HomeLife StyleLand Art in Malibu Gets a Second Chance

Land Art in Malibu Gets a Second Chance

Lita Albuquerque made a strange sort of painting in 1978 that changed her course as an artist. An abstract painter at the time, she had felt the urge to get out of her studio and work directly on the land where she lived, an artist’s colony on the bluffs of Malibu. She dug a narrow, shallow, 41-foot-long trench in the ground, running perpendicular to the Pacific Ocean, and poured powdered ultramarine pigment into it. From some viewpoints the bright blue color appeared to run into the sea, visually connecting that strip of earth to the ocean and horizon.

She called it “Malibu Line” and it was the first of her many earthworks exploring the body’s relationship to land and cosmos, using bold pigments on natural materials like rocks and sand. It’s now celebrated for bridging Light and Space art — like the perceptual experiments of Robert Irwin — and the Earthwork movement, which was, for too long, defined by male artists of the 1960s and ’70s such as Michael Heizer and Robert Smithson, who used heavy machinery like bulldozers to transform — some say scar — the land.

Albuquerque, though, had a light touch, and the original “Malibu Line” disappeared within two years, overgrown by grass and wildflowers. “The beauty of the ephemeral is what it teaches us about nature — here we are, trying to control things, and nature is so powerful and will do what it does,” said Albuquerque, 78, standing outside her home in Malibu where she is recreating this artwork for the first time. It has the same intense color and southern orientation but, 46 years later, different resonances.

The most striking difference: this mark will have a counterpart in Tunisia, home of her mother’s family. She plans to create by the end of 2025 an extension of the line in Sidi Bou Said, a blue-and-white village overlooking the Mediterranean, not far from the Catholic convent in Carthage where she was a boarding student early on.

“This project is about longing and belonging. I miss the spirituality and sensuality of Tunisia,” the artist, who was born in Los Angeles and returned there at the age of 11, said. She had already dug the new Malibu trench — somewhat longer and wider to fit a new terrain — with the help of assistants and was in the process of pouring the pigment herself. The painter Marc Breslin, her former studio manager, handed her plastic cups filled with the vibrant blue powder.

She looked like a mourner quickly scattering ashes or a Buddhist monk making a sand mandala, as she carefully shook the cup over one section of the trench at a time. The entire process, which she described as meditative, took about 90 minutes.

Adding to the emotional resonance for Albuquerque is the fact that she was digging this trench on her own property, where her longtime home and studio had stood until they burned down in the 2018 Woolsey fire. (The lot used for the original “Malibu Line” is now in private hands and was not available to her.) Uphill from the new earthwork is the construction site where she and her husband are building a Tunisian-inspired home with white walls and blue doors. The ocean is farther away than it was from the first “Line” but still visible.

“The grains of pigment are my favorite part — it’s like seeing Mars from a great height, this rocky landscape, but blue,” she said at one point while scattering the pigment.

“I feel like this is kind of healing the land,” she added, her hands caked with blue, which also dusted her khaki pants. Her husband, Carey Peck, said they lost 43 large trees in the fire, including pines and eucalyptus, but the cactuses were stubborn and survived.

Albuquerque started “Malibu Line” after taking a job as a visiting artist at the University of California, Santa Barbara. During her commutes on the Pacific Coast Highway, she would stop her van to collect large rocks. Back in her studio, she tried dusting them with pigment. This led to “Malibu Line” and two smaller earthworks nearby: blanketing a boulder with ultramarine and creating a blue disk in the dirt corresponding to the position of the full moon as it set.

“This work from 1978 expands the art historical canon and broadens the understanding of who was making Land Art — it wasn’t just men in the desert,” said Christopher Mangum-James, the deputy director of LAND, the nonprofit organization that produced the 2024 version. He credited last year’s museum show “Groundswell,” at the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas, with recognizing the more intimate work of artists like Albuquerque, Ana Mendieta and Alice Aycock as part of the earthworks movement.

The challenge for curators and fans alike is that many of these artworks no longer exist, whether because of their ephemeral nature, institutional neglect or both. In May, a federal judge issued an injunction preventing the Des Moines Arts Center, the museum that commissioned Mary Miss’s “Greenwood Pond: Double Site” (1989-1996), from tearing it down for safety reasons.

But curators today are increasingly interested in highlighting these experiences, prompting artists such as Albuquerque — who is usually loath to look back — to revisit some early works.

In 2012, Albuquerque reconceived her 1980 work “Spine of the Earth” — a red spiral drawn on a dry lake bed in the Mojave Desert — for the Getty’s Pacific Standard Time initiative. In place of red pigment, she choreographed some 300 performers in red jumpsuits to form a large spiral in Culver City, Calif., visible from a bird’s-eye view. This year she did another version indoors, going back to pigment, for a gallery in Brussels.

The idea of revisiting “Malibu Line” was inspired by the independent curator Ikram Lakhdhar, who encouraged Albuquerque to think about showing her work in Tunisia for the first time. “I also left the country early on — we’ve both been searching for Tunisia in our work,” Lakhdhar said. (The curator also researched pigments to make sure the ultramarine was nontoxic.)

While they haven’t finalized the venue near Carthage yet, they turned to LAND to organize the California leg of the project. Free tickets for public viewings on June 22 and 23 quickly sold out, prompting the group to open additional time slots for that weekend.

Albuquerque is planning to host another public viewing in Malibu in a few months during her exhibition, “Earth Skin,” at Michael Kohn Gallery in Los Angeles, opening Sept. 11. For that she is covering nearly the entire gallery floor with a layer of granite composite so thin that it looks flush with the concrete. The work nods to the unruliness of nature and precision of geometry — like an organic version of a square-on-square canvas by a Modernist painter. “The artwork I love the most, other than prehistory and pre-Renaissance, is Mondrian, Kandinsky, Malevich — that kind of abstraction,” she said.

She sees the two “Malibu Lines” as siblings, separated by decades. “ They both point to something beyond ourselves,” says Albuquerque. “In another sense they couldn’t be more different. It’s like trying to draw the same line twice. It’s impossible.”

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