'Troublemakers: The Story of Land Art': Film Review

Gianfranco Gorgoni/Courtesy of First Run Features

A colorful and sometimes gorgeous primer on this influential movement.

The rule-breaking artists who made mountains.

A first-person trip through a moment when artists hoped to demolish the commercial gallery system by bending the earth itself to their will, building their own geological formations and surgically altering those Nature made, James Crump's Troublemakers finds the personalities that thrust Land Art (or Earth Art, or Earthworks, take your pick) into the public arena in the late 60s. Full of insider interviews but accessible to the casual art fan, the doc should be well received in niche markets after its NYFF bow.

Curator and art historian Crump, whose Black White + Gray looked at the relationship between Robert Mapplethorpe and collector Sam Wagstaff, is again attuned to how culture trends rely not just on art stars but on behind-the-scenes players. Here he introduces us toVirginia Dwan, the 3M heiress whose New York gallery poured money into work it knew it could never sell — like Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty, the most famous Earthwork — and to Willoughby Sharp, whose magazine Avalanche championed this nascent movement's creators and even proposed to pay them for their inherently uncommercial efforts. (Sharp could never afford to do that, and wound up feeling his contributions to Land Art were underappreciated.)

Though Crump devotes time to many of the men (and a woman or two) who made seminal work in this field, his story's main figures are Smithson and Michael Heizer, whose magnum opus City has been under construction for over four decades in the Nevada desert. (Heizer's Levitated Mass caused a stir during its 2012 installation at LACMA.) Neither man is interviewed here (Smithson died in 1973; Heizer presumably refused), but both come to life in ample archival material, which paints Smithson as a man in tune with "apocalyptic...dark forces" and Heizer as a gentler visionary who, unlike his peers, eventually disappeared into the desert he made his canvas.

Through interviews and photos, Crump susses out the appeal of moving boulders and dirt with massive construction machinery. Vintage pix show Walter de Maria posing wittily with the epic lines he inscribed in the ground; present-day footage swoops above and treks into Double Negative, the trenches Heizer dug into a pair of Nevada mesas. The latter work gets so much screen time it almost counts, as they say of Manhattan in romantic comedies, as a character in the film.

Production company: Summitridge Pictures

Director-Screenwriter: James Crump

Producers: Michel Comte, James Crump, Ronnie Sassoon, Farley Ziegler

Directors of photography: Robert O'Haire, Alexandre Themistocleous

Editor: Nick Tamburri

Music: Petar Alargic, Travis Huff


No rating, 70 minutest