For some, the title of James Crump’s second documentary feature, Troublemakers: The Story of Land Art, might give off the impression that the practitioners of land art were little more than pranksters, self-fashioned provocateurs in the mold of, say, Arthur Cravan and Jacques Vaché. Like the early Dadaists, the originators behind now-iconic works like Spiral Jetty, Double Negative, and Lightning Fields certainly had anti-establishment aspirations. Their ambitions, however, were hardly what you might call flippant. In cutting between archival footage of the first U.S. space missions and the grainy, terror-ridden faces from the Vietnam War, Crump points out that these artists grew up in a time of rage and awe. In a way, they were more monk-like than prankish. “We were artist-explorers,” a raspy, anonymous voice puts it, as the camera slowly tracks forward in a nameless desert.
The pioneers in question are the philosophical Robert Smithson, the enigmatic Walter de Maria, and the truculent Michael Heizer, and while Troublemakers is an attempt to lay out their notions of art, the film’s main motive is much more complex: to show the ways in which these artists had to maneuver outside the traditional channels of the art market to achieve their desired ends. And when else but in the late ’60s and early ’70s—the film’s principle temporal focus—could an artist’s resistance still be rewarded? This was, of course, when New York had supplanted Europe as the center of the art world, when the only divide, as Carl Andre colorfully notes in one of the film’s few in-person interviews, was between “the artists who went to the bar and drink and those who didn’t”—and even then, you could find all of them hanging out at Max’s Kansas City. If the period was unusually fecund, it also provided a just cause for these rebels, who wanted no less than the Earth—or the deserts of the American Southwest, to be exact—as their canvas.
Few things, in this sense, and as Crump is keen to point out, were as toxic to them as the booming SoHo gallery scene. And yet, to shun the white walls of the gallery space (“We were fighting against photography,” says polymath Vito Acconci) meant to lose representation and, more importantly, to miss out on the money needed to pull off their monolithic aims. Not everyone was appalled. Crump pays crucial attention to the generosity of art matron Virginia Dwan—whose 1968 show Earth Works was an early attempt to conceptualize land art—and the exposure provided by Avalanche Magazine, one of the few first conceptual art outlets that regularly talked about the genre. Crump knows his art history (he’s a curator, after all), and Troublemakers, never inaccessible, reflects this erudition.
If it seems ironic that the film’s spokesman for this neglected genre is someone from the art world, there’s payoff in Crump’s confident balance of material. Troublemakers doesn’t dip into hagiography, as was occasionally the case in Black White + Gray, Crump’s feature about Robert Mapplethorpe and Sam Wagastaff, nor does it strike an overly redemptive tone. The absence of a central narrator for the most part prevents the film from devolving into gratuitous pedagogy. Instead, the “narrative” is pushed along by interviews of artists who were all “there”: Lawrence Weiner, Carl Andre, Willoughby Sharp, Charles Ross, Vito Acconci, and Dennis Oppenheim chime in enthusiastically, giving the film a certain brio and, more importantly, credibility.
As much of the film is put together from stills and other well-circulated images of the artists, there are dry spells. Moreover, when original footage comes in the form of tracking aerial shots of Heizer’s Double Negative, they strike you as something straight out of a Discovery Channel travelogue. Still, these minor faults only point to the inherent difficulty in documenting land art, especially its sheer magnitude and presence in the physical world. For the majority who will never likely see these works in person, their understanding of the art form will be necessarily diminished, restricted to writings, photographs, and other media. Then again, such compromises may be what help keep this most intransigent art from plunging into obscurity, a condition to which Troublemakers may be said to be a kind of minor but vital response.