The Fertility of Desolation

Artists who ventured into New Jersey after World War II did so not, as Dennis Oppenheim once said, to sit “on a hillside looking at a sunset.” Deterioration suited them more than natural beauty, and, to this end, they gravitated toward some of the state’s most ruined landscapes—the more dismal and dysfunctional, the better. Decay is key to understanding artists’ fascination with New Jersey. Then, as now, the state was home to a plethora of pastoral and industrial ruins, and in this desolation artists recognized great “fertility” (as Allan Kaprow once wrote). A few of them mined New Jersey’s ruins for materials; others used them to stage real-time events and ephemeral interventions. In keeping with their perspective on New Jersey as a whole, artists neither mocked nor disparaged devastation; instead, they exploited decay for its artistic and symbolic potential.

Dennis Oppenheim, American, 1938–2011
Trench Fever, 1974
L.2013.17.3 a-b
Gordon Matta Clark, American, 1943–1978
Splitting 32, 1975
Nancy Holt, American, 1938–2014
Pine Barrens, 1975
Robert Smithson, American, 1938–1973
Nonsite: Line of Wreckage (Bayonne, NJ), 1968
Robert Smithson, American, 1938–1973
Map of Broken Clear Glass (Atlantis), 1969
Charles Simonds, American, born 1945 photo by Nathanson
Landscape <-> Body <-> Dwelling, 1971