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Issue 214

50 Years of Land Art

How Gianfranco Gorgoni’s photographs documented a radical art movement

BY Jonathan Griffin in Frieze Masters | 17 SEP 20

On Christmas Eve 1968, astronauts on the Apollo 8 Moon mission took the first photographs of the Earth by someone not on it. William Anders’s Earthrise, the best-known image, immeasurably altered humanity’s consciousness of its environment, but it also changed forever the way landscape was viewed in art.

When Earthrise was taken, Land Art (or Earth Art) had already been named, theorized, critiqued and contested. The movement’s apogee, however, came in 1970, when Robert Smithson created Spiral Jetty on the north shore of Utah’s Great Salt Lake and Michael Heizer made Circular Surface Planar Displacement Drawing on the surface of Jean Dry Lake, just south of Las Vegas, for which he inscribed five huge rings into the desert floor using thundering 350cc motorbikes. Both artworks were orbicular in form, and both best viewed from above.

These iconic Earthworks – as with so many others from this period – are familiar to us now through the images of Gianfranco Gorgoni, the Italian photographer whose contribution to Land Art will be celebrated in an exhibition at Reno’s Nevada Museum of Art next year. Gorgoni, who died in 2019, emigrated to New York in 1968, where he met Smithson at Max’s Kansas City. Shortly after, he travelled to Utah with friends Richard Serra and Joan Jonas (then a couple) to photograph the creation of Spiral Jetty. Through their mutual friend, Walter De Maria, he met Heizer in a bar on Hollywood’s Sunset Strip. 

It is not known whether Heizer, who was notoriously competitive with Smithson, had seen Gorgoni’s photographs of Spiral Jetty when he conceived Circular Surface Planar Displacement Drawing, but he must have seen them by the time he made it. Understanding that documentation of his piece was vital to its transmission, Heizer commissioned Gorgoni to shoot photographs of its creation as well as the finished work. 

Heizer rented a scaffold tower, over seven metres high, which he erected on the dry lakebed, and asked Gorgoni to climb to the top. This photograph was almost certainly shot from that vantage point, although others were taken from an aeroplane. Many of Gorgoni’s images feature the artist; portraiture and documentation blend into a cinematic suite of images, adding an element of performance and not a little macho posturing. In this shot, Heizer might almost be walking on the surface of the moon.


‘Gianfranco Gorgoni: Land Art Photographs’ will be on view at the Nevada Museum of Art, Reno, USA, from 26 June 2021 to 5 June 2022. An accompanying book, edited by Ann M. Wolfe, will be published

by Monacelli/Phaidon in autumn 2021.


Main image: Gianfranco Gorgoni, Michael Heizer’s Circular Surface Planar Displacement, Jean Dry Lake, Nevada, 1970, 1970, photograph. Courtesy: Carol Franc Buck Collection, Nevada Museum of Art; photograph: © Estate of Gianfranco Gorgoni; artwork: © Michael Heizer

Jonathan Griffin is a writer based in Los Angeles, USA, and a contributing editor of frieze.