It is a rare event when a dissertation focused on a single work yields a rich and fruitful account of an entire period. James Nisbet‘s new book, which began as a study of Walter De Maria’s 1977 Land Art work TheLightning Field, does just this by ranging freely across a wide variety of art works, practices, and attitudes from the formative decades of the environmental movement and of postwar American art. Ecologies, Environments, and Energy Systems in Art of the 1960s and 1970s (MIT Press, 2014) traces the shifts in ecological thinking and artistic practice during this period, and makes a convincing case for an ecological reading of many of its landmark works. What makes this book particularly fun, though, is the sheer strangeness of the works Nisbet discusses, many of them only briefly considered in the critical literature. From Allan Kaprow’s Yard (a gallery environment filled with tires), to psychedelic happenings, Peter Hutchinson’s bread scatter on the edge of a volcano, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Robert Barry’s radio wave installations and telepathic pieces, to the decade-long gestation of De Maria’s 400 stainless steel poles in the landscape of Western New Mexico: the book explores the ways that artists and the culture at large struggled to understand the nature of environments, the place of viewers and humans in relation to the whole earth, and the ultimate unruliness of global ecologies. It also reminds us of the mediated nature of both art works and ecological systems by delving into a period before awareness of media saturation became our prevailing condition.
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