Charles Ross during the construction of Star Axis (1976)

“My new brush is the Caterpillar,” says artist Walter De Maria early on in Troublemakers: The Story of Land ArtJames Crump‘s beautiful new documentary on the birth of land art that screens Wednesday at the Gene Siskel Film Center. Known variously as “earthworks,” “land art,” or “dirt art,” depending on whom you ask, this artistic movement began during the early 1960s as a reaction against the gallery-show format. The idea was to create something that couldn’t be sold, or even moved. In order to accomplish such a feat, artists like De Maria, Robert Smithson, and Michael Heizer had to leave their studios and go outdoors.

Yet there was a conundrum: it’s all well and good to aspire to transcend the marketplace, but making work still requires money. These guys needed a patron, and they found one in Virginia Dwan. As an heiress to the 3M Company fortune she had access to virtually unlimited resources, and paid for the artists’ dreams to become reality. Asked in the film what appealed to her about land art, Dwan says it is each artist’s obsessiveness and passion that drew her in.

Through mostly little-seen archival footage, Crump captures the expanse and majesty of these obsessions. Smithson’s Spiral Jetty in Utah, De Maria’s Lightning Field in New Mexico, and Heizer’s Double Negative in Nevada are the centerpieces of the film, though others are featured as well. Each work demonstrates a different aspect of land art: Spiral Jetty grafts a man-made spiral onto a body of water and reflects the sun’s rays between its rows of rocks and dirt; Lightning Field literally draws electricity to earth by metal poles set in a grid; Double Negative cuts into the two sides of a ravine and alters a viewer’s idea of “inside” and “outside.” The grand scale of this work demands various vantage points, and is therefore ideally suited to being captured by film. The many aerial views throughout the documentary call to mind footage of war from above and, as a matter of fact, these artists came of age in the time of the Vietnam war, and their work is partially a response to it.

There’s a romantic, Wild West demeanor to these men. They’re out in great expanses wearing cowboy hats and work boots, sporting sideburns; they’re reckoning directly with nature, paying tribute to it while simultaneously trying to control it. There is no lack of ambition in scope or scale. The artists trace their antecedents to Stonehenge and to Incan sites, works whose creators also cut directly into their surroundings and displaced earth and rock in order to erect massive monuments.

Many of the lesser figures of the movement like Carl Andre, Vito Acconci, and Lawrence Weiner are interviewed, but only one female artist is mentioned. Nancy Holt’s Sun Tunnels is given its due toward the end of the film, but I wondered if others were left out. The first name which came to mind was Ana Mendieta, whose work is certainly related. She died in 1985 by falling out of a window after a loud quarrel with Andre—an event for which many hold the latter responsible—but in fairness, the film’s main focus is the 60s and 70s, so her story falls outside its scope. Still, I’d be curious to know whether land art was really so dominated by these Marlboro Man types.

As it stands, Heizer is the only one of the main triumvirate who’s still alive. He’s out in the desert to this day building his mythical City. He has said he wants to make something which will stand for 500 years.

Troublemakers screens again Wednesday 2/3 at 6:15 PM at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State, 312-846-2800,, $11.