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:: By Laura Putre

:: Photography by Dan Dry

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:: Arts & Letters

Alone in the landscape

To revive her awe of art, Erin Hogan traveled West, armed with a map, a camera—and no plan.

After more than a decade studying art history and then working at the Art Institute of Chicago as director of public affairs, Erin Hogan, AM’91, PhD’99, was burned out. Unable to remember the last time she had been genuinely moved by a painting or sculpture, she says, “I had lost my capacity to wonder.” So in August 2004, she tried the all-American cure for a withered spirit: a cross-country road trip.


Erin Hogan drove 3,000 miles, solo, to view the massive land art of the West.

Her destination was the journey: to view masterworks of the land-art movement in the American West—and to do it solo and by the seat of her pants. Along the way, she would check out Spiral Jetty, Robert Smithson’s massive coil of rocks created on the Great Salt Lake in 1970, and Lightning Field, Walter De Maria’s 1977 installation of 400 stainless-steel poles in southwestern New Mexico’s high desert, as well as other works she’d seen only in books.

The land-art movement began in the late 1960s when a group of American artists found the gallery setting too spatially confining and too commercial. They created works on a monumental scale, using the open landscape as their canvas. Because of the massive space demands, the most important examples of land art are primarily located in off-road desert areas in Utah, New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona, and Texas, places where directions can sound more like a language poem than points on a map. (Her directions to Spiral Jetty, for instance, included the instructions: “Continue to a…combination fence, cattleguard #4, iron pipe gate.”) For a citified sojourner like Hogan, the remoteness added to the mystique.

“I hadn’t tested myself in this sort of way before,” says Hogan, who is usually drawn to order and routine. “People would tell me they were hiking the mountains of Europe alone, and I was like, ‘Alone? You’re doing it alone?’ I had never really traveled by myself.”

She packed up her sprightly 1999 black Volkswagen Jetta—which until then had been strictly an urban ride—with camping gear, laptop, and iPod, and she set out with no itinerary “beyond buying a map and picking out a few places I wanted to visit.” When friends in Chicago realized she was making the 3,000-mile round trip up mountains and through dirt in a two-wheel-drive sedan, they’d say, “You can’t do that in this car. You’ll never make it.” They were wrong: the Jetta may have puttered and sighed, but it never gave out.

Along the way, Hogan made notes and obsessively took pictures of the artwork. Though she thought she might pen an essay or two about her trip, she didn’t sit down to write about her adventures until two years after the fact—when a former coworker at the University of Chicago Press approached her about turning the account into a book. Her narrative of the expedition, Spiral Jetta: A Road Trip through the Land Art of the American West, is being released by the press in May.

Hogan’s informed critique of the art she encountered intertwines with her unsettling personal journey from a busy life in Chicago (she lives in the Andersonville neighborhood) to three weeks on stark terrain where, for the first time, she experienced—and survived—the “terror” of being truly alone.

Along what seemed, from Hogan’s description, like some of the most unforgiving stretches of road on the planet, she met up with an assortment of oddball locals who may well have been menacing only in her fears, heightened by days of being alone in an unfamiliar place.

After a luckless day spent searching for a collection of concrete tubes by Nancy Holt called Sun Tunnels, Hogan stopped for a drink at the Saddle Sore, a watering hole in Montello, Nevada. Gradually, the beer and paranoia from many hours alone took hold, and the bartender and a mildly annoying patron morphed into grotesques out to rob her or worse. “Leave without telling anyone, my wet brain instructed me,” she writes. “I imagined, ridiculously, these lonely romeos chasing me in pickup trucks across the salt flats.”

At first, Hogan was more overwhelmed by loneliness and the natural landscape than by the art she encountered. Spiral Jetty seemed “intimate…even tiny” when she walked between its rings of rock. She had expected to be awed by the work’s vastness, having seen it only in aerial photographs without bystanders to give it scale. Likewise, the fossilized organic material that over millions of years formed the deep, varied reds of the Moab, Utah, mountains—a sight that Hogan describes as “the trapped cries of muted life”—impressed her more than Michael Heizer’s Double Negative, a half-mile-long pair of notches carved into the Mormon Mesa in Overton, Nevada. After 35 years in the elements, these “voids” show wear and tear; Heizer has said in interviews that he would like to repair them with a concrete mixture.

“Is earth art a fraud?” Hogan wondered. She contemplated whether she could get the same experience “attentively camping” as she could viewing the sky from Roden Crater, a volcanic cinder cone in Arizona’s Painted Desert that artist James Turrell has been fashioning for the past 30 years—carving tunnels, sculpting furniture, creating sound art—into a “celestial theater.” Turrell intends the finished piece to be the optimum environment from which to view the night sky. 

But Hogan never saw Crater, which, still in progress, is closed to the public, its location secret. She considered trying to find it anyway until she learned that she would have to trespass on private land—and, she feared, possibly be at the mercy of some shotgun-happy sentinel.

Yet her quest for artistic transformation was redeemed toward the end of the journey, when Hogan visited New Mexico’s Lightning Field, a work that, on paper, “sounds perilously close to a boondoggle.” To view the work, pilgrims must take a bus to the site and spend the night in a cabin, where they can view it from sunset to sunrise. Hogan’s expectations were low going in, but at sunset, “every one of those four hundred poles was doing something; together they shimmered and undulated, like a cornfield stirred by a strong wind. … It was simply and inexpressibly beautiful.” At sunrise, “it offered a soft and slow awakening.”

The work “just snuck up on me,” she reflects. “It was huge; it was gentle. It was like a huge ocean swell. That’s what it felt like—a land swell.” Finally, an epiphany.