Documentary Director James Crump On His Earth Art Daredevils

Art typically isn’t an occupation that one associates with being dangerous, but then again, few of us think of building giant structures from rock in the middle of a desert as being part of an artistic process. Earth or land art, a movement in late 1960’s American art, is indeed dangerous, and the artists who undertook such monumental undertakings grew into figures of almost mythic proportion. Seeing a football field-size spiral made entirely of rock jutting out from the coastline is naturally quite striking, but what kind of a person is capable of the thoughts, let alone the process, of making such a work happen?

The answers can be found in Troublemakers, a new documentary from art historian James Crump. The film examines three artists who have become giants in their field with the confoundingly large scale in which they worked: Michael Heizer, Robert Smithson, and Walter de Maria. Inherently different men, all three were united by their collective distaste for the art world, an affinity for nature, and an obsession that many would say borders on insanity. Milk’s Jake Boyer spoke to Crump about bringing the literally larger than life stories of this art movement to the screen, the ethos of earth art, and what it’s like to actually see one of these freakishly large-scale works.



I found one of the most interesting parts of the film to be the examination of how each of these artists was an ‘obsessive;’ that’s what characterized their attitude. Do you think this quality is necessary when making such colossally large artworks?

If you look at the kinds of tireless, decades-long campaigns to finish these works, like, Michael Heizer’s ‘City‘ in Nevada or Charles Ross’s ‘Star Axis‘ in New Mexico, you’re talking 40 plus years in these projects. So there’s a certain amount of obsession to finish the work and to manifest to dream, in order to gather the resources and the cash to overcome these huge obstacles and these very dangerous undertakings. But then once you have the resources, you have to actually perform and do the work. You have to have a certain amount of obsession to make it happen.

Was there anything you, as a filmmaker and as an art historian, were surprised to learn when working on this project?

When you spend time out in these really desolate places and you’re by yourself or with a small crew, the notion that you would work off the grid for so very long on your own with very little input from the outside world is daunting. These artists, well before the Internet and high technology, were working for so very long, toiling away at very, very difficult physical projects: it just seems impossible to me, not to mention the danger of it. The danger, the physical danger – the risk-taking element has become so profoundly striking when you’re at some of these sites. How did they do it? It’s just like – what contemporary artist today is going to take commensurate risks with their careers, and with their bodies, and launch off into a place like that? The idea of going out there alone with just the bare essentials, that to me even makes it more profoundly impressive.

‘Spiral Jetty’ by Robert Smithson

What drew you to the subject of land art?

I lived in New Mexico for over a decade. And just by living in that region I became very familiar with the land art and the land artists. I made my first trip to a land art site, ‘The Lighting Field‘ by Walter De Maria, in 1995 and I was fascinated with those characters. And so it built up over the years, gaining knowledge, gaining passion, gaining obsession with some of the pieces. Robert Smithson, De Maria, Heizer, those are artists that as an art historian I was endlessly fascinated by. But I decided to actually make the film around late 2013 because I felt that it was a story that needed to be told now for a variety of reasons. One was that some of the principle characters were elderly or had already passed away and some of the key figures who were still alive were aging. That was one issue. But the other issue was that I felt that the condition of the contemporary art market is such that in its very hyperspeculative, highly commodified form, a story like this in which we retrieve a spirit of these artists is really necessary.

And what spirit is that?  

These artists were doing something that is completely anti-commodification to some extent, and I wanted this film to be something that would hopefully resonate with a new generation, a younger generation of artists that I feel should be aware of these artists and be aware of the risks they took; and be aware of the ambition and the dreams and the mythology and their sense of utopia, and their sense of their striving to do something that was outside of a kind of system that was dominant in New York City at the time.

(from R to L) Work by Walter de Maria and Michael Heizer

It’s clear from the title of the film, Troublemakers, that we’re getting to know these artists as these renegade figures. What do you think it was about that movement of art or these specific artists that made them rebellious? 

I think that the artists that are featured in the film shared some traits. One of them was a healthy critical position about museums. There’s a machismo that comes across with some of them that is kind of cowboy, a macho quality that has become part of the story which, to some extent, holds up with some of the characters. But I think that’s over played in many instances.

I think they were really trying to strive. They were looking outside of New York City. They were looking to go to a place where they could be inspired by these incredibly vast open spaces where the light is incredibly particular, incredibly fine. And doing something that is completely outside of dominant way of making art. Heizer said something to the effect that the European model is no longer relevant, it’s dead; Meaning classical painting and sculpture. That was around 1968. Around the same time Robert Smithson said — and I’m paraphrasing these artists — but Robert Smithson said something to the effect that the whole notion of the museum has gotten more like a specialized form of entertainment. That’s the kind of statement that would even hold up today. And he was so prescient to say that in 1968, the late 60’s, that it’s striking. They had a particular position, they were making a critique of what they found to be an outmoded way of making and exhibiting their art. They were tired of these worn out methods, seeking to do something completely new and innovative and visionary.

Do you think that land art was a specific movement of the past or a genre that’s still evolving?

I think that the question you’re asking is ‘is there a future for land art?’ And I think that a lot of things have changed. In my Q&As when I’ve presented the film there are people who are very interested in ecology for instance, and they’ve actually called some of these interventions, you know, very anti-green and anti-earth, anti-ecological movement and that these works are actually damaging the earth.


‘Double Negative’ by Michael Heizer

“The danger, the physical danger – the risk-taking element has become so profoundly striking when you’re at some of these sites. How did they do it?”

‘Spiral Jetty’ by Robert Smithson

Really? What do you think?

I understand those arguments from the places they come from and the people who have pushed me on this. I’m not advocating for an anachronistic return to the desert to make these pieces. I think the spirit is something that should be retrieved and rediscovered but I’m also not against it. If they can satisfy the faction of passionate environmentalists, then so be it.

What they don’t understand is the role to which nature plays with these works. ‘Double Negative’, for instance, which is on this incredible, beautiful mesa, is being reclaimed by the mesa. Nature is taking back that piece. It was cut by displacing hundreds of thousands of tons of rock and dirt through dynamite and heavy equipment, but in the end, forty years after it was made, its being taking back. There’s talk of the artist wanting to renovate it, make it last forever, but his original intention was indeed for it to have its own lifespan as it were, and to actually feed back into the earth. Entropy. It’s becoming a ruin. And it’s really beautiful to see nature’s power; because nature is performing in the work.

Works by Michael Heizer

What do you hope that the audience is going to take away from getting a glimpse of this world?

I want people to learn more about these artists and to actually get into their car and do a road trip and try to find these places. To rediscover them for themselves opens up a greater dialogue. And I think its really something we should be talking about. These artists should be something we are debating presently, we need to retrieve that spirit of doing something for art’s sake rather than doing something for net worth or celebrity.

Many people are very pessimistic about the state of contemporary art and I get the sense that you are, too. Are you concerned for its future?

I’m not too concerned about the contemporary art market’s future. I’ve seen the cycles and the pendulum swing back and forth over and over. These annoyances, this noise that sometimes interrupts the real, authentic conversations about the history of art, or about present day art-making practices return — I mean those will disappear. They are short lived and superficial. The art market today is an interesting reflection of culture and its also an interesting reflection on this convergence of popular culture, how things are beginning to fold into themselves. Which is to say, the art market is folding into the celebrity area, to filmmaking, to business, to real estate, to travel, to technology. All these things are beginning to merge, to blur. And I think that’s a fascinating thing that’s happening. But I think that things will normalize, as they do. As they have historically.

Visit the film’s website here, for a list of screenings near you click here

All imagery taken from ‘Troublemakers’ via James Crump

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