History of Trauma in Environmental Art: Art in the West during the 1960s and 1970s

In the 1960s and 1970s, artists, particularly in the western United States, began modifying the land to create art with the intention to remove their art from the New York art scene. Bored with minimal art and disenchanted with the art world at large, land artists, such as Robert Smithson (1938-1973), turned to the Earth for artistic inspiration. Concerned with distancing themselves from the consumer art circuit, and not environmental preservation, land artists used the Earth as a form of expression. Oftentimes, these artists took advantage of the land, as exemplified through Smithson’s 1970 Spiral Jetty, which made physical and semi-permanent scars into Rozel Point on the banks of Utah’s Great Salt Lake

Robert Smithson, Spiral Jetty, 1970, basalt rock, salt crystals, earth, water.

Smithson constructed Spiral Jetty with the intent, and knowledge, that the artwork would eventually fade back into the Lake. Smithson referred to this idea as entropy. For Smithson, entropy is the idea that his projects would eventually fade back into their original state of existence and erase all evidence of his alteration of the landscape. Spiral Jetty was built near Golden Spike National Historic site, the location where the Union Pacific and Central Pacific Railroads first linked in 1869 creating the first overland rail route across the United States. The location of Spiral Jetty was not a coincidence and can be linked to American ideals of Manifest Destiny and the supremacy of man over nature. Smithson removed over six thousand tons of basalt and earth from the site of the installation to form a fifteen-hundred-foot-long spiral that coils counterclockwise off of the shore. The artist, in part, chose the specific location due to its unusual geologic properties––the presence of microbes causing a reddish tint to the water.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Wall of Oil Barrels: Iron Curtain, 1962, oil barrels.

While American artists were disregarding the value of the land and modifying it to suit their tastes, environmental art looked different in Europe. At this point Christo and Jeanne-Claude were still reeling from the traumas of the war and produced art that reflected this mindset. Aiming to connect with the environment Christo and Jeanne-Claude installed Wall of Oil Barrels-Iron Curtain in 1962, an installation comprised of eighty-nine oil barrels on a street––rue Visconti––in central Paris. Rue Visconti was chosen as the installation site because creating a barricade on this street would cut off traffic between rue Bonaparte and rue de Seine during rush hour in the city, which blocked most of the traffic on Paris’ Left Bank during the evening it was on display. Cutting off the flow of traffic through the city caused a major disruption for the public and mirrored the current crises in Algeria and in Berlin, namely the Algerian War and the construction of the Berlin Wall. The barrels were installed on their side, unaltered, in their original paint colors, featuring rust that had naturally formed on the barrels from their exposure to the elements.


Joseph Beuys, 7,000 Oaks: City Forestation Instead of Administration, 1982, basalt stones, oak trees.

Joseph Beuys transformed the area near Kassel, Germany, by planting seven thousand oak trees in association with documenta VII in 1982 for a project called 7,000 Oaks: City Forestation Instead of Administration. As with Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s work, 7,000 Oaks focuses on the trauma from World War II. While Christo and Jeanne-Claude use the trauma involved specifically from the construction of the Berlin Wall and how this impacted the Germans, in 7,000 Oaks Beuys was referencing the trauma of the land rather than the people. Throughout the war the landscape around Kassel, specifically, was damaged from bombings. Beuys wanted to restore the land to its pre-war state as an attempt to heal the trauma that was caused. In tandem with over five hundred volunteers, Beuys and his team planted seven thousand oak trees that were each marked with a single basalt stone. The project itself took over five years to complete and continued even after Beuys’s death. Beuys was a proponent of social sculpture, which was derived from Anthroposophy and Marxist thought. Social sculpture is an expanded concept of art where everyone should be allowed democratic participation in the art world. To Beuys, art was no longer solely defined as painting and sculpture, but considered any intentional creative practice that bridged the gap between life and art. Beuys and his idea of social sculpture wanted creativity and art to be the driving force of the economy rather than labor, as endorsed by the capitalists. Beuys thought that 7,000 Oaks and other associated works would unlock a radical societal shift that would lead towards environmental preservation on a global scale.

According to Beuys his entire myth of rebirth began while fighting for the Nazis when his plane was shot down in northern Crimea, near present day Znamianka. After the crash, Beuys was rescued by a group of nomads known as the Tatars who were disenfranchised by the Soviet Union and therefore interested in helping the Nazi pilot. In his narrative of rebirth, Beuys asserted that he lived with the Tatars for twelve days, and supposedly the Tatars became so fond of Beuys that he was invited to stay with them when the Germans came to his rescue. Beuys’s myth of self-creation states that the Tatars rescued him from his crashed aircraft, cared for his wounds using a salve made from animal fat, and kept him warm with felt. The well-known story of the Tatar’s rescuing Beuys and nursing him back to health emerged in the 1970s. This tale has been proven false by many scholars and journalists, but still bolstered his public persona through attachment with a heroic survival story.


The land art that was being made in the American West in the mid-twentieth century glorified whiteness and the heteropatriarchy without equal consideration of Indigenous communities that the land belongs to. Even in Europe, environmental artist and activist, Beuys, was plagued by his own personal trauma that forced him to confront his wartime deeds. Christo and Jeanne-Claude were carrying the burden of those trapped by the Berlin Wall, and those who were living in a war zone in Algeria. The European artists were using their own experiences, trauma, and the recent memories of their fellow countrymen to create art that explored their collective trauma and, in the case of Beuys, proposed ways to heal.


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