The Place Between, 2018. Metal slag, colored silica sand, and flame-worked borosilicate glass, 168 x 192 x 42 in. Photo: Courtesy Wenlu Bao

Shifting Sand: A Conversation with Connie Zehr

When Connie Zehr arrived in Southern California in the 1960s, she joined a loosely connected community of young artists whose experiments with unorthodox materials and environments defined what became known as the Light and Space movement. Caught up in new genres as diverse as Minimalism, earth art, Op Art, conceptual art, and feminism, Zehr responded to the freedom to upend old assumptions about how art is made, exhibited, codified, and commodified with minimal but complex installations. Primarily made from silica sand, these ephemeral works—briefly manifested and exhibited and then gone—reflected her philosophy about the evanescence of life and the wonder of experiencing it as human specks swept up in nature’s grand cycles.

Though the general public might easily lose track of such short-lived art, the art historical community does not. In 2021, Zehr’s art-related documents entered the Smithsonian Archives of American Art, and one of her best-known installations, Eggs (1972), was recently replicated in “Light & Space,” a sprawling exhibition at Copenhagen Contemporary. Rising above any particular style, Zehr has spent six decades making work from a deeply personal perspective, gently shaping the experience of feeling empowered and humbled in nature’s presence, while celebrating art as akin to life—a transient moment in time.

Joyce Beckenstein: What was it like moving to California back in the 1960s?
Connie Zehr:
As a child, I lived on my Amish grandfather’s farm in Indiana, prophetically called Sand Hill, and I later spent some time in India. When my husband, David Elder, and I—both of us sculptors—moved from the Midwest to Southern California, I found the eloquent traces of geological events on the vast Southwest desert. At the time, many Los Angeles-based artists—including Barry Le Va, Allen Ruppersberg, Robert Irwin, and Judy Chicago—were using a variety of materials in unusual ways . . .

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