Art of the Outdoors

My classmate, Hass, and I were standing on a rooftop on the lower west side of Manhattan watching a dance performance taking place in a vacant lot across the street when he nudged me and whispered, “That’s Robert Smithson.” The tall guy to my left at the parapet, in a cowboy hat and black trench coat, was solemnly staring down at the ground, along with a couple dozen other bohemes of the downtown art scene who had climbed four flights of rickety stairs in a derelict, cheese warehouse to view the show. The pop-up theatrical event wasn’t my my kind of art, but finding a way into the New York art world, was. Knowing when and where to show up for a happening in the city was the name-of-the-game for a Brooklyn art student in the early seventies. Smithson had just gained notoriety for his land art piece, “Spiral Jetty.” He was one of the young, American artists pushing the boundaries of international fine art and making a name for himself doing it. I wanted his job.

For a couple years, I tried without success to involve myself in the New York art scene. I shared a loft in a former, billiard ball factory on the Bowery where I made sculpture. I worked as an assistant to sculptors and designers, and became a bicycle messenger for a while to pay the rent. I slipped into O.K. Harris Gallery on installation days, lending a hand where needed, just to be around the action. But being a participant in that world eluded me because I wasn’t a conversationalist. Making art in the Big Apple, it wasn’t enough to walk the walk, you had to talk the talk.

I moved back to the quiet hills of home, where loquacious Vermonters are the vocal equivalent of taciturn New Yorkers. Getting loud means starting the chainsaw, which I quickly did in order to clear an opening in the woods and build a small house. Sign painting, furniture restoration, building repairs; whatever could be done with two hands and a motley collection of second-hand tools, I took on for pay. I milked cows, tapped maple trees and helped out at a sawmill, for the experience. Slowly, I spiraled back out into the larger world by way of building free stone constructions.

The mode of expression I’ve pursued for the past four decades has sustained me in ways very different from those that an art career in the city would, or could, have. It’s no surprise that the city’s indoor orientation didn’t grab and hold me. Play activities in the out-of-doors constitute my most vivid memories from childhood. My understanding of the world grew from the outside in, leading me to a career of producing commissioned works in specific settings, employing the outdoors as my studio and canvas.

Galleries typically sell portable art pieces. Sculpture that’s attached to the place it was made is difficult to commodify. Asked how he would sell an earthwork, Michael Govan, the director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, recently said, only half-jokingly, “You can’t give them away.” Site-specific artworks rarely come on the market. The free stone constructions I devise have longevity, but they’re one-time events, making them more akin to an ephemeral dance performance.

It can only be guessed what direction Robert Smithson might have taken his art had he not died in a helicopter crash at the age of thirty-five. In a way, Land Art began and ended with “Spiral Jetty.” Earthworks never became established in the contemporary art world, perhaps because art dealers understood them to be a losing proposition. While Smithson’s nine-day long construction on the shores of the Great Salt Lake in Utah (partially funded by a New York gallery) may only have been a flash in the pan of art history, it lit a way forward for me to make art in nature.