'Troublemakers: The Story of Land Art' could have used more debate on what is truly art

( Unrated ) ( Monitor Movie Guide )

'Troublemakers' looks at the movement of Land Art, in which artists use just about anything in a landscape that can be manipulated or excavated.

Courtesy of David Maisel/First Run Features
Robert Smithson’s 1970 work ‘Spiral Jetty’ is viewed from the air in James Crump’s documentary ‘Troublemakers: The Story of Land Art.’

Have you ever regarded a landscape not just as a natural formation but also as a work of art? The men and women profiled in James Crump’s documentary “Troublemakers: The Story of Land Art” went one step further: They created artworks out of earth and rock and snowfields and just about anything else in the landscape that could be manipulated or excavated. They, in a sense, played God.

Land Art, also referred to as Earth Art or Earthworks, flourished primarily in the 1960s and ’70s, and the movement had its trio of rock stars: Robert Smithson, whose “Spiral Jetty,” perhaps the group’s most popularly recognized achievement, featured a widening spiral projecting into the Great Salt Lake in Utah; Walter De Maria, who harnessed lightning in “The Lightning Field”; and Michael Heizer, who, for “Double Negative,” dug deep trenches, 1,500 feet long, in a Nevada mesa.

These artists, and others, including Smithson’s wife, Nancy Holt (“Sun Tunnels”), and Charles Ross, were reacting to what they regarded as the undue restrictions of the gallery scene, especially as it then existed in New York. Their city exhibits featured earthworks, but these displays were only tokens of their real desire: to break out of urban confinements and venture into the great American landscape, most often the desert sprawls of the Southwest. There they could not only commune with nature but also shape nature. Much of their artistry, which is almost entirely devoid of human content, is on view in “Troublemakers,” although the point is made that, for all the effort that went into creating them, the works can only be experienced by most people in the form of aerial photographs. All that effort for a photo! 

Crump briskly fills in the back story to this movement. (The film itself is brisk – 72 minutes.) The NASA space explorations and the televised Vietnam War, which brought the ravaging of landscapes into our living rooms, were, for Crump, key influences (although the artists’ work was essentially apolitical). 

I would suggest that the Land Art movement was basically primal, an attempt to literally move heaven and earth. The artists wanted not only to transcend traditional approaches to painting and sculpture, they wanted to break free from mortality itself. They worked in the vast desert spaces because they wanted to fashion something that would last as long as the mesas and canyons. They wanted to be eternal. 

Virginia Dwan, the arts patron and 3M heiress who financed a lot of this work, says that what attracted her to these artists was, above all else, their “obsession.” And certainly that obsessiveness is a through line not only in the art but also in the lives of these people. Heizer, for example, the sole survivor of the Land Art trio, has been living in the Nevada desert for four decades, where he has been working steadily on his magnum opus, “City.” (He apparently declined to be interviewed for the film.) Land Art requires not only an apocalyptic mind-set but also a very particular set of skills. You have to be able to do, or at least supervise, some pretty heavy lifting. This is not art for the easel-and-paintbrush crowd.

The question should be raised: Is this art at all? Crump doesn’t bring any naysayers into his film, and it would have been useful if he had, since so many in the audience will probably be asking themselves this question. One could argue that, if Land Art is indeed art, then, in a sense, the greatest masterpiece would be the aftermath of a mega-earthquake. I would love to know what Heizer or Smithson might have thought while looking out at the Grand Canyon. Would it be akin to the Sunday painter confronting Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel? 

Although “Troublemakers” makes the case for Earthworks artists as breakaway outliers, Crump also attempts to align them with a tradition going back thousands of years – to Stonehenge and the building of the pyramids. This may be a bit of a stretch. I highly doubt, for instance, that Stonehenge was intended purely as an artwork, however we might view it today. But the confluence of ancient and cutting edge in these artists is what gives their work its shimmering, ambiguous power. 

I call it art. And as long as I’m on the subject, I think the Grand Canyon is the greatest sculpture I have ever seen. Grade: B+ (This film is not rated.)

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