Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Earth Art, Cornell University 1969

At this point in time there is no thorough history of the 1969 Earth Art show at the Andrew Dickson White Museum at Cornell University, although its significance has been noted. The Earth Art show has a prominent place in the MOCA catalog Ends of the Earth: Art of the Land to 1974, which includes an interview with the curator of the show, the late Willoughby Sharp. Sharp commented that the lack of a catalog for the show (Cornell published a small catalog for the show a year after the show) led to the founding of the journal he edited with Liza Bear, Avalanche, which had its own brief life in 13 issues released between 1970 - 1976.

The pages of Avalanche and the later catalog of the Earth Art show are both written with an casual unpretentiousness which at this point in time seems downright freaky in relation to contemporary art writing. At Cornell I was able to locate bound volumes of Avalanche which had been taken off the library shelves & put in storage: it is disarmingly simple to read. Beyond the generous use of nicknames - "Jim" & "Bob" & such - one can also trace a resemblance to a provisional community of like-minded people speaking to one another. That may be only a looser prototype of "the art world" but a lot more contingency and a lot less networking is involved.

The Earth Art show ran February 1 - March 16, 1969. It was the first institutional venue for earth/land art in the US, featuring projects made for the exhibit by Robert Smithson, Dennis Oppenheim, Richard Long, Hans Haacke, Jan Dibbets, Neil Jenney, Gunther Uecker, Robert Morris, Walter De Maria, and Michael Heizer. One of the reasons given for the catalog's lateness was that up until the show opened it was not fully determined who would be in it. A blizzard kept Robert Morris in New York City, unable to travel to Ithaca, for example - he gave directions for his piece, which involved piles of dirt, coal, and asbestos on the gallery floor, by telephone. There were administrative issues with pieces by Michael Heizer and Walter De Maria. Their work was made, but then not shown. De Maria filled a room with dirt, akin to the "earth room" made in Soho, on the surface of which he spelled out "GOOD FUCK," which led the museum director at the time, Thomas Leavitt, to close the room to the public. Heizer dug a large pit in the garden of the A.D. White house, which, seconding-guessing an incomplete archive, ticked people off as well.

Excluded from the later catalog, their works can be seen in ephemera generated by the show: a 2 page story of "What the Kids Think About the New Art" for the Ithaca Journal, and a short 16mm black-&-white film made by Marilyn Rivchin, who later taught filmmaking at Cornell. Marilyn's film includes footage of Dennis Oppenheim's Beebe Lake cut, where he was assisted by local recent graduate Gordon Matta-Clark, a bulldozer digging the Heizer pit behind the A.D. White house, Jan Dibbets, Hans Haacke. The resolution of the film is poor which makes viewing even more of a bit of time-travel and guessing-game (what am I seeing?). One project Marilyn Rivchin was unable to document was the mirror displacement begun in the Cayuga Salt Mine north of Ithaca by Robert Smithson, due to the company's policy of not allowing women in the mine.

There is a small file in the Johnson Museum of Art pertaining to the show, which contains an array of ephemera, from a crispy yellowed spread from the Ithaca Journal to press photographs. I found in it a set of photographs for a piece Smithson placed in the basement of the White house, which is reproduced in a later catalog of Smithson's sculptures that Cornell published after his death. Smithson did not take the photographs himself - he had others take them, & they document the path from the Cayuga Salt Mine to the A.D. White Museum, ending in a litter of photographs placed on a pile of dirt. Although it was not explained to me as such I believe they were overlooked "as" Smithson photos simply because they were ostensibly not shot by him, although nowadays I don't think that would negate his authorship. Ed Ruscha's images of parking lots were commissioned by Ruscha from a professional - I would consider that a parallel case in hand. Also there is a packet of photos of the piece Richard Long installed in on the slope at the front of the house. There is no identifying stamp for those but they appear to have been by Long himself.

The file is a curious mess. In our times which involve an excess of archives (albeit who can keep track of everything?) this lack is somehow as bracing & invigorating as the cold winter winds must have been in 1969. In retrospect the maleness (and the weird reinforcement of gender stereotypes in the Ithaca Journal coverage in which all the conservative, befuddled onlookers are female) stands out a bit more. What could be considered foolhardy & belligerent in its time now seems in some ways impossible to duplicate in our cautious, coded world. Earth Art can also be seen as a kind of cracked mirror for the enormous property which comprises Cornell University. If Cornell has a fairly spartan campus in terms of comforts, it more than compensates for that by the enormity of the campus. The university was founded by 19th century entrepreneurs who owned large tracts of land. In what seems like a slip of the tongue, the university's arboretum and nature preserves were named Cornell Plantations - the word plantation ostensibly cleansed of its racist connotations by being in the historically Abolitionist Republican North, but not of its seigneurial duties. If there is a lesson in the campus itself it is the virtues and power of private property.

In the transcription of the panel discussion for the show, Robert Smithson, as usual, shines. Beginning with the Cayuga Salt Mine, Smithson engages literally with what Jacques Derrida termed "the entire 'Cornellian' landscape - the campus on the heights, the bridges, and if necessary the barriers above the abyss - and the abyss itself." (Derrida, "The Principle of Reason: The University in the Eyes of Its Pupils", Diacritics, Vol. 13, No. 3, Autumn 1983, 17). Smithson's enviable lofty humorous disdain for historical gravity, comes through - echoing The Monuments of Passaic or the essay "Frederick Law Olmsted and the Dialectical Landscape." (Olmsted was also an early consultant in the planning of the Cornell campus whose plans were not used).

In retrospect, the masculinist connotations of the Earth Art artists, working with their tools in nature, seems less of an antipode than it must have seemed at the time. At its founding The Cornell University (as it was first known) was meant to offer practical education in the sciences, in agriculture, engineering - "useful" trades. As an institution which dutifully historicizes itself, the university offers a class in its own history titled "The First American University"to explain its once experimental curricula. There is a curious offhand note in Morris Bishop's History of Cornell (1962) about the original architecture of the school, which is now the Arts Quad: Bishop makes a distinction between the rough rectangular buildings constructed from local New York State Bluestone as a "masculine" style favored by Ezra Cornell, and the flights of "Upstate Gothic" fancy of Franklin (now Tjaden) Hall, & the Andrew Dickson White house as the "feminine" style introduced by university president A.D. White. That may not be a serious distinction per se, but it's flippancy in the book underlies a local suspicion in regards to the arts and humanities at Cornell to this day vis-a-vis the uncontested importance given to the sciences, business & entrepreneurialism. That weird Earth Art isn't entirely incompatible with the prosaic world of builders and developers, although somehow, it is, too.

The Earth Art show to this day is the major art event of Cornell University. My friend J. who grew up in Ithaca in the 1970s stresses how open the campus & the town were, that what exists now is monstrous and overbuilt in comparison. The leftover ephemera of the Earth Art show is a small hint of what is missing from our present time.

. . . Actually if you think about tracks of any kind you'll discover that you could use tracks as a medium. You could even use animals as a medium. You could take a beetle, for example, and clear some sand and let it walk over that and then you would be surprised to see the furrow it leaves. Or let's say a side-winder snake or a bird or something like that. And also these tracks relate, I think, to the way the artist thinks - somewhat like a dog scanning over a site. You are sort of immersed in the site that you're scanning. You are picking up the raw material and there all these different possibilities  . . . This is a sign language in a sense. It's a situational thing: you can record these traces as signs. It's very specific and it tends to get into a kind of random order. These tracks around the puddle that I photographed, in a sense explain my whole way of . . . going through trails and developing a network and then building this network into a set of limits. My non-sites in a sense are like large, abstract maps made into three dimensions. You are thrown back onto the site . . . - RS