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A Dictionary of Modern and Contemporary Art

Ian Chilvers,

John Glaves-Smith

Environment (Environmental) art 

An art form in which the artist creates a three‐dimensional space in which the spectator can be completely enclosed and involved in a multiplicity of sensory stimulations—visual, auditory, kinetic, tactile, and sometimes olfactory. This type of art was prefigured by work which came out of Dada and Constructivist challenges to the traditional art object, such as Lissitzky's Proun Rooms and the Merzbau of Kurt Schwitters, as well as the elaborate decor of the International Surrealist Exhibition in Paris in 1938. As a movement it originated in the late 1950s and flourished chiefly in the 1960s, when it was closely connected with Happenings. Allan Kaprow, who wrote a book called Assemblage, Environments & Happenings (1966), gave the following definitions: ‘The term “environment” refers to an art form that fills an entire room (or outdoor space) surrounding the visitor and consisting of any materials whatsoever, including lights, sounds and colour…The term “happening” refers to an art form related to theatre, in that it is performed in a given time and space. Its structure and content are a logical extension of environments.’ Apart from Kaprow, the other leading figures who have worked in Environment art include Kienholz and Oldenburg, and one of the most celebrated works in the genre was created by Niki de Saint Phalle in Stockholm in 1966.

One particular form involves the making of spaces that can, at least hypothetically, actually be inhabited, as in the work of Andrea Zittel or of Absalon (1964–93), an Israeli artist who lived in Paris and devised basic structures which bear a close resemblance to Minimal art and are designed for a mobile lifestyle.

‘Environment’ has been loosely used, and confusingly it has sometimes been applied to Land art or its analogues—that is, to a category of art that consists in manipulating the natural environment, rather than to an art that creates an environment to enfold and absorb the spectator. Christo and Jeanne-Claude's work, for example, is sometimes described as Environmental art. It should not necessarily be assumed that an ‘environmental’ artist has any special concern with environmental causes in the political sense of the word and it is perhaps to avoid this confusion that the term installation is more common today. A concern for environmental issues certainly exists in recent art. It is found, for instance, in the work of Joseph Beuys and Agnes Denes.