… The covenant has been recalled …
This is from the essay ‘Earthworks: The Landscape after Modernism’ by John Beardsley found in Denatured Visions: Landscape and Culture in the Twentieth Century edited by Stuart Wrede and William Howard Adams (1991):
For a time in this century, it appeared that American art had forgotten its covenant with landscape. In the nineteenth century, little mattered more. Not only was art then dominated by the image of landscape: more important, art was central to a process of national self-definition in which some of our prevailing cultural attitudes (political, theological, economic) were derived from, or inscribed upon, the landscape.
[line break added] All that America was, or could be, was in the landscape, it seemed, a point that nineteenth-century painting contrived to make plain. In our own century, by comparison, little has mattered less. The landscape did not entirely disappear from art; the subject continued to be of importance to certain photographers, especially, and was looked to as a source by those engaged in abstraction. But its explicit image was forsaken, even repudiated, by those we have come to venerate as modern.
[line break added] Its virtues turned to liabilities; its nationalist overtones, in particular, must have seemed parochial to a generation at once more cosmopolitan and more concerned with the primacy of the individual imagination. For the most part, landscape and modernity proved, in fundamental ways, to be mutually embarrassing.
It may prove, in hindsight, that nothing signaled the end of the modern era in art so much as the restoration of landscape to an important position among artists of a particularly venturesome character in the latter half of the 1960s. … [T]he restoration of landscape in the late 1960s can be traced to broad cultural forces as well as to those originating in the art world: it was then that we began reckoning with the awful repercussions of industrial progress, which for the most part we had previously only been celebrating. Consequently, landscape was very much on people’s minds — although artists would never achieve a unified or unambiguous position on ecological matters.
[line break added] In addition, there was a feeling among certain artists that paintings, especially, were economically overvalued (still a trenchant notion, as matters in this regard by now have become truly obscene) and superfluous. They would find their antidote to the commodity status of art in environmental projects, now commonly known as earthworks, in which art and site were inextricably linked. Landscape was not simply the subject of art, but also its locus and raw material.
[ … ]
… The suggestion that art could derive aspects of its form, material, and content from the topographical and cultural context in which it is made contributed to the emergence of a phenomenon known as sited or site-specific sculpture. The earthworks movement cannot alone account for sited sculpture — the phenomenon was implicit in earlier landscape projects of artists as diverse as Isamu Noguchi and Richard Serra.
[line break added] It was chiefly earth art, however, that precipitated the widespread engagement with landscape that is still a significant force among artists today. More important, site-generated art — sometimes looking like a cross between sculpture and architecture, sometimes a hybrid of sculpture and landscape architecture — plays an increasingly prominent role in the contemporary public space.
[line break added] The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington DC, for example, surely the most significant public monument of the past two decades, is inconceivable without the example of recent environmental sculpture. Its simple form, dug into the ground, its attenuated horizontal axes, and its symbolic alignments with the other memorials on the Mall all recall the precedent of earth art, although not earth art alone.
… The covenant has been recalled, and reformulated: art is now striving to reshape the landscape itself in some beneficial way. It is once more acknowledging the power of landscape to shape our cultural values and to address both our problems and our possibilities.
My most recent previous post from this book is here.