On the shore of Utah's Great Salt Lake, a strange, almost-supernatural coil 1,500 feet long and 15 feet wide can be seen. Its form seems cosmic, but its origins are entirely human. It is probably one of the most well-known land artworks to date: Robert Smithson's "Spiral Jetty." Consisting primarily of black basalt rocks and salt crystals (as the lake is aptly named), this work changes with the water levels and will be experienced differently depending on the time of day. You can even view this work from the airplane if you are flying into Salt Lake airport.
"Spiral Jetty" is one of many monumental works of art that started cropping up in the 1960s and '70s. Artist of the "Land Art" movement were using nature not only as a source of inspiration, but as a part of the artwork itself. Some of these works are temporary and others are permanent but what unites each of them is their use of the environment around them within their work.
Because of the intensive capital investment needed to realize such ambitious works of art, most of the recognized artists of the land art movement were white and male...Amelia Manderscheid
Like many of the land artists of the time, Robert Smithson began to create environmental artworks out of a rejection of the commercialization of the gallery system which he believed created "mausoleums for art." Although he wanted to reject this system in his exploration of these artworks, he needed significant financial resources in order to create the "Spiral Jetty," moving 6,000 tons of black basalt rock from the shoreline into a spiral formation. To realize this particular project, Smithson used a $9,000 grant from New York gallerist Virginia Dwan. Dwan first made a name for herself at her Los Angeles gallery before moving to New York and is referred to by the New York Times as a "jet age Medici." Smithson used these funds to hire construction equipment. Despite shunning the gallery environment, Smithson nevertheless needed gallery patronage to fulfill his creative vision.
In terms of the market, the viability of environmental artworks is generally limited, as these works are usually challenging to sell or cannot be moved. Most site-specific works art not created with resale opportunities in mind, and therefore are financed by a patron or an institution in advance of their creation.
One rare example of a land artwork being sold at auction was another earthwork by Smithson "Double Nonsite, California and Nevada." This work was sold in May 2019 for $1.8 million at Christie's and is now in the collection of the Crystal Bridges museum. The work consists of geological material from each location, cinder from California's Mojave Desert and obsidian from Nevada, juxtaposed with one another. These prehistoric rocks are placed in sleek modern boxes and taken into a museum setting a "nonsite" from their original location. Smithson's wife and fellow artist Nancy Holt sold her seminal work "Sun Tunnels" to the Dia Art Foundation in 2018. The Sun Tunnels are massive concrete cylinders that are aligned in a cross formation that will center the sun on the horizon during the winter and summer solstices. It was the first earthwork by a woman bought by the Dia Art Foundation, which specializes in this genre of art. This is the same foundation she and the estate of Robert Smithson had gifted the "Spiral Jetty" to many years ago. For Holt, it was important that her work was sold as an indicator of the intrinsic value of her work.
Because of the intensive capital investment needed to realize such ambitious works of art, most of the recognized artists of the land art movement were white and male, from Robert Smithson, Michael Heizer and Walter de Maria to more contemporary artists such as James Turrell, who has been working on the Roden Crater for decades. The lack of resources available to women and artists of color led them to create works using found objects and utilize spaces in communities of color.
One could argue the old cliché that where there is a will, there is a way, such as in the example set by notable land artist duo, husband-and-wife duo Christo and Jeanne-Claude. Their names are synonymous with experiential site-specific art. Together, they have staged many immersive artworks all over the globe, from "The Gates" in Central Park to "The Umbrellas" in Japan and California simultaneously in 1991.
Under the "Most Common Errors" section of the duo's website, Jeanne-Claude wrote that she and her husband pay for their projects using their own finances. They accepted no sponsors, sold no merchandise, received no royalties on the books or films about their works. Rather, the couple financed all of their site-specific artworks through selling preparatory drawings done by Christo. They acted as their own dealer, selling the works directly to museums and private collectors. After Christo's death in 2020 following Jeanne-Claude's in 2009, Sotheby's Paris hosted a single-owner sale of the collection of Christo and Jeanne-Claude which totaled $11.2 million, more than double the low estimate for the sale. Although Christo and Jeanne-Claude never tapped an outsider to promote or sell their work in their lifetimes, their estate chose to work with an auction house in order to maximize the sale of their art collection after their passing.
Other artists have used their creativity to push the boundaries of what art could be, working through their seeming limitations. The Watts Arts Tower Center is an iconic example of creating a community art space and utilizing the resources available to local African American artists. Noah Purifoy wanted to use art as a tool for social change, and was exhibited at the Brockman Gallery, a gallery in L.A. that showcased work by Black artists who were utilizing assemblage and found objects in their work. Much of his artistic output was installation, such as the ones at Joshua Tree Outdoor Museum. When his work has come up for resale at auction, it has only been featured in Swann's African American Art sale beginning in 2014. Swann Auction Galleries is the only major auction house with a focus on African American fine art. In keeping with the zeitgeist of the times and an acknowledgement that many artists of color had been previously written out of the art history movements they made significant contributions to, many works by African American artists that were first brought to the auction market at Swann are now being offered in the headline contemporary art auctions at the leading auction houses. A work by Purifoy is being sold at Christie's Contemporary Art auction on May 14th, the first time a work by the artist will be featured in a Contemporary Art sale at auction.
The "biennial effect".... will cause an increase in demand and, as a result, their artwork's price, which can range from a 5% to a 25% increase.Amelia Manderscheid
These days, site-specific artwork is more prevalent and marketable as art as a destination continues to be of interest for those seeking new cultural experiences and gives rise to such events as Desert X. Now on its third iteration in the Southern California landscape, Desert X biennial allows for artists to make site-specific works to be viewed during a limited time every year in the Coachella Valley, this year it is running from March 12 to May 16. These works often interact with the desert landscape but also utilize elements of mass media, from text-based work to billboards. Participation in Desert X will allow artists to create works of art they otherwise may not have the funding or the opportunity to create. This additional exposure can increase the market desirability of artists who participate, even if these specific artworks are not for sale. The "biennial effect" is the impact that an inclusion in a biennial exhibition, such as Desert X, has on an artist's market. Although it might not immediately increase prices, it will cause an increase in demand and, as a result, their artwork's price, which can range from a 5% to a 25% increase. This effect is similar to what happens when a major museum hosts an exhibition of an artist's work, although this in an institutional and not a market event, it plays a significant role in the validation of the artist's work, which will in turn impact the price.
In this digital age, site-specificity isn't the only notable characteristic for artwork. There has been a recent explosion in the market for digital art and NFT (nonfungible token), which allows artists to directly offer their work for sale easily to millions of people, eliminating capital intensive requirements that physical artworks demand. All you need is a computer in order to create and upload your artwork to an NFT platform. It is promising territory, especially for young artists of color, who may not have an established network to fundraise ambitious projects. Young street and graffiti artists especially have been drawn to this medium as it naturally subverts the gatekeepers of the traditional art market. Mister Cartoon, an L.A.-based tattoo and visual artist, recently auctioned off an NFT of his 1964 Chevy Impala, with the current bid at $1,650 on Rarible.com. Although this may seem like a low number, this is a higher price than most fine artists receive for their work and a strong starting price for an artist who has never minted an NFT before.
The New York Times recently delved into the world of cryptoart and NFTs, highlighting the story of Victor Langlois, an 18-year-old trans cryptoartist who was able to move out from his grandparents' house in Las Vegas to become a full-time artist living in Seattle. Sale for his piece entitled "The Sailor" on SuperRare went for about $80,000 in ETH cryptocurrency. Langlois describes his background this way, "My family, they don't have money, and everyone always had two jobs and lived in terrible parts of California and came from El Salvador."
The trailblazers of the 1960s saw wide open spaces as the new medium for artistic creation — they took art off the canvas and literally used dirt and land as their form of expression, while today's cutting-edge artists are using their own laptops to create artworks. Artists will always seek new and innovative ways to express themselves and the market will follow.