Postmodernism: Environmental Art

Post-modern artwork is our current era of art history, and it encompasses so many themes, ideas, materials and artistic voices. It’s hard to categorize as just one thing. In that vein, I’ll be discussing environmental art, and tie in other influences of postmodernism. Environmental art is one of the first types of installation and ephemeral artwork that I was exposed to as a young adult. I had an art teacher who frequently discussed the work of Andy Goldsworthy, and we’d go on field trips to create our own little pieces of art to later be reclaimed by the tide, weather or nearby critters.


Environmental art is art that is created within nature for purely aesthetic purposes, to help facilitate a closer connection between artist and nature, or to educate or protest the darker sides of globalism and consumerism. Environmental art uses a variety of materials; leafs and twigs woven together, icicles fused together with the artist’s own saliva, or found objects such as those created in large quantities and then discarded.

Andy Goldsworthy was mentioned in our course material for this module, so I know you already have an idea of what his art is about. I absolutely love Goldsworthy’s work. He creates compositions out of entirely gathered natural materials, painstakingly created and then left to the elements after a photograph is taken. Goldsworthy’s artwork exists to us as photographic records of the actual work. Goldsworthy documents his images with a 35mm standard lens and no filters. [[Goldsworthy.cc.gla.ac.uk citation]] He describes “ephemeral art” as, “It’s not about art. It’s just about life and the need to understand that a lot of things in life do not last,” “When I make an ephemeral work, when it’s finished, that’s the moment that it ends, in a way.” (Fresh Air, NPR)

The formal elements of composition are strongly represented in his works. He uses contrasting values, contrasting colors, juxtaposition of shapes and skillful use of light to capture the records of his works.


goldsworthy 1

Dark elm patch, Middleton Woods, Yorkshire (4 November 1980)

Artist journal entry accompanying image:


Diary: 4th Nov.
Middleton Woods.
Underneath Elm Tree
Surface leaves – all colours – some newly
fallen –
found dark leaves –
dark leaf – found light
a more recently fallen leaf
same size – took part
for dark leaf – spat on
underside and “stuck” to
the other leaf – made
dark leaf patch on ground.
Chrichton University Campus, Andy Goldsworthy Digital Collection


This is actually a Goldsworthy image that I had not seen before, but immediately caught my eye. I’m more familiar with his more starkly contrasting leaf arrangements, this one appeals to me because of the more subtle gradation of color and the dark circle made out of dark leaves, instead of holes cut in the leaves themselves. The leaves have already fallen and are beginning to decay, creating a swath of imperfect spots of color within the frame. It’s important to realize that each of these leaves are deliberately placed by the artist, having been found, inspected, appreciated for their imperfections and then finally placed.

Circles are a very common form in Goldsworthy’s works, either in outline or the full, filled-in shape. Circles provide a stable composition, and allow the subtle colors of the decaying leaves to radiate out from it. Note that the circle itself is imperfect by virtue of the imperfect materials used.

This image reminds me of walking trails around the UAF campus at the very end of August. The leaves are just starting to change and fall, but some of them still hold their vibrant green hues.



Horse chestnut leaves
sections torn out
pinned with thorns to sticks pushed into pond bottom
muddy black clouds stirred up around where I worked
over the week the leaves began to fall and the pond rose slightly
work gradually disappearing
Loughborough, Leicestershire
(22 September 1986)


This is another Goldsworthy image I wasn’t familiar with until I began searching catalogs of his work for this assignment. I thought it appropriate to compare his uses of leaves between this image and the previous shown elm leaves. Laying leaves and twigs over still pools of water is a hallmark of Goldsworthy’s work, but the images I’m most familiar with take use the perfect (or nearly perfect) circle forms.

This one stood out to me because the ephemeral work itself does not take up the full space of the frame used. While it is definitely the focus of the frame, the leaf arrangement is shown more in the context of its surroundings as compared to the dark elm leaves shown above. The contrasting elements in this image are not color, but shape — see the organic, meandering outer form of the leaves, and then the straight sections and negative space of the leaf sections themselves.


Mathilde Roussel is a French environmental artist who takes a different approach to ephemeral works than Andy Goldsworthy. Instead of creating works from found materials in nature, Roussel brings natural materials into gallery spaces to create living sculptures. The works of hers that I found most appealing were her “living sculptures,” which are a form of ephemeral work that takes place through the planting, germination, growth and decay of living seeds placed within the sculpture. Her work brings particular attention to the precious resource of soil, and the life-sustaining properties it possesses.



Pangea (Ongoing project as of 16 April 2017).

The Pangea installation is a living sculpture of wheat grain seeded in soil on a metal frame, suspended by metal cables. This sculpture is ephemeral in that it is a work that takes place over time; the wheat grass sprouts, grows and decays, creating an evolving landscape suspended in an otherwise barren and industrial space (Roussel 2017).


While I enjoy environmental art and the symbolic use of grass, I don’t find this image to be as striking as her other installation, Lives of Grass.



Lives of Grass (2012)

While the Lives of Grass installation has a similar approach of living seeds growing and decaying over time, I feel like the fact that the grasses growing from human forms makes this work instantly more relateable. We, as humans, always recognize ourselves, even when our forms are simplified or otherwise abstracted. It seems that Roussel intended for that poignant relateability with her work, as this series focuses on a cycle of renewal with references to the Egyptian god Osiris (Roussel 2012).

A human’s connection to nature is very present through food cycles (Sekoff), illustrated by the wheat growing out of the sculptures. The food we ingest becomes a component of ourselves; it helps create our appearance as much as it fuels our bodies and gives us energy. Roussel has us confront that connection through the living grass human forms, which all seem to be deliberately placed in prone or otherwise helpless poses.



Michael Grab is a land or environmental artist, whose work focuses on the photography of balanced stacks of rocks within nature. He calls his work “gravity glue,” as gravity is the only glue that holds the balanced rocks together (Grab). These channel Andy Goldsworthy to me a little bit, but with a finer attention to the photography of the subject. As I teach myself photography, I find that I have a special appreciation for Michael Grab’s photographic technique and compositions a little bit moreso than the actual subjects represented. Without carefully considered compositions, I don’t think that these images of balanced rocks would be nearly as striking as they are.



Star Dial, 07 February 2016 (Kaplankaya, Turkey)

As I perused this artist’s gallery, this image immediately jumped out at me for both the formal elements of his composition as well as the photographic technique. The form of the arch at first glance is very similar, but at a closer look, it’s not that simple. I like that the keystone (stone in the center of the arch which holds it together) is deliberately longer, as that long, straight stone creates a focal point in the off-centered composition. I just love the negative space created by the arch and keystone!



Breathe, 08 September 2016 (Istria, Croatia)

I enjoy this image for a variety of reasons: the different sizes and shapes of rocks used, the time of day the photograph was taken, and the photographic technique itself. Michael Grab once again demonstrates the power of composition in creating a striking image; his image is divided fairly evenly into horizontal thirds and the stack of rocks holds the primary focus just a little bit off center in the vertical halves of the frame. The shapes of the rocks play off of each other in contrast of shapes; some of them are long, some round, large and small. Within the rocks are small negative spaces through which the background can be seen. Finally, the blurry sun setting over the horizon with all that bokeh from the low lens aperture is a definite photography preference of mine.





I particularly enjoyed this assignment, as I feel like for much of the semester I have been discussing artists whose work I am already quite familiar with. This time, I got to talk about an artist I know well, but discover two new artists who are working around the world today. I am also inspired to go create and photograph some of my own ephemeral works down on the Homer Spit!


Works Cited

“About — Gravity Glue”. Gravity Glue. N.p., 2017. Web. 16 Apr. 2017.
“Andy Goldsworthy Digital Catalogue: Photography”. Goldsworthy.cc.gla.ac.uk. N.p., 2017. Web. 16 Apr. 2017.
“Awesome Grass Sculptures Of Bodies”. The Huffington Post. N.p., 2017. Web. 16 Apr. 2017.
“Mathilde Roussel – Pangée”. Mathilderoussel.com. N.p., 2017. Web. 16 Apr. 2017.
“Sculptor Turns Rain, Ice And Trees Into ‘Ephemeral Works'”. NPR.org. N.p., 2017. Web. 16 Apr. 2017.



3 thoughts on “Postmodernism: Environmental Art

  1. I must admit that the inclusion of nature into art has quite a calming effect, minus the Roussel’s Lives of Grass but more on that in a bit. Within modern life we typically find ourselves becoming more and more closed off from the outside world and simply look through windows. These pieces showcase to me just how much of a disconnect there is in modern times and how that primal urge to run free in the wild is ever present.

    As mentioned Lives of Grass was the only piece that didn’t have as much of a calming effect. This is because of the falling pose as well as the human silhouette. I perceive this piece in more of an “ashes to ashes” type of way as well as interconnection of humans with nature. We are interconnected, we need each other to survive. With that some of us seem at ease with the way that the world is going while somewhere else humans and nature are falling.


  2. First off, I think that way you started this post was great. You encompassed all of post modern artwork before you went further in to discuss environmental artwork. I think this was not only informative but also helps us grasp the idea of post modern art. I really enjoy the soothing aspect of nature in art. My favorite it when it is all monochromatic like with the sky or grass, it just seems to melt the stress away. One thing that I am not a fan off though is “Lives of Grass” as is just seems to harsh and jarring. I also liked how you were able to talk about artists you knew as I provided a sense of greater connection. Which of all these types of nature art do you prefer and why? Personally, I like the more calming flowing art but am curious of your opinion.


    1. I am definitely more of a fan of the calming/aesthetically-intended environmental artwork like Goldsworthy, rather than more direct statements such as “Lives of Grass.” I included “Lives of Grass” to include a different style of art other than my established preferences… writing about art you like is easy, writing about art you don’t like as much is way harder! I enjoy the challenge of talking about art.


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