• Public Works: Land Art and Urban Redevelopment
    Kirsten Swenson

Nancy Holt, Dark Star Park, 1979–84, Rosslyn, Arlington, Virginia. © Holt/Smithson Foundation. Photo: Kirsten Swenson

“Landfills are the city’s largest remaining open spaces, not, like classic earthworks, splendid in desert isolation,” Mierle Laderman Ukeles wrote in 1992, advocating for “public earthworks” accessible by subway. The deindustrialization and rezoning of American cities after the 1970s created opportunities for the public artist to reclaim degraded tracts proximal to large populations. This research considers public earthworks by Ukeles, Agnes Denes, Nancy Holt, and others, that merged concepts of land art with cultivation, landscape design, and urban planning to realize parks that impress ideals of the public sphere. Yet artist-designed landscapes aligned with urban redevelopment raised concerns of spatial justice and the right to the city. Artists could find themselves fulfilling “a kind of sanitation service,” delivering “tidy, mugger free parks,” said Minimalist sculptor Robert Morris—a contemporary of Ukeles, Denes, and Holt. This project considers artist-designed landscapes both within their historical context and in light of the uneven development of today’s cities.

Kirsten Swenson’s scholarship and critical writing explore cities as a situation for conceptual, minimal, and land art practices from the 1960s forward. Questions of spatial and environmental justice inform her current research on public art as urban landscape design. In addition to Public Works: Land Art and Urban Redevelopment, she is developing a volume, with Rebecca Uchill, in response to the exhibition Local Ecologies, cocurated with Sam Toabe for three campuses of the University of Massachusetts (Boston, Dartmouth, and Lowell). Swenson is the author of Irrational Judgments: Eva Hesse, Sol LeWitt, and 1960s New York (Yale University Press, 2015) and coeditor and author, with Emily Eliza Scott, of Critical Landscapes: Art, Space, Politics (University of California Press, 2015). She is the recent recipient of an American Council of Learned Societies Burkhardt Fellowship, and will write Public Works while in residence at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California over 2021–22. Swenson is associate professor of art history at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell.