By Laura Putre, courtesy of The Chicago Magazine
Photo by Dan Dry
After more than a decade studying art history and then working at the Art Institute of Chicago as director of public affairs, Erin Hogan, AM’91, PhD’99, was burned out. Unable to remember the last time she had been genuinely moved by a painting or sculpture, she says, “I had lost my capacity to wonder.” So in August 2004, she tried the all-American cure for a withered spirit: a cross-country road trip.
Her destination was the journey: to view masterworks of the land-art movement in the American West—and to do it solo. She would check out Spiral Jetty, Robert Smithson’s massive coil of rocks created on the Great Salt Lake in 1970, and Lightning Field, Walter De Maria’s 1977 installation of 400 stainless-steel poles in southwestern New Mexico’s high desert, as well as other works she’d seen only in books.
The land-art movement began in the late 1960s when a group of American artists began to create works on a monumental scale, using the open landscape as their canvas. Because of the massive space demands, the most important examples of land art are primarily located in off-road desert areas in Utah, New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona, and Texas, places where directions can sound more like a language poem than points on a map. Her directions to Spiral Jetty, for instance, included the instructions: “Continue to a…combination fence, cattleguard #4, iron pipe gate.”
She packed up her sprightly 1999 black Volkswagen Jetta—which until then had been strictly an urban ride—with camping gear, laptop, and iPod, and she set out with no itinerary “beyond buying a map and picking out a few places I wanted to visit.” When friends realized she was making the 3,000-mile round trip up mountains and through dirt in a two-wheel-drive sedan, they’d say, “You can’t do that in this car. You’ll never make it.” They were wrong: the Jetta may have puttered and sighed, but it never gave out.
She didn’t sit down to write about her adventures until two years after the fact, when a former coworker at the University of Chicago Press approached her about turning the account into a book. Her narrative of the expedition, Spiral Jetta: A Road Trip through the Land Art of the American West, is being released by the press in May.
At first, Hogan was more overwhelmed by loneliness and the natural landscape than by the art she encountered. Spiral Jetty seemed “intimate…even tiny” when she walked between its rings of rock. She had expected to be awed by the work’s vastness, having seen it only in aerial photographs without bystanders to give it scale. Likewise, the fossilized organic material that over millions of years formed the deep, varied reds of the Moab, Utah, mountains—a sight that Hogan describes as “the trapped cries of muted life”—impressed her more than Michael Heizer’s Double Negative, a half-mile-long pair of notches carved into the Mormon Mesa in Overton, Nevada. After 35 years in the elements, these “voids” show wear and tear.
Yet her quest for artistic transformation was redeemed when Hogan visited New Mexico’s Lightning Field, a work that, on paper, “sounds perilously close to a boondoggle.” To view it, pilgrims must take a bus to the site and spend the night in a cabin, where they can view it from sunset to sunrise. Hogan’s expectations were low going in, but at sunset, “every one of those four hundred poles was doing something; together they shimmered and undulated, like a cornfield stirred by a strong wind. … It was simply and inexpressibly beautiful.” At sunrise, “it offered a soft and slow awakening.”
The work “just snuck up on me,” she reflects. “It was huge; it was gentle. It was like a huge ocean swell. That’s what it felt like—a land swell.” Finally, an epiphany.