Site-Specific Art 

Site-Specific Art 

What is Site-Specific Art?

The term Site-Specific art is commonly used in the field of Contemporary Arts to indicate a type of artistic intervention specifically conceived for a precise location and that interacts with it. When designing a Site-Specific artwork, the artist pays particular attention to the spatial aspects of the chosen place. The work is usually created exclusively to fit into that environment and its identity is strongly intertwined with the setting, which may be urban, rural, or even the hall of a museum or an art gallery.

The compound adjective Site-Specific, which highlights the interdependence between the artwork and the place in which it is sited, was initially used by young sculptors of the mid-1970s, like Lloyd Hamrol and Athena Tacha, which executed public urban commissions. It was also largely promoted by the Californian artist Robert Irwin, which experimented with Installation Art in the 70s. However, the term Site-Specific Art was officially used to identify a new art form in 1977 by the architectural critic Catherine Howett (in “New Directions in Environmental Art,” Landscape Architecture, Jan. 1977) and by the art critic Lucy Lippard (in “Art Outdoors, In and Out of the Public Domain,” Studio International, March-April 1977).

Examples of Site-Specific Artworks


History of Site-Specific Art

An installation, sculpture, or generally a work of art is defined as site-specific when it is conceived in direct relation to the space where it is realized. Site-specific artworks are created in urban and public spaces, landscapes, or natural environments (in this regard, the link with land art is close), buildings but also specifically realized for museums and galleries.

This artistic tendency began to take hold in the 1960s and it spread internationally, although it was particularly relevant in the United States. Site-specific art was born as a contrasting response to the conception of the art object strongly marked by pure Modernism. The concept of site-specific art rejected the Modernist idea of the work of art as a transportable, modifiable, decorative object. On the contrary, it proposed the idea of the artwork as inseparably linked to its surroundings, a unique combination of art and the physical elements that characterize its site (shapes, walls, light, space, for example), and for this reason irremovable from its location. Artists increasingly showed their interest in the context, spaces, and experience of making art, not merely in the autonomy of the art object, and they also rejected a commercialized and reductive idea of art.

The earliest examples of Site-Specific Art are, for instance, Claes Oldenburg’s Batcolumn, in Chicago (1977), a baseball bat which highlighted the link of the city to this sport but also police violence, and the extremely controversial Tilted Arc, installed by Richard Serra in 1981 in a plaza in Lower Manhattan. Tilted Arc, for its position which obstructed the sun and the view, was harshly publicly criticized and therefore removed a few years later. The artist asked the work to be destroyed because removed from its intended site, highlighting the site-specific meaning of the installation. Another pioneer of Site-Specific art is Kurt Schwitters.

Site-Specific artworks can be set in public places of the city, like Richard Serra’s one, or the natural environment, as the popular ones realized by Christo and Jeanne-Claude or Robert Smithson. Another kind of site-specific art includes artworks installed in museums and art spaces, like Daniel Buren, Olafur Eliasson, James Turrell, and Dan Flavin ones, which in certain cases combine the site-specific idea with other conceptual tendencies, like Minimalism. There are also site-specific artworks which have been realized specifically in the museum space as a critique of the constrictions and authoritative role of the institution, as it happened in the 60s and the 70s with Michael Asher’s installations in Claire Copley Gallery of Los Angeles, or Hans Haacke’s and Mierle Laderman Ukeles’ practices. Furthermore, among the great European movements of the second half of the 20th century, Arte Povera also produced numerous works in situ in Italy, in particular, Jannis Kounellis who exhorted to ​​”getting out of the painting”.

At present, Site-Specific art practices are particularly spread with architectural projects conceived also for spaces that are not museums. The definition has extended more globally to that of Environmental Art, including spaces that involve the visitor interactively and relationally.

Notable Site-Specific Artists

  • Richard Serra (born November 2, 1938), American
  • Robert W. Irwin (born September 12, 1928), American
  • Christo Vladimirov Javacheff (1935–2020) and Jeanne-Claude Denat de Guillebon (1935–2009), known as Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Bulgarian and Moroccan
  • Robert Smithson (January 2, 1938 – July 20, 1973), American
  • Daniel Buren (born 25 March 1938), French
  • Dan Flavin (April 1, 1933 – November 29, 1996), American
  • Solomon “Sol” LeWitt (September 9, 1928 – April 8, 2007), American
  • Walter Joseph De Maria (October 1, 1935 – July 25, 2013), American
  • James Turrell (born May 6, 1943), American
  • Jannis Kounellis (23 March 1936 – 16 February 2017), Greek


Related Terms

About Cinzia Franceschini

Cinzia Franceschini is an Italian Art Historian specializing in the History of Art Criticism, with a second degree in Communications and Sociology studies. She studied in Padua, Brussels, Turin as well as anywhere with an Internet connection. She works as a guide in Museum Education Departments and as a Freelance Writer. She writes about Contemporary Arts and Social Sciences, and how they intertwine.