Tracing the Travails of the Green Art Movement

In the 1970s, around the time of the first Earth Day celebrations, artists such as Robert Smithson set out into the great American West with bulldozers, eager to redefine mankind's relationship with the natural world. They made massive marks on the landscape—digging giant holes, piling up mounds of soil, even dumping asphalt down hillsides in the desert—an art form akin to the great earthworks of ancient civilizations. Smithson, who died in a helicopter crash at the height of his career, became the beloved godfather of the genre known as land art; his 1970 masterpiece, Spiral Jetty, a 457-meter-long curlicue that stretches out into Utah's Great Salt Lake and now spends most of its days underwater, has become the movement's trademark.

A new exhibit at London's Barbican Centre, Radical Nature: Art and Architecture for a Changing Planet 1969–2009 (June 19 through Oct. 20), traces the developments among the avant-garde in perfecting the marriage of art and the environment since Smithson first began moving around piles of dirt. After all, those early pioneers barely touched on the ideals of the environmental movement, inspired instead by the cold, austere minimalism of their day, epitomized in Donald Judd's endless rows of boxes. But it wasn't long before a new round of practitioners gave environmental art context and meaning. By the 1980s, artists such as Agnes Denes and Alan Sonfist had brought the movement out of the desert and back to the center of the art world: New York City. Denes planted a wheat field next to the World Trade Center, and Sonfist restored a strip of land in the middle of lower Manhattan to primeval forest.

Their efforts produced more art activism than art-gallery shows. In Germany the artist Joseph Beuys took to the streets, planting 7,000 oak trees in 1982 and standing as a candidate for the Greens. Mierle Laderman Ukeles shook hands with New York's 8,500 sanitation workers to thank them for their service, and mirrored the sides of their garbage trucks to get the city to literally reflect on what it throws away. The Harrisons, a husband-and-wife team living off the grid, constructed portable fish farms and vegetable gardens meant to feed whole families. Their monotonous rows of planter boxes poke fun at Smithson's highbrow minimalist influences.

Indeed, the exhibit shows that environmental artists developed an ironic sense of humor as time passed, undoubtedly frustrated by the lack of progress in the broader environmental movement. In Fallen Forest, Henrik Håkansson has flipped an enormous patch of rainforest on its side and lit it like a movie studio, symbolizing the imbalance between humankind and nature. And husband-and-wife team Heather and Ivan Morison have built a playful geodesic wood cabin beside the outdoor fountain (a nod to Richard Buckminster Fuller, also included in this exhibit, the famous architect who inspired an entire generation of bubble-shaped hippie communes). But its fantastical proportions belie its somber function. Entitled I'm So Sorry, Goodbye, the cabin is designed to be a refuge after an environmental disaster, implying it may already be too late to avoid the worst effects of global warming.

That somewhat defeated tone pervades much of the newer work, which reveals little of the excitement for building an environmentally friendly future found in the campaigns of Beuys and Ukeles. Perhaps that's only natural after 40 years of environmental art, when for most of that time, so few have paid attention to the message.