When it comes to geology, art and science are like two grownup siblings of very different temperaments. Only lately have they begun to enjoy each other's company—though there remain gaps in understanding each other.
Earth Art Origins
It took a whole century of geologic progress, and the popular success of Darwin, Agassiz, and Wegener, to teach the public new ways to see Earth. It took that century to establish the Earth's fantastic age and to start learning the stories of its fossil inhabitants.
Perhaps only then did artists see that geology offered them new insights. Perhaps it was merely industrial progress, inflating the artistic (and human) ego to compete in scale with nature itself for the first time, that led artists to articulate the new situation.
Whatever. In any case, not until the mid-20th century did something called "earth art" arise. Before that, artists had little to say about geological subjects. Picturesque or documentary landscapes, like this painting of a volcanic eruption shown here, and industrial kitsch were about all. But then artists stepped out of the atelier and into the field, with ambitions to match the landscape.
The simple eloquence of the work (if not always the artist), the influence of the masters, and the enthusiasm of the art establishment spawned a lively and continuing sector called earth art or land art. Some sculptors took to the giant scale, exchanging their chisels for backhoes and their clay for the ground itself. They had more to say than Gutzon Borglum's statement carved on Mount Rushmore. Still, with most of the movement it isn't clear what their ties were with earth science.
Giants in the Earth
Foremost of these was Robert Smithson, who died prematurely in 1973. His huge "Spiral Jetty," a mass of rocks built from Rozel Point into Great Salt Lake in 1970, is depicted in many places on the Web. He had a line of Delphic patter to go with the works; typical was: "I'm not all that interested in the problems of form and anti-form, but in the limits and how these limits destroy themselves and disappear."
Some artists linked up with corporate sponsors, using money shaken loose by environmental laws, to do artistic experiments with large industrial sites like old pit mines. The Web has at least one illustrated essay on this "reclamation art," showing its successes and its . . . well, nothing that supports artists is really a failure in my book. Some of these works have a mute and unsettling grandeur; others are closer to variety-garden landscape architecture.
Really amazing earth artworks, as with so many other things, are made by dogged cranks with the space and time to follow their visions to the limit. After Harvey Fite spent almost forty years of rummaging around his old quarry site near Woodstock, New York, the result was a lush, user-friendly rock park, a fantasyland in stone called Opus 40. This wonderful place is open to the public on summer weekend afternoons, except when weddings are being held there.
The World's Eye
The most ambitious of the gigantic old-style Earth Art pieces is still under construction. Since 1972 James Turrell has been sculpting a natural volcanic site, Roden Crater in the Arizona desert, into a place to space out. One way to look at it is that Turrell is carving out a giant eye looking straight up into space, like the spurious "face on Mars" only for real.
You could lie at the bottom of that eye and see only the sky, perfectly framed in the crater's rim with no structures or guided-tour audio to get in the way. Tunnels and chambers in the crater's sides would be there for the sun or moon to shine on at the right time of year, reminiscent of the prehistoric astronomical observatories that dot the American West and other desert places.
Words can't do justice to the Roden Crater concept, but many writers have tried. If Turrell's project succeeds, Roden Crater will stand through the ages as the greatest triumph of Earth Art—and perhaps of all art.
PS: The only canvas larger than the Earth itself is outer space. Sure enough, artists have been proposing some sublime, grand, and outrageous works to be put in orbit. Space agencies are holding the line, though, thank goodness. An entertaining history of space art has some trivia I'm sure you never knew.