In 1972 Michelle Stuart began working on a group of large-scale paper scrolls that incorporated frottage (a rubbing technique) with graphite to capture the uneven and unique topography of the earth’s surface. Stuart—who developed an interest in documenting the specificities of land formations while working as a topographical draftsman for the United States Army Corps of Engineers—has described her rubbing process as “making something manifest that you couldn’t really see otherwise.” The largest example from this group of works, Sayreville Strata Quartet (1976) presents the colors and textures of an abandoned brick quarry in Sayreville, New Jersey, on four panels of paper. Substituting graphite for samples from four layers of the quarry’s red soil, Stuart pressed the earth directly onto sheets of paper that were laid across the site to make this work. The panels show the soil’s gradations while capturing the quarry’s undulating surfaces.
Stuart’s monochrome rubbings of the 1970s simultaneously challenged the hard-edged aesthetic of Minimalist painting and its industrially manufactured materials, as well as the relationship between drawing and the artist’s hand. Moreover, breaking with the monumental scale of early Land art, these rubbings explore a physical connection to site and the product of memory.