Way back in 1970, artist Robert Smithson had tons of basalt rock hauled out into the red waters of the Great Salt Lake in Utah. Mixing the rock with mud and salt crystals, Smithson made a massive spiral, 1500 feet long and 15 feet wide. Today Smithson’s monumental “Spiral Jetty” still spins its arc into the lake. Sometimes submerged, sometimes visible, depending on shifts in water level, it’s a place of pilgrimage for art lovers.
Smithson was just one of the wave of “land artists” who created a new art form in the 1960s and '70s, carving up terrain in the wide-open spaces of the West and reshaping it into giant works of outdoor art.
“Artists left the gallery system in New York and wanted to do art out in nature,” says Sam Ireland, the new director of Tucson’s Museum of Contemporary Art. “They were getting away from the commercial galleries and the buying and selling of art.”
This Saturday night, MOCA sponsors a single screening at The Loft (3233 E. Speedway Blvd.) of Troublemakers: The Story of Land Art, a brand-new documentary on the movement. According to Ireland, the movie is “a look back at the beginning of the movement.” Also known as “earth art,” the new genre grew in tandem with the period’s dawning environmental consciousness. “The land artists were taking the elements of art–line, light and color–and doing them on a large scale. And the personalities were on the same big scale as their work.”
Troublemakers focuses on three artists, Michael Heizer (still living and working in Nevada), and the late Smithson and Walter De Maria. The 1977 “Lightning Field”–De Maria’s best-known piece–is a “grid of metal rods,” Ireland says. “The intention was to have lightning dancing on the rods.”
Heizer, in an early work, the 1967 “North, East, South, West 1,” shoveled out chasms in the Sierra Nevada mountains. Today he’s working on a huge project called “City.”
“He’s carving into the earth and building it up,” Ireland says. “The goal is to have it last a thousand years.”
Directed by James Crump, who also made the art movie Black White + Gray about Robert Mapplethorpe, Troublemakers uses footage old and new to recount the art revolution that the land artists waged in dirt and rock. The new scenes, shot via helicopter, take “viewers on a thrill ride through the most significant land art sites in California, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah,” according to press materials.
The Wall Street Journal pronounced the film one of the “great art documentaries of the past half-century.”
Crump and the film’s producer, Ronnie Sassoon, will make a live appearance at the Tucson screening and do a Q&A afterward. A reception follows with hors d’oeuvre and a cash bar. The film, being shown in limited release, screens only once in Tucson, at 7 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 28. The $12 tickets include the movie, panel discussion and reception. Purchase online via The Loft's website.