Tired of Art

by Alec Mapes-Frances & Athena Washburn

published October 9, 2015

Robert Smithson, A Heap of Language, 1966

(Wikimedia Commons)

In response to the 1970s energy crisis, citizens around the US began collecting used tires, believing that the rubber rings could be melted down for their petroleum. These efforts, however, were largely thwarted by modern tire technology, which reinforced the tire's natural rubber with carbon black polymers and steel cords, rendering the petroleum unextractable. What was once thought to be “black gold” soon became an economic and environmental liability, with valueless, flammable, and toxic stockpiles blooming across the country. In Modesto, California, the peaks and dells of a former cattle ranch flooded with rippled black rubber. In Mora County, New Mexico, reams of car tires scarred the dusty arroyos. Provided below is a brief timeline of the Davis Tire Pile, located just north of Providence in Smithfield, Rhode Island. At its peak the Davis Pile ranked among the largest in the country dwarfing its aforementioned cousins in California and New Mexico.

1973 – William Davis begins accumulating used tires on his expansive Smithfield property, a mixed glacial deposit girded with second-growth forests and wetlands. The lot, previously purposed as a bee farm, receives a flood of used tires from gas stations, auto body shops, and recycling services in the greater Providence area.

1977 – Following the US government's passage of environmental legislation, the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM), the Rhode Island State Attorney General's office, and the US Environmental Protection Agency enter into what would become 20 years of continuous litigation with Davis.

1987 – Davis estimates that his lot now houses over 30 million used tires. The rolling hills of rubber blacken the landscape; vinyl chloride and chlorinated hydrocarbons seep into the wetlands, discoloring the surrounding lagoons. Pilots flying into Providence now use it as a landmark. Tracts of the Davis land are declared a superfund site and renamed the Davis Bulk Liquid Waste Site.

1989 – The Rhode Island legislation passes the Tire Storage Act, a law believed to singularly target the Davis Tire Pile, requiring specific licenses for storing and recycling tires. Davis refuses to comply.

1991 – The DEM adopts regulations based on National Fire Protection Association standards in an effort to prevent tire fires. The Davis lot is given one year to comply with these new standards. Rattlesnakes, finding the heat-retaining rings hospitable, now colonize portions of the pile.

1992 – The Rhode Island General Assembly, seeking to generate revenue to fund a cleanup of the state's tire piles, levies a 75-cent tax on all new tires sold.

1992 – The DEM develops a fire response plan for the Davis Tire Pile and, with the State Attorney General, files suit to force Davis to remove the tires from his property.

1994 – After several armed standoffs, William Davis consents to the order, and begins to remove the used tires, selling them to Oxford Industry Company, which incinerates the tires for energy. This energy will later be used in the production of cement and wood pulp.

1995 – After removing nearly a million tires from his property over the previous year, Davis ceases the cleanup, claiming that new government regulation and the suspension of Oxford's tire incineration service rendered the process financially unfeasible.

1997 – Under a contract with the Environmental Defense Center (EDC), the DEM begins removing tires from the Davis land. These tires are now sent to a garbage recycling service, BFI, in New Hampshire, where they are used for landfill closure cover.

1997 – Under a separate contract, United Technology Incorporated removes almost 1.5 million tires from the portion of William Davis's land that had been deemed a superfund.

1997 – Over one million dollars, raised from the 1992 tire tax, are transferred from the EDC to the DEM, which increases efforts to clear the Davis Tire Pile. In addition to these funds, the DEM also receives support from the state's Oil Spill Prevention, Administration, and Response Fund.

1999 – The recycling service Casella Tires of Elliot, Maine, signs a contract with the state of Rhode Island to remove tires from the Davis lot at $78 a ton. Over the following year, Casella will shred and dispose of over 3 million tires.

2000 – The Davis Tire Plot is deemed clear by the DEM on December 20, with the last truckload of tires carted away. Deep gullies now run across the land—the extend to which carcinogens and other toxins have permeated the surface remains unclear.

2010 – The EPA files a report on the Davis land citing the need for renewed efforts to detoxify the surrounding wetlands, calling for “in-situ chemical and enhanced biodegradation to address contaminated groundwater.”

Allan Kaprow, Yard (1961), courtesy Hauser & Wirth Gallery

(Wikimedia Commons)


“I am for an art that takes its form from the lines of life itself, that twists and extends and accumulates and spits and drips, and is heavy and coarse and blunt and sweet and stupid as life itself.”

—Claes Oldenburg, “I Am For An Art,” 1961


In May and June of 1961, hundreds of tires filled the courtyard of the Martha Jackson Gallery on New York's Upper East Side. At least five layers deep, the tires formed peaks and valleys, stretching from wall to wall. There had been figurative sculptures in the yard, permanently installed; these were wrapped in black tar paper for the occasion. Visitors were encouraged to climb on the tires, throw them, and move them where they pleased. “Environments, Situations, Spaces” was the title of the show, and it featured six artists: George Brecht, Claes Oldenburg, Jim Dine, Walter Gaudnek, Robert Whitman, and Allan Kaprow. The tires were Kaprow's; simply entitled Yard, they functioned as the centerpiece of an exhibition regarded by one critic as an “invasion” of the “terrible children” and their “noncommercial commodities.” Jill Johnston’s bemused Village Voice review, a month later, read: “I don’t know what [gallerist] Miss Jackson thought about those tires. I didn’t think much myself, I mean I perceived a bunch of tires there in the yard and then asked my son if he wanted to stay and play around in them while I went upstairs to see the rest.” Widely disliked at the time, the show, in retrospect, was an art-historical landmark—a foreshadowing of the Pop, Fluxus, and Conceptualist currents that would emerge in the mid-to-late ‘60s.

The copious tires registered as a kind of all-American messiness, a rejection of the grave, Modernist sacrality latent in the Abstract Expressionists (Mark Rothko’s chapel paintings, Barnett Newman’s obelisk, Robert Motherwell’s black elegies, etc.). Of many AbEx reference points, the most important was Jackson Pollock, whose “Action Paintings" traced an effusive, full-bodied performativity. But, for Kaprow, Pollock didn't go far enough. Tied to the intentionality of an individual author, Pollock’s gestures reinscribed into his objects a quasi-Romantic cult-value, a chronic European contagion. Kaprow's work, on the other hand, sought to pull Pollock's gestures away from their wall-mounted canvases and fling them into the world. His would be a kind of anti-art, an art-like activity carried out without 'doing art' as such, without 'producing culture.' He at first called his projects “Environments,” indicating temporary but major modifications of spaces, and later began using the term “Happenings” to denote more ephemeral, ritual-like events. “Forget all the standard art forms,” Kaprow urged in a recorded 1966 lecture called  “How to Make a Happening.”  “Don't paint pictures, don't make poetry, don't build architecture, don't arrange dances, don't write plays, don't compose music, don't make movies, and above all don't think you'll get a happening by putting all these together...The point is to make something new, something that doesn't even remotely remind you of culture.” The excessive materials used in Environments and Happenings were mostly indistinguishable from junk, and the procedures emphasized a certain orgiastic abjection. bodies were primary, as per Kaprow's descriptions in How to Make a Happening. These weren't the classical bodies of Art, imaged and proportioned, but real bodies—​multiplicities that smelled, ate, swam, fucked, and licked jam off cars.

The most experimental circles in Kaprow's New York were similarly invested in the avant-garde tradition of disposing with culture, a tradition inherited from 20th century European sources like the Dadaists and Marcel Duchamp. A rich scene had developed around Black Mountain College, a progressive art school in North Carolina, whose faculty and alumni included composer John Cage, choreographer Merce Cunningham, and painter Robert Rauschenberg. The Black Mountain group heavily influenced Cage's 1957-1959 "Experimental Composition" classes at the New School in New York, which effectively birthed the anarchic, anti-art approach known as Fluxus. “Anti-art is life, is nature, is true reality—it is one and all,” Fluxus ringleader George Macunias declared in 1962, while Robert Filliou, another Fluxus artist, quipped that “art is what makes life more interesting than art.”

Certainly, a kind of problematic naturalism permeated this thinking. The aim was to be “nature” or “life,” unpredictable and uncontainable—both institutionally and physically. These artists took for granted a Great Outdoors, a pure, uncolonized 'lifeworld' untouched by art’s shock troops. Accordingly, Fluxus events and Happenings were frequently staged in spaces that weren’t ‘cultural,’ that hadn’t been demarcated as places where art was expected to occur. They were neither spectacles nor performances, but collective, anti-hierarchical activities. There were no audiences separate from the participants themselves. There were no concert hall or theatre architectures, with their politics of stage and floor, nor even gallery architectures and their ideological “white cube” fictions of neutrality and cleanliness.

For the avant-garde, the next step would be to do away with architecture, that technology of cultural power, altogether; this would be most strikingly realized in the late ‘60s, in the “non-sites” and “earth-works” of Conceptual and Land artists. Claes Oldenburg made “anti-monuments” by excavating public parks (Placid Civic Monument, or , 1967). Michael Heizer dug “negative sculptures” in Nevada desert mesas (Double Negative, 1969). Gordon Matta-Clark painstakingly sliced up houses (the Anarchitecture projects, 1970-1976). Robert Smithson created geoglyphs and other geographical interventions (Spiral Jetty, 1970, or Yucatan Mirror Displacements (1-9), 1969). And so the built world along with the earth itself became a medium for a generation of contemporary American artists, who insisted that art had now finally outgrown the white rooms and the well-dressed, well-educated professionals who’d previously policed its boundaries. It goes without saying that even here, amid the anti-institutional bluster,

Styrene-butadiene (Wikimedia Commons)

the institutional supremacy of straight white masculinity persisted. Moreover, capital found new forms of abstraction. Smithson’s rubble was brought back within the gallery walls and Kaprow’s sketches reached astronomical prices at auction; the compulsion
to fetishize and commodify the artistic gesture was undisturbed (and perhaps even redoubled) by these new “practices.” A heap of dirt, an accumulation of stones, a field of bricks: leitmotifs of an art that had tried to exit itself, and found that there was no outside.


Make it unsure even to yourself if the happening is life or art. Art has always been different from the world's affairs, now you've got to work hard to keep it all blurry. Two cars collide on a highway. Violet liquid pours out of the broken radiator of one of them, and in the back seat of the other there is a huge load of dead chickens that is spilling out all over the ground. The cops check it out, plausible answers are given, tow trucks carry off the wrecks costs are paid and the drivers go home to dinner.

—Allan Kaprow, "How to Make a Happening," 1966


Black highway painted black, tick tick of yellow bands. Such a strange zebra skinned on the asphalt. Low growl of the tires on the belly of a huge machine, their rubber-patterned surface grooved so they sing deep like that, so rain sprays out like that. Spin so fast they look like perfect circles on the slick skin of the road.

Where did the tire come from? A clue in the code stamped on the surface, this one is DOT J3J9 1001, useful in recall. 

Michael Heizer, Complex City (1972)

On Wikipedia, someone says, “the last four numbers represent the week and year the tire was built. A three-digit code was used for tires manufactured before 2000. For example, 178 means it was manufactured in the 17th week of the 8th year of the decade. In this case it means 1988. For tires manufactured in the 1990s, the same code holds true, but there is a little triangle (∆) after the DOT code. Thus, a tire manufactured in the 17th week of 1998 would have the code 178∆. In 2000, the code was switched to a 4-digit code.”

Born in the tenth week of the year 2001 under the hot gaze of a 90 watt. Pushed from the churning womb of the manufacturer mother to the slick roads of national father. Evidence of birthplace: serial number molded into the sidewall. Roots can be easily traced in case of malfunction. 

Farther, farther, the tire spins backwards, flattened back into sheets, rolled back into masses. The ancestry of the tire in steel and polyaramid, butyl rubber, natural rubber, butadiene rubber, carbon black, silica, ancient substances pulled from the body of the earth, extracted, displaced. Now the stuff of deep-time mobilizes, paints car wheels black and fuels them forward. Tires made of fossils and carbon, ancient life. In the spin of the wheels linear history realizes its other sides, thickens to a stack. The tire breaks down and excavated time leaks back down through the earth, contaminating the present with distillations of the past.

Car swerves on the roadside. Windshield blind in a stiff slpatter of rain. Tire skids. Time runs backwards. The man inside slams on the brakes.

While the driver blinks in his seat, gasping with the jellyfish airbags by his cheeks, the events of his life skitter behind his lucky shocked face. Later that night he sighs slightly bruised into his armchair at home, watches his son construct a zoo on his computer. In under the screen, unobserved strange precious metals copper and coltan conduct energy with incredible speed. They guide numbers into the image of a zebra pawing at the ground. Within the coltan, the story of immense movement across space and time. Locked in its geometry, memories of a mining operation that altered the habitat of a zebra, pushed it farther so that its striped image could be manipulated on the screen. The immaterial's material shadow. A few years pass, the model's outdated, parts sent to China, heaped on huge cargo ships, transferred to large trucks. Forward, backward, huge wheels spin, guiding material from idea back to itself. This screen, that tire, this concept, those places, heaped time.