soil into place.

By creating a spiral, Smithson created lots of opportunities where the land and the water could meet one another.

But right now, because the American West is in the midst of a drought, the water has receded and is at a great distance from this earthwork.

So, instead of the water filling the spaces in between the spiral, we have sand. So this was very much meant to be a work of art that changed, based on natural principles.

Smithson was interested in the idea of entropy, the idea of the way things break down. And his intervention in this natural landscape, it's an expression of the way in which artists thought about the landscape for many years.

We could go back to artists like Caspar David Friedrich, who thought about the overwhelming size and power of nature and the smallness of man, and that's certainly one of the themes here, for me, as we stand here. But we could also think about the importance of the vastness of the American landscape in 19th-century American painting, or even its importance to the Abstract Expressionists in the 1950s.

We can go even further back and look at the artwork of indigenous peoples in the Americas, long before the Europeans arrived, the geoglyphs, better known as the Nazca Lines, in Peru, in South America, or the earthworks that come out of the Fort Ancient culture in North America. And in fact, the very shape of Spiral Jetty is a form that has shown up in petroglyphs throughout the American West.

And it's a form that appears in nature, quite frequently.

One of the anecdotes that Smithson was apparently aware of was the centuries-old idea that the Great Salt Lake contained a whirlpool that somehow connected it to the Pacific Ocean. So the idea of a spiral or whirlpool is active even in these stories that predate Smithson. But this is also a sculpture that is rooted in the 20th century, in an industrial culture. 1970 was the year of the first Earth Day, and that signaled an important early moment in the environmental movement. The idea of the ruination, that man was visiting, on nature is clearly informing work like this.

And Earth Day ,being this time when we reflect on environmental issues, but the relationship between the growing industrial nature of the United States and the amazingly beautiful, vast, virgin landscape that was here when Europeans arrived, is a theme throughout 19th-century American painting. And as we stand here, we see mountains, we see the basalt that's formed from a volcano. So we have a very powerful sense of the passage of time that I think was very interesting to Smithson. By putting art outside in the world it becomes part of the process of nature. It can't be conserved.

In 1970, this was still a radical idea, the idea of taking art off the wall, bringing it outside, outside of the confines of a home or a museum.

And thereby outside of the commercial, of a work that could be bought and sold.

Smithson was interested in creating a porous relationship between that more controlled gallery experience and the experience of art in the world. So can a work like this also exist in Manhattan? Can it also exist in a gallery?

Well, we did drive two hours from Salt Lake City. So one does have to make an intentional pilgrimage to see this. We're really in the middle of a vast, empty space in the American West.

And yet this artwork was not conceived of as existing only here.

There's a video, there are aerial photographs. And so, like many works of art in the 1960s and '70s that were ephemeral, they exist through their documentation. Although this still exists here also.

And I have to say, I wouldn't feel as if experienced this work of art fully had I not come out here.

Standing here looking at Spiral Jetty and being really aware of how different it is than when Smithson created it in 1970 really makes me think about museums as places where we entrust works of art. We lock them away from time, we conserve them and create special conditions to stop time from hurting them. But here Smithson creates something that time is supposed to change.

Museums, in a sense, try to do the impossible, which raises a really interesting question: what do we do with the significant work of art that was intended to change over time? This work of art and the land that it sits on came under the control of the Dia Art Foundation. What does an institution like Dia do with something like this? Does it try to protect it? Does it allow natural and industrial forces to play with the landscape around it? And so what Dia did is, in concert with the Getty Conservation Institute, is to make the decision to regularly document this object.

You mentioned this idea of entropy, which was so important to Smithson, this idea that the tendency of all things, according to the laws of physics, is to move from order to disorder, to chaos. And I think we have that sense of things coming apart here.

So Smithson is imposing a geometric order into this natural landscape, into this vast space that is in the process, over millions of years, of disassembling. Here, more specifically, we can see the way his intervention is slowly coming apart.

And I think that sense that over millions of years this will come apart makes us aware of the brevity of our own lifespans in the grandeur of time.

Previous Citation(s)
On Minimalism: Dr. Virginia B. Spivey, "An introduction to Minimalism," in Smarthistory, August 9, 2015, accessed August 16, 2023, On Judd: Dr. Shana Gallagher-Lindsay and Dr. Beth Harris, "Donald Judd, Untitled," in Smarthistory, December 3, 2015, accessed August 16, 2023, On Smithson: Rebecca Taylor, "Robert Smithson, Spiral Jetty," in Smarthistory, September 18, 2016, accessed August 16, 2023,

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