Environmental sculpture is sculpture that creates or alters the environment for the viewer, as opposed to presenting itself figurally or monumentally before the viewer. A frequent trait of larger environmental sculptures is that one can actually enter or pass through the sculpture and be partially or completely surrounded by it. Also, in the same spirit, it may be designed to generate shadows or reflections, or to color the light in the surrounding area.
Environmental sculpture, 20th-century art form intended to involve or encompass the spectators rather than merely to face them; the form developed as part of a larger artistic current that sought to break down the historical dichotomy between life and art. The environmental sculptor can utilize virtually any medium, from mud and stone to light and sound.
Environmental sculpture with a somewhat different emphasis, is sculpture created for a particular set of surroundings. Thus, contemporary sculptor Beth Galston writes: “An environmental sculptor plans a piece from the very beginning in relationship to its surroundings. The site is a catalyst, becoming part of the creative process.” This is quite different from a Nevelson sculpture, which can usually be moved from place to place, like a conventional sculpture, without losing its meaning and effectiveness.
An environmental sculpture is not merely site-specific art as many conventional, figurative, marble monuments were created for specific sites. Galston stresses that environmental sculpture entails the idea that the piece also functions to alter or permeate the existing environment or even to create a new environment in which the viewer is invited to participate: “The finished sculpture and site become one integrated unit, working together to create a unified mood or atmosphere,” she writes. Many of the large, site-specific, minimalist sculptures of Richard Serra also qualify as environmental sculpture, in both senses described here. Much of what is called “land art” or “earth art” could also be termed environmental sculpture under this definition. Andrew Rogers and Alan Sonfist (which see) are among notable current practitioners of land art.
Since the 1950s Modernist trends in sculpture both abstract and figurative have dominated the public imagination and the popularity of Modernist sculpture had sidelined the traditional approach. The public and commissioning bodies became more comfortable with environmental sculpture.
In the late 1950s and the 1960s, abstract sculptors began experimenting with a wide array of new materials and different approaches to creating their work. Surrealist imagery, anthropomorphic abstraction, new materials and combinations of new energy sources and varied surfaces and objects became characteristic of much new modernist sculpture. Surrealist imagery, anthropomorphic abstraction, new materials and combinations of new energy sources and varied surfaces and objects became characteristic of much new environmental sculpture.
By the 1960s Abstract expressionism, Geometric abstraction and Minimalism, as well as environmental sculpture and installation, which reduces sculpture to its most essential and fundamental features, predominated.
Since the mid-seventies, French artist Jean-Max Albert worked with trellis structures, deconstructing and re-arranging the elements of surrounding architecture.
Since 1983 German artist Eberhard Bosslet makes interventions on ruins, so-called “Re/formations and side effects”; he refers to the conditions of industrial and residential buildings by white painted lines or black painted color fields. In 1999 the artist Elena Paroucheva created her concept for pylons, integrating energy networks with sculptures.
In the 1960s and 1970s land art protested “ruthless commercialization” of art in America. During this period, exponents of land art rejected the museum or gallery as the setting of artistic activity and developed monumental landscape projects which were beyond the reach of traditional transportable sculpture and the commercial art market.
Land art was inspired by minimal art and conceptual art but also by modern movements such as De Stijl, Cubism, minimalism and the work of Constantin Brâncuși and Joseph Beuys. Many of the artists associated with land art had been involved with minimal art and conceptual art. Land art influence on contemporary land art, landscape architecture and environmental sculpture is evident in many works today.
As a trend “Land art” expanded boundaries of art by the materials used and the siting of the works. The materials used were often the materials of the Earth including for instance the soil and rocks and vegetation and water found on-site, and the siting of the works were often distant from population centers. Though sometimes fairly inaccessible, photo documentation was commonly brought back to the urban art gallery.
Concerns of the art movement centered around rejection of the commercialization of art-making and enthusiasm with an emergent ecological movement. The art movement coincided with the popularity of the rejection of urban living and its counterpart, an enthusiasm for that which is rural. Included in these inclinations were spiritual yearnings concerning the planet Earth as home to mankind.
In most respects, “land art” has become part of mainstream public art and in many cases the term “land art” is misused to label any kind of art in nature even though conceptually not related to the avant-garde works by the pioneers of land art.
The Earth art of the 1960s were sometimes reminiscent the much older land works, Stonehenge, the Pyramids, Native American mounds, the Nazca Lines in Peru, Carnac stones and Native American burial grounds, and often evoked the spirituality of such archeological sites.
An environmental sculptor plans a piece from the very beginning in relationship to its surroundings. The site is a catalyst, becoming part of the creative process. The finished sculpture and its site form one integrated unit, working together to create a unified mood or atmosphere. In most of the works on this website, I spent hours on site beforehand conceiving the sculpture, then I built it on site; the space became my artist’s studio during the installation process.
Each site has particular characteristics, which can affect the qualities of the finished sculpture. For example, a room may have a wall of windows through which afternoon light streams in, which becomes part of the design. Or a pond may have a path that leads to it or a grove of oak trees nearby that drop their leaves into it, sparking an idea for a sculpture on the site.
An environmental sculpture may also be a series of interrelated objects that exist together in a space, and through a repetition of materials, forms, qualities of light, or thematic links, they engage in a conversation, charging the space and making one aware of the atmosphere in the entire room. The individual sculptures may be small, but they create a kind of zing or spark between them. Then the larger space becomes unified, and one is aware not just of the materials but of the spaces between things.
Julia M. Bush emphasizes the nonfigurative aspect of such works: “Environmental sculpture is never made to work at exactly human scale, but is sufficiently larger or smaller than scale to avoid confusion with the human image in the eyes of the viewer.” Ukrainian-born American sculptor Louise Nevelson is a pioneer of environmental sculpture in this sense. Busch (p. 27) also places the sculptures of Jane Frank, as well as some works by Tony Smith and David Smith, in this category. Some environmental sculpture so encompasses the observer that it verges on architecture.
George Segal, Duane Hanson, Edward Kienholz, Robert Smithson, Christo, and Michael Heizer are well known practitioners of the genre, although Segal and Hanson’s work is figural. Many figurative works of George Segal, for example, do qualify as environmental, in that—instead of being displayed on a pedestal as presentations to be gazed upon—they occupy and perturb the setting in which they are placed. A well known instance of this is the pair of Segal figures that sit on and stand next to one of the public benches in New York City’s Sheridan Square; anyone can sit amongst them.
A less known but more appropriate example is Athena Tacha’s 2-acre (8,100 m2) park Connections in downtown Philadelphia (between 18th St. and 19th St. two blocks north of Vine St.), created as a landscape art environment after her winning a competition in 1980 (where Segal was actually one of the finalists). It was the first park designed entirely by an artist “sculpting the land” with planted terraces, rock clusters and paths (completed in 1992).
The term “site-specific art” is sometimes used interchangeably with “environmental art”. Louise Nevelson, for instance is a pioneer American environmental artist with sources disagreeing on classifying her work as “environmental sculpture”. The terms “environment sculpture”, “site-specific art”, and “environmental art” have not yet completely stabilized in their meanings.
An environmental sculpture has a special relationship with its surroundings. It’s planned for a particular site, and the qualities of that site influence the making of the artwork. The space can be anywhere – a room, a grove of trees, a pond, an alleyway, a public plaza, a complex of buildings. Often existing on a grand scale, an environmental sculpture surrounds its viewers, who experience the artwork as they enter and move through the space. The elements of time and movement, then, are also involved as important parts of the viewer’s experience.
A reason for blurred definitions is that much of site-specific and environmental art was created from 1970 on for public spaces all over the United States, sponsored by federal (GSA and NEA) or state and city Percent for Art competitions, and many of the artists were women trying to succeed outside the established art-gallery world. Younger art historians will have to sort out the development of this marginalized “movement” and the importance of artists such as Olga Kisseleva, Patricia Johanson, Athena Tacha, Mary Miss, Alice Adams, Elyn Zimmerman and others who, from the early 1970s on, won and executed large outdoor public art commissions with new formal, kinesthetic and social underpinnings. Many of these artists were also ecologically conscious and created works that could offer a further definition of “environmental sculpture”: art that is environmentally friendly and cares for the natural environment.
Renewable energy sculpture:
A renewable energy sculpture is a sculpture that produces power from renewable sources, such as solar, wind, geothermal, hydroelectric or tidal.
Renewable energy sculpture is another recent development in environmental art. In response to the growing concern about global climate change, artists are designing explicit interventions at a functional level, merging aesthetical responses with the functional properties of energy generation or saving. Andrea Polli’s Queensbridge Wind Power Project is an example of experimental architecture, incorporating wind turbines into a bridge’s structure to recreate aspects of the original design as well as lighting the bridge and neighbouring areas. Ralf Sander’s public sculpture, the World Saving Machine, used solar energy to create snow and ice outside the Seoul Museum of Art in the hot Korean summer. Practitioners of this emerging area often work according to ecologically informed ethical and practical codes that conform to Ecodesign criteria.
Such a sculpture is functionally both a renewable energy generator and an artwork, fulfilling utilitarian, aesthetic, and cultural functions. The idea of renewable energy sculptures has been pioneered by ecofuturist visionaries such as artists Patrice Stellest, Sarah Hall, Julian H. Scaff, Patrick Marold, Elena Paroucheva, architects Laurie Chetwood and Nicholas Grimshaw, University of Illinois professor Bil Becket, and collaborations such as the Land Art Generator Initiative. Echoing the philosophy of the environmental art movement as a whole, artists creating renewable energy sculpture believe that the aesthetics of the artworks are inextricably linked to their ecological function.
Environmental sculpture is an artwork that’s inspired by forms and processes from nature. Many artists use materials, shapes, colors and textures from the natural environment. Others explore meanings of natural cycles, such as the the four seasons; metamorphosis; cycles of birth, growth, aging, death, and decay. Natural processes are used as metaphors to reflect on the passage of time, capture a fleeting moment, express a sense of loss, or a hope for regeneration. Some environmental artists use ecological issues as their subject matter, and their work seeks to heighten awareness of a fragile ecology, or even to reclaim land, such as by using plant materials to alleviate pollution problems, returning an area to a more pristine condition.