Troublemakers is important because it makes land art accessible.
The story of land art isn’t new. It’s been around since the Pyramids and maybe before that. As framed by filmmaker James Crump, land art is the story of man’s quest to make a mark on the world; to leave more than fragments, shored against his ruin. The land art movement started in the ‘60s when a clique of white, mostly male artists left the New York art scene and headed west. The white walls of the gallery were exchanged for wide-open spaces of the American West. Canvases and paintbrushes were replaced with dirt, water and stone. Troublemakers is Crump’s illuminating portrait of the land art movement, and though it glosses over some details in its short 72-minute runtime, it evokes a moment in art history that’s worthy of cinematic attention.
The pioneers of land art were Robert Smithson, Michael Heizer and Walter De Maria, and if you haven’t heard of them, that’s okay. Crump gives us brief introductions: Smithson was the gloomy genius, Heizer the handsome cowboy and De Maria the intellectual. They were men with steep ambitions, and they chose to use the earth as both subject and material, avoiding the orthodox parameters of the gallery and seeking to create works on a monumental scale.
The artists were “troublemakers” because they thought their work was going to end galleries. At least, that’s what some of them thought. The gallerist Virginia Dwan offers a different view: land artists were not necessarily anti-gallery, but rather anti-confinement. Only the wide-open deserts of Nevada, New Mexico and Utah could house the giant, natural sculptures they aspired to make.
Of all the art forms, land art is particularly well suited to the big screen. The works are enormous, captured best through swooping helicopter shots and high definition lenses. They are also permanently situated in remote parts of the country, limiting access to those on tight budgets. Or, in the case of “Spiral Jetty” (1970), Robert Smithson’s 1,500-foot long curlicue of black basalt rocks, it is gone—washed extinct by the pull of the Great Salt Lake.
Troublemakers is important because it makes land art accessible. From Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty” to De Maria’s “The Lightning Field,” the film includes new and archival clips of specific works. Its footage of Michael Heizer’s “Double Negative” is one of the highlights of the documentary—a wordless, visual tour of Heizer’s opposed incisions on the edge of a desert mesa. Some 240,000 tons of earth was displaced to create this work, and the result is a mesmerizing, manmade creation of negative space made sublime by Crump’s elegant filmmaking.
Too many cultural documentaries underestimate the role of women, but Troublemakers isn’t one of them. Crump shows how women played a central role in the rise of Land Art, whether participating in discussions or funding entire projects. Virginia Dwan was the generous patron who understood the movement’s intentions and financed the groundbreaking “Earth Art” exhibition at Cornell (1969). Liza Béar was a co-founder of Avalanche, the esteemed art magazine that helped to expand the notion of what constituted art. Nancy Holt, the wife of Robert Smithson, worked side-by-side with her husband and after his death in 1973, she finished “Sun Tunnels,” four 18-feet concrete tunnels drilled with holes to complement the summer and winter solstices. It is a work of widespread acclaim and Crump gives it the attention it deserves.
To some, land art might come off as esoteric or pointless. After all, what’s so special about two giant holes carved in the desert? Troublemakers explains why the movement was created, who created it and why it matters today. While the film could have spent more time appreciating individual works, it remains an informative addition to the canon of art documentaries. In the meantime, the story of land art will continue to be told. As Smithson wrote in 1972, “Nature is never finished.”