Robert Morris Untitled Earthworks (1979)-13

[This is the second in my series of Washington State Earthworks, the first was regarding the Herbert Bayer Mill Creek Canyon Earthworks and contains the introduction to this series.]

The most well known of Washington’s earthworks is the Robert MorrisUntitled Earthwork from 1979 which was built in an abandoned gravel pit in what was then fairly empty land. This of course was the landmark work of the King County Arts Commission’s Earthworks: Land Reclamation as Sculpture symposium.  The essay that Robert Morris wrote for the catalog for this symposium is quite revealing and well worth reading in its entirety.  The once again excellent Earthworks pages on the city of Kent’s website contains the essay for those who wish to do so.

To my knowledge, this is the first time that art has functioned as land reclamation. The idea of cleaning up the landscape that has been wasted by industry is not, of course, new. I have previously had discussions with coal mining interests in West Virginia, and I know Robert Smithson was negotiating some time ago with coal miners in the West.

But a few things have not been discussed, to my knowledge, about art as land reclamation.


The most significant implication of art as land reclamation is that art can and should be used to wipe away technological guilt. Do those sites scarred by mining or poisoned by chemicals now seem less like the entropic liabilities of ravenous and short-sighted industry and more like long-awaited aesthetic possibilities? Will it be a little easier in the future to rip up the landscape for one last shovelful of non-renewable energy source if an artist can be found (cheap, mind you) to transform the devastation into an inspiring and modern work of art? Or anyway, into a fun place to be? Well, at the very least, into a tidy, mugger-free park.

It would seem that artists participating in art as land reclamation will be forced to make moral as well as aesthetic choices. There may be more choices available than either a cooperative or critical stance for those who participate. But it would perhaps be a misguided assumption to suppose that artists hired to work in industrially blasted landscapes would necessarily and invariably choose to convert such sites into idyllic and reassuring places, thereby socially redeeming those who wasted the landscape in the first place.[emphasis mine]

Robert Morris Untitled Earthworks (1979)-0Morris chose in this first earthwork as land reclamation to not convert the site into an idyllic and reassuring place instead emphasizing the transformed nature of the landscape by terracing the assault on the earth, preserving yet transforming its fundamental character. The terraces work their way down into the central pit with a narrow wooden staircase leading down to them. I found it interesting that the stairs were all on the north edge, one could easily imagine them being staggered around to encourage walking around the various levels.  Entry to the piece is at the very western top of the pit where there is a parking lot and information boards and such which Morris dubbed the “Access Point”. One level down on the western side are scattered a series of blasted looking tree remnants which Morris referred to as the “Ghost Forest”.  These trees were meant to evoke the shaggy forest that had grown there in the interim since the pit was used – nature reclaiming the land itself. Later in 1996 the artist added a bench (a rough hewn block of wood) and a path around the uppermost terrace.

Robert Morris Untitled Earthworks (1979)-4

The questions that Morris raises in his essay are certainly apropos and considering that there has been much land art used as reclamation or to justify various assaults on the earth since then, these question have not lost any of their sharpness.  But they way that public art fits into the landscape, the way that people interact to it, its actual legacy are notions that I personally find fascinating.  As I noted with the  Herbert Bayer Mill Creek Canyon Earthworks this piece also has an air of neglect around it. Being still relatively off the beaten track it doesn’t have the accumulation of trash along a busy road as is the case in Mill Creek but it certainly had a feel of disuse, or perhaps even misuse. From the firepit in the center ringed with fallen members of the Ghost Forest to the porn magazine discarded at the Access Point, it is clear that the local use is not really taking in notions of land reclamation.  A dog walking park, a place for teens to get away from their parents, a location to harvest blackberries and an amusing sight when 4Culture has the goats out there to trim the grass, that seems to be the local take on it.  Perhaps most interestingly the middle of nowhere aspect is certainly not the same as housing developments and apartment houses have crowded the margins and the once endless farmers fields are partially cut up into gated communities.

Robert Morris Untitled Earthworks (1979)-24

The piece remains (mostly) the same (there was apparently some changes on the margins to accommodate the immediate adjacent apartment complex)  as the land changes around; this to me seems the real legacy of land art and the real captivating aspect of public art in general.  While there is probably no more obvious (and unfortunate) example of this then the constant attempts to industrialize the land around the Spiral Jetty, the carving up a chunk of this piece for the eternally creeping exurbs of Seattle is right up there. With the projected population growth in the Puget Sound in the coming decades, it is not hard to image this piece as becoming basically a tiny park among the housing developments, an oasis amidst Kamazotz.

See all of my photos of Robert Morris’ Untitled Earthwork (1979) on Flickr.