Probing the Earth: Contemporary Land Projects which opens today at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, is a handsomely installed, thoroughly researched and yet annoying show.
The most annoying thing about it is that it is hanging on the wall. There are no earth works present, only stylish photographs drawings maps and models and here and there a sculpture of interior scale. Most earth works can't be moved because they are site dependent and because they're huge.
Americans love bigness; big Christmas trees, big games, big stars, but the big is often brutal, arrogant and aggressive. So are quite a number of the works of art documented in this show.
Especially the early ones. Cutting notches in the brow of a Nevada mesa, and displacing in the process 240,000 tons of earth may be an act of marking with high art connotations but that gouging also brings to mind initials carved in trees.
Heizer's rosewood sculptures have been given a high polish, but bulldozers aren't delicate. Even in these photographs, with their dramatic lighting and considered points of view the earth works represented look less finesthan crude. White sand spills in chaos (wind is a poor conservator) from Robert Smithson's "Spiral Hill."
A number of these projects with their harkenings to Stonchenge eternity the stars, seem a bit pretentious. "Observatory," by Robert Morris is aligned, as Stonebenge is, to the equinoctial sunrises, but unlike those ancient stones it marks no holy place. It's already been moved once. The "Sun Tunnels" of Nancy Holt deal with sunrises and stars, but they also hint at sewers. They are made of concrete pipe.
These earth-moving and mountain cuttings may deal with the timeless but they were made with speed. It shows Architects and gardeners know as did the Britons who spent centuries on the stones of Stonehenge, that it is no use to hurry. The earth requires patience. One can make a drawing quickly on a sheet of paper but to know a landscape, its weather, light and living things may require years.
Because he built its ramps and dry stone walls so carefully by hand. Harvey Fite's "Opus 40" - on which they artist worked for 37 years - is among the riches projects in this show.
The most successful projects here are those that are most modest that avoid pretention, impatience art pollution. Earth projects aren't important just because they're far away, startling or big. "Probing the Earth: Contemporary Land Projects" was organized with care by John Beardsley of the Hirshhorn, who also wrote the catalog. The show closes Jan. 2.