A Context for channeling herbert
Herbert Bayer's Mill Creek Canyon Earthworks (1979-1982) is one of those iconic pieces in art history too easily overlooked amidst the abundance of contemporary projects that address water issues and shape the earth in interesting ways. It has taken 25 years for me to appreciate this historic earthwork properly, and I'm grateful for the opportunity.
A full decade before the Earth Artists of the 1960's and 70's began digging up deserts and sculpting the land, Herbert Bayer created "Grass Mound" in Aspen Meadow, Colorado (1955). This pioneering sculpture helped set the stage for what we see today in the field of environmental art. In 1982, Bayer finished his earthworks for Mill Creek Canyon, further expanding his legacy. A public park, the project was designed to address flooding, erosion and detain stormwater. Sometimes it is flooded, more often it is dry.
A central figure in the German Bauhaus school, Herbert Bayer was no stranger to collaboration, working as an artist, architect, curator, typographer, cartographer and environmentalist. As noted by Gwen F. Chanzit of the Herbert Bayer Archive, "Throughout his long career, Bayer ceaselessly advocated a process where architects, planners and artists would coordinate efforts and expertise—structural and mechanical engineers, acoustical experts, real estate planners, demographers and artists working together."
"My aim with environmental designs is to carry art and design from the privacy of the museum to the public realm," proclaimed Bayer. King County's ground-breaking Earthworks: Land Reclamation as Sculpture initiative in 1979 was the perfect opportunity to apply this blend of idealism, aesthetics and practicality. Conceived by Parks Anderson and administrated by Jerry Allen, the famed Earthworks symposium included key Earth Art figures Robert Morris, Mary Miss, Beverly Pepper, Dennis Oppenheim and others. As this was the first time arts commissions collaborated with other governmental departments, the project has had a long-term effects on the practice of public art. Previously, public art relocated large-scale studio work into public spaces. In the context of the symposium, public art became an interdisciplinary practice focused on the “meaning” of public space.
Large scale, interdisciplinary art does not happen on its own. The flood of resources, ideas and precedent that poured into Mill Creek Canyon between 1979 and 1982 made Bayer's seminal Earthworks possible. Unhappy with an engineered solution for Mill Creek Canyon, Mayor Isabel K. Hogan contacted the King County Arts Commission to see if Kent could participate, and as a result the Kent Parks Department and Public Works joined the King County Department of Public Works, The U.S. Department of Interior-Bureau of Mines and the Seattle Art Museum in participating in the project. Additionally, the Kent Arts Commission led a grass roots fundraising program within the Kent community. Combined with grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Washington State Arts Commission, King County Arts Commission, Housing and Community Development, the City of Kent was able to augment their existing project budget and commission Herbert Bayer. We are fortunate to have many of the people involved in this process joining together again for the anniversary celebration.
Our culture needs models of "art that works" to solve problems in aesthetic and culturally resonant ways. The downstream impact of this artwork has inspired artists around the globe, leading the way towards what is now becoming a central art movement of our time. As Buster Simpson observes "the earthworks movement learned an important lesson from Bayer’s example of taking art from the museum/gallery context, and applying Bauhaus functionalism to create earthworks with utility. From this legacy, artists not only serve as messengers, but increasingly as healers."
The channeling herbert exhibition represents some of the leading figures in environmental art, and almost all acknowledge the influence of these early projects in their own development as artists. For many of them, the debt is one that has grown in hindsight. When commenting on her colleague Herbert Bayer, Beverly Pepper writes “It was only recently that I realized, thinking back on when I was working on the Montlake landfill for the Earthworks: Land Reclamation as Sculpture project, how stimulated and inspired I was by his spirit and ideas. He used grass before any of us – and knew how to make mounds feel deeply mysterious: grass mountains, so earth-laden and earth-derived, and yet still feeling like they came from another planet.”
My own new appreciation for Bayer's work stems from the importance of precedent and the often invisible influence of great ideas. This admirable combination of ecological function, metaphor and beauty, however, has never been new, and equivalent examples be seen in ancient ceremonial mounds, elegant irrigation structures and traditional architecture throughout the world. And there were numerous other important artists doing similar projects around the same time in the USA, Europe and likely elsewhere. "Sensitivity to the zeitgeist is perhaps the highest expression of what we do," suggests Steven Siegel. "This flies in the face of much writing by historians and critics who assume that there is a direct cause and effect, influence, or lineage between artists. I would suggest that rather than a sequence, history suggests a web, with some of the individual points being more prominent than others."
Yet the late 1960's, 70's and 80's marked the first blooming of the environmental art movement as we understand it. Agnes Denes recalls, “Herbert came to visit me in my loft at 93 Crosby Street, came in his black silk shirt, and spent half a day looking at my work and talking with me. This was way back around 1980. I think his interest in my work came from a realization that his work was earthwork and that mine was a departure from anything previous. In other words, earthworks are different from ecological works in intent, form and execution. My first work in eco art, which I did in the late sixties, was Rice/Tree/Burial that questioned our relationship to the earth. We cover the globe with a meager less than 100 feet in height. This narrow strip circling the globe, like a thin skin, contains all of humanity: all our knowledge, accomplishments, life and death, everything. It’s quite humbling.”
Thanks to the increasing ubiquity of cameras, printed media, and (now) the internet, countless photos of Bayer's little "grassy rolling mounds and waterways" have spread further beyond the borders of Kent than the artist might ever have thought possible. It is important to consider that more people have seen this project through documentation than have experienced it in person. As Stacy Levy relays, “The Herbert Bayer Earthworks in Kent was the first art piece I knew that had two distinct lives: one wet one dry. And that concept-- that a piece of sculpture could show you the changes in the landscape, was pivotal to me. From Bayer I learned that art did not have to collect dust while it sat unchanging—storm water could flow into the sculpture— recharging the imagery with every major rainstorm. And I have tried to collaborate with nature so that tides and storm water, rain and currents would work to continually change my sculpture so that the art is about reflecting the dynamics of nature.”
Often it is the artists who push the infrastructure to adapt and consider new approaches, and other times, it requires the enterprising public administrator, museum, art patron or group of engaged citizens to create and fund new clearings for artists to explore. I think this dynamic is healthy and important. As a culture, we are just beginning to explore what a truly integrated and collaborative, ecologically and socially engaged form of public practice could be. If we seek to create a more sustainable world, it will require our artists, scientists, community groups, administrators, philanthropists, engineers, businesses, grown-ups and especially our children's help. Good ideas have a way of spreading and inspiring new ones.
Herbert Bayer's Mill Creek Canyon Earthworks is one of these good ideas and it's an honor to celebrate it on its 25th Anniversary and pass it on.
Sam Bower is the founding Executive Director of greenmuseum.org, an online museum of environmental art, launched in 2001. Prior to this, Sam created environmental art for 8 years as part of a San Francisco Bay Area collaborative art group known as Meadowsweet Dairy. He helped establish Cellspace, a non-profit community art space in San Francisco, and Co-Directed Crucible Steel Gallery. Sam has worked as a solo artist, web designer, in advertising, events planning and the environmental non-profit sector in the United States and in Ecuador. He has served as a founding Board Member of Dreamfish and on the Board and Advisory Board of various art and environment-related nonprofits and art projects. Sam Bower co-curated channeling herbert, along with Tim Baird, Heather Dwyer, Brice Maryman and Cheryl dos Remedios.