Episode 3: Atmospheres (Transcript)

Raw Material
Season 3: Landfall






MADDIE GOBBO:For this season of Raw Material, we’re driving across California looking at art and the landscape.

JESSICA PLACZEK: My name is Jessica Placzek and I’m a reporter.

GOBBO: My name is Maddie Gobbo and I’m a fiction writer.

PLACZEK: Together we’ll be looking at what art can teach us about life in the West — its past, present…

GOBBO: …and possible future.

PLACZEK: This is season 3: Landfall.

GOBBO: A production of SFMOMA.

GOBBO: You probably noticed that a lot of the land artists we talked about in episode 1 were male. And there’s a reason for that. When land-based art emerged in the 1970s, male artists had an easier time raising money to make monumental works. Galleries and patrons were more willing to support artists they already knew, and the artists they knew were men.

PLACZEK: Gender imbalance was a problem in most creative fields, but the huge scale of land art made it extra visible. Over time, land art became known as a pretty masculine movement.


GOBBO: I recently read an article that described the artist Michael Heizer as “the manliest man in art history.”

PLACZEK: Here’s an example of one really…. macho piece he made: Double Negative. It’s an earthwork where he blasted two trenches spanning a quarter of a mile into the top of a mesa. While it definitely did challenge some of the conventions about art and even architecture at the time, it was also really destructive. Like, he’s pretty much destroying a mountain.

GOBBO: Although the men got most of the glory, women played an undeniable role in land art. Like Nancy Holt.

PLACZEK: In the summer of 1968, Nancy Holt visited the western desert for the first time.

GOBBO: She said: “I got off the plane in Las Vegas. The airport was out in the desert. And I remember feeling that my inner world and the outer world were one. It was very powerful. I just felt connected to the place. As if the desert had been within me right along.


GOBBO: Her piece Sun Tunnels is iconic in the land art movement. It’s four huge concrete tubes, arranged in an X shape in the middle of the Utah desert. The tubes are perforated in such a way that when the sun passes over, you can see different constellations projected inside the tubes.

PLACZEK: When she finished building her Sun Tunnels, Holt stayed there for several days, recording the effects of light.

GOBBO: She wrote: “I would watch sunrises and sunsets and the stars at night. When you’re alone in the desert, you’re ageless, timeless.”


GOBBO: Nancy Holt was also married to Robert Smithson, who you heard about earlier in the season. They were the ultimate land art power couple.

PLACZEK: Far beyond erecting structures and blasting holes, there were women who wanted to pioneer a totally new vision of land art rooted in feminism and ecological consciousness. Enter Judy Chicago.


JUDY CHICAGO: Hi, I’m Judy Chicago and we’re at SFMOMA, where I have long roots.

PLACZEK: Chicago was an emerging artist at the time that these guys were blasting into the earth. In 1970, fresh out of art school, she took on sculptor Richard Serra, one of the biggest names in the art world.

CHICAGO: He did this big piece at the Pasadena Museum in which he stacked redwoods in the museum. And I was horrified by that. I was just horrified by the fact that he felt the right to knock down redwoods, ‘cause you know, they were endangered. You know, it was just material to him. And... I told him how upset I was by that, and the next morning there was this banging on my studio door. And there was Richard, holding Artforum, saying “You might think it’s lousy, but they don’t!” You know, and like now I’m supposed to say “Oh, excuse me Richard, I’m wrong, oh, what do I know, blah blah…” No! I was right! But it took a really long time for that perception to enter the art world.

PLACZEK: As you’ll hear later, this wasn’t the last time she played with fire. Chicago went on to form her own path in the art world, and today, she’s best known for an installation piece called The Dinner Party.


PLACZEK: It’s a triangular banquet table the size of a huge room.


PLACZEK: The table is set with embroidered placemats and sculpted plates. There are 39 place settings and 999 inscribed names commemorating famous women of myth and history. Many of the plates are shaped like vaginas. Chicago’s work insists that vaginal forms are just as important to art as phallic forms.


GOBBO: At the time, this feminist approach to art was not in fashion.

CHICAGO: I was interviewed recently by a young woman who couldn’t believe it when I told her that in the 60s, the highest compliment a woman artist could get is “you paint like a man.”

GOBBO: The patriarchy had a strong hold on the art world. So strong, that Jansen’s History of Art, the main art history textbook at the time, didn’t include a single female artist. And that didn’t change until 1987!

PLACZEK: It wasn’t just textbooks. Feminist art was rejected by art teachers. The artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles was studying art at Pratt Institute in 1962. There, Ukeles made messy, bulbous, and abstract sculptural works. Her works unsettled male administrators so much that they called her art “oversexed.” One of her teachers even resigned in protest of her work.

GOBBO: Imagine being so triggered by a student sculpture that you actually resign!

PLACZEK: Anyway, Chicago was frustrated by the limitations of this male-dominated world. Eventually, enough was enough.

CHICAGO: My earlier work had been met with derision, rejection, ridicule. And so it was a huge risk to peel back that formal structure and say, “you know what? I’m not gonna hide, anymore, the fact that I’m a woman. And in fact, I’m going to figure out what that means.”

GOBBO: In 1970, the same year she picked that fight with Richard Serra, Chicago founded what she calls the very first feminist art program in the country. It was at Fresno State College.

CHICAGO: And I set up a class for young women, ‘cause I thought that if I helped them learn how to become artists, in a way that I had not had the opportunity--in other words, without having to deny that they were women--helping them do that would help me come back to my own impulses.

PLACZEK: Chicago says she wanted to help create a new form of artistic practice. She banned men from her classes and brought in feminist thinkers and artists to work alongside her students.

CHICAGO: I remember I invited a prominent feminist theorist to come to visit the studio and speak at the school, and so we all went to the airport to meet her. First there were all these Shriners who got off the plane, and then the feminist theorist followed behind them, at which point my students burst into cunt cheers! C-U-N, C-U-N, C-U-N-T! And I’m like, “oh my god!”

GOBBO: Yup. You heard that right. And the students called themselves C-U-N-T cheerleaders.

PLACZEK: Many of Chicago’s students are still artists, or became teachers themselves. We met one who still lives near Fresno: Nancy Youdelman.

NANCY YOUDELMAN: I’m an artist. And I’ve been an artist for many years. [laughs]

GOBBO: We met Nancy Youdelman in her beautiful studio. It’s a huge, standalone space surrounded by trees, with an entire wall of windows. On the opposite wall hang a number of encaustic sculptures made from old dresses and nightgowns.

YOUDELMAN: I heat the wax on this griddle from Target. [chuckles]

PLACZEK: Her studio has a shy cat, and bulbous fish in a noisy fish tank. She works atop long tables and under each workspace are boxes brimming with jewels, colors, and wax.

YOUDELMAN: There’s pearls, toe shoes, Barbies, jewelry. Padded hangers. All those things that you think would be kinda cute and pretty but they’re really kinda ugly. And I like that.

GOBBO: Youdelman credits a lot of her artistic development to the classes she took with Judy Chicago.

YOUDELMAN: Judy was unlike anyone I had ever met, because she was very blunt, she knew exactly what she wanted, and she would say it. And, I was intrigued with it. The very first time I met her, she asked me if I wanted to be a professional artist. And I said, “I already am an artist.” And she said, “No you’re not.” And I… I didn’t get mad or upset. I thought, “I wanna be around this person because nobody talks like that. Nobody says what they think.”

PLACZEK: Youdelman says she’s maintained close ties with her old classmates. The community they built allowed them to accomplish things that would have been impossible to do alone.

YOUDELMAN: And today if we get together as a group, it’s almost like these comrades who have fought battles together. It’s like time just sort of drops away and there’s this incredible bond.

GOBBO: When Chicago left Fresno to teach at CalArts, Nancy Youdelman followed and enrolled in a performance art class that culminated in a full day of activities.


YOUDELMAN: It was a whole day of performance where we drove in cars down this Route 126, which is a little north of CalArts, all the way to Ventura, and we did pieces all along the way. And at some point Judy did something with yellow flares, smoke flares, and eggs. All these eggs were placed, and people were nailing Kotexes up to telephone poles. [chuckles] And then my piece, I waited ‘til we were at Ventura. I had all this silk and I completely wrapped by body with it and walked into the ocean until I disappeared. And it must be documented somewhere. I have a… just a few, like, slides of like, it was little me in the water way out that doesn’t really look like anything.

PLACZEK: Because you disappeared.

YOUDELMAN: Yes. [laughs] Yes.


PLACZEK: Years later, the piece was mentioned in Chris Crouse’s book I Love Dick.

YOUDELMAN: And one thing that Chris Crouse says, if that had been men doing that for a day, it would have been famous. Everyone would have known about it. But since it was women it’s just kind of, “oh!” It’s just gone.

GOBBO: It was around this time that Chicago had started to develop a series that she would call Atmospheres.

CHICAGO: I decided to do a series of Atmospheres using colored smokes. And the reason I called them Atmospheres was because I wanted to change the macho atmosphere of Southern California. And I thought, maybe I could do it, if only for a moment, through filling the atmosphere with soft, beautiful color.


CHICAGO: So I started out, me and another woman. I rented smoke guns. And it was one of those artist-organized events in the park in Pasadena. And we walked around with the smoke guns making this huge pile of white smoke, and all these kids followed us and it was like being the Pied Pipers.



CHICAGO: Anyways, so then I started wanting to do more. And I got interested, actually, in mixing color in the air.


PLACZEK: She wanted to lay out colors in the air the same way she would lay out colors inside her paintings. The smokes bloomed in the landscape, and colored clouds flowed over mountains and rivers before they were blown away, leaving no trace. Chicago began inviting friends and even students to participate.

GOBBO: Nancy Youdelman volunteered, along with a handful of others, and one early summer morning Chicago picked them up in Los Angeles with a box of doughnuts, and drove them all out east. Out into the desert to perform the piece.

YOUDELMAN: Judy had very clear plans on what she wanted to do. I was painted red with acrylic paint, and had either a wig or long hair, and she had me walking from a distance up near the camera with my arms straight up holding in each arm a red smoke flare.


YOUDELMAN: The way it billows, it’s just kind of like clouds, but a life of its own. I felt very connected, like the smoke was coming out of my arms. But I also remember the sand was hot, it was the middle of the day and I didn’t have shoes on. Oh yes, I was naked, of course, yes, we had to be, to be painted. And Chris Rush, Judy painted her yellow. Judy also painted her hair, and it was with acrylic paint, so she was completely painted yellow. And she danced, and there were yellow flares, smoke flares. But I remember that really well because she… it was really hot, Chris was dancing, and it was this wild dance, but after a little bit she got really sick and started vomiting. [laughs] From I think a combination of the heat, the activity, and maybe being completely covered with acrylic paint. But for me it was… It was exciting to be part of something.


GOBBO: Though she aimed to feminize the atmosphere with her smoke, Chicago first had to deal with the very male world of pyrotechnics.

CHICAGO: There were no female pyrotechnicians at that time in California, and the way you got a license was by apprenticing to a fireworks company which I was doing, and the head of the fireworks company was sexually harassing me. And again, it was a time where you don’t talk about that, I couldn’t file a complaint, there was nothing to do but get away from him.

PLACZEK: Nevertheless, Chicago persisted. She went on to make similar pieces, eventually working with the vapor from dry ice. She took these performances to urban settings where the smokes covered the built environment. It hid and softened what she saw as very male architecture.

GOBBO: And she’s still working with fireworks. Most recently she created pyrotechnic shows with flares that formed the image of a giant butterfly.


CHICAGO: I didn’t see myself as a land artist. I mean I, I didn’t. Like, I think it wasn’t ‘til Philip’s Ends of the Earth show where he put me in that context. And I thought, “well yeah, it belongs in that context.”

PLACZEK: While Chicago was annoyed at the macho land artists and their plundering of the earth, she acknowledges that this western spirit of self-invention gave her the freedom to experiment. She says that it’s no coincidence that her time in California generated both the first feminist art program and the Atmospheres series.

CHICAGO: I see that it was a gesture of liberation. That’s what it was, trying to liberate my color from the formal structures. I was just exploring what I could do. And also, as macho as Southern California was, there was also a spirit of self-invention that greatly contributed to my development as an artist. Had I been in New York, I probably would not have been able to just buy colored smokes, gather my friends, go out to beaches, deserts, the national forests, and ignite smokes. Nor would I have been able to probably start the first feminist art program.

GOBBO: The Atmospheres series is land-based art. The performances were happening around the same times and places as Heizer and Smithson’s work. But Chicago never wanted to be a member of that club.

PLACZEK: Some felt that land art did not have a responsibility to address environmental issues, that it was purely about form and concept.

GOBBO: Others argued that you couldn’t make art about the land without considering ecological and cultural impacts. Because people like Michael Heizer and Robert Smithson were already associated with terms like land art and earth art, these dissenting voices came up with new terms for what they were doing.

PLACZEK: Like maintenance art, single-handedly pioneered by Mierle Laderman Ukeles. Remember her? She’s the artist who offended the men with her, quote, “oversexed” art.

GOBBO: Ukeles says maintenance art is about showing the value of domestic and maintenance work. She argued that we place too much value on progress and development, but meanwhile, behind the scenes, it’s maintenance that take all the f[bleeped]ing time.

PLACZEK: She didn’t want to build new structures. She wanted to look at the invisible labor we put into keeping our environment spiffy. In 1978, Ukeles was hired as the artist-in-residence for the New York City Department of Sanitation. This was a decades long residency. For one piece, she spent a year shaking the hand of every single sanitation worker in New York City. That was about 8,500 people!

GOBBO and PLACZEK: Hi, hey, nice to meet you, what’s up…

PLACZEK: In another piece, she choreographed a series of seven ballets involving sanitation workers, garbage trucks, floating barges, and tons of recycled material.



GOBBO: Ukeles wrote, “Garbage is the ultimate mixed media.”


GOBBO: Rather than cutting down redwoods or blasting through mountains, she just reframed what was already there.


PLACZEK: Then there was Ana Mendieta. She developed a fusion of performance and land art that she called “earth-body works” or “earth-body sculptures.”

GOBBO: Mendieta was a Cuban exile studying at the University of Iowa. In 1973, she began a photo series called Silueta. They showed silhouettes of the female body in nature. Some pictured outlines of her body, carved into the earth, then set on fire, or filled with water. In other photos, Mendieta camouflaged her own naked body with tree bark, grass, and flowers.

PLACZEK: Mendieta said this series was a return to the maternal source. Her “earth-body sculptures” make the body into an extension of nature, and nature into an extension of the body. Like Judy Chicago’s Atmospheres, they were designed to disappear, and now only exist as photographs.


PLACZEK: Hi! Maddie and I are at a beach south of San Francisco. It’s a beautiful November day just after it rained all week, so the air is fresh.

GOBBO: And in honor of Judy Chicago and all these other powerful women artists, Jess and I are going to set off our own smoke bombs.

PLACZEK: We have two pink ones and two blue ones, and to be honest, they were baby announcement smoke bombs.

GOBBO: Yeah, like the… the gender reveal announcement smoke bombs, so they’re colored depending on the sex of the child. Okay, shall we do this thing? [laughs]

PLACZEK: [laughs] Yeah, let’s do it! Ready?

GOBBO: Ready!




ACTOR: You stand on a dock at the edge of the city, light the flares, and float them, one by one, out across the water.




ACTOR: Kids on bicycles stop to ask: What’s on fire?


ACTOR: Smoke unfurls over water, flows in along the streets. Crimson, carnelian, thick as paint. Swallowing buildings whole.


ACTOR: Look up.


ACTOR: A flock of snow geese glides from plume to plume. Their feathers flush cochineal, carmine, oxblood, claret. On the other side, they’re pale again. But you know. You saw.


ACTOR: The smoke will rise, and the city will return. So don’t miss your chance.


ACTOR: If the smoke is thick enough, climb it like a staircase. Hollow out a room inside. Draw smoke over your body like a blanket.


ACTOR: When you are ready to sleep, the smoke will change color. Soft heather grey, slate, and powder blue.


ACTOR: Smoke drifts around your face like snow. It feathers the sunset and swallows the moon. Lazuline, peacock, mauve, wine. In through your eyes, out through your mouth. Cobalt and sapphire. Waves of pure pigment. Billowing color. Cerulean, ultramarine. When you are ready, step down. Wake.


PLACZEK: That’s it for episode 3.

GOBBO: I’m Maddie Gobbo.

PLACZEK: And I’m Jessica Placzek.

GOBBO: For pictures of what we’ve been talking about, follow us on Instagram @rawmaterialpodcast.

PLACZEK: The music you heard before the fiction piece was by Bella Porter. The classical music was by Peter Rudenko. Everything else was composed by Elori Kramer. And our voice actor was Meredith Groves. We’re taking a long holiday break and will be back in January. To keep your ears busy until then, you should check out the other podcast I work on: Bay Curious. Coming up, you’ll learn about those colorful ponds in the San Francisco Bay, and what’s going to happen with pot legalization.

GOBBO: And if you liked hearing about powerful ladies this episode, you should check out Inflection Point. It’s hosted by Lauren Schiller. Coming up, she’s talking to Bonny Simi. Simi has accomplished most of her childhood goals, among them, becoming a TV commentator, a pilot, and an Olympian. Hear how she did it on Inflection Point.

PLACZEK: That’s it for this week. Thanks for listening.

GOBBO: Raw Material is a production of SFMOMA.


CHICAGO: You know, when you walk around New York City, nobody goes around saying, “Oh! Look at that! It’s a phallus! It’s a phallus! It’s a phallus! It’s a phallus! Oh, look at that phallus, it’s got a pointed top!” Nobody says that.

Raw Material Season 3: Landfall

Craving a West Coast road trip? Season 3 of Raw Material follows hosts Jessica Placzek and Madeline Gobbo as they explore hidden gems of California, including land-based art, immersive art environments, and even the little-known art history of Disneyland.