SELECTED ARTICLES/REVIEWS/ESSAYS ABOUT ROBERT SMITHSON|
The Salt of the Earth
By MELISSA SANFORD
Published: January 13, 2004
ALT LAKE CITY, Jan. 12 — For nearly three decades Robert Smithson's "Spiral
underwater in the Great Salt Lake. Since 1999, as drought has lowered the water
level, this famous American earth sculpture — a 1,500-foot coil of black basalt
rocks — has slowly re-emerged. Now it is completely exposed; the rocks encrusted
with white salt crystals are surrounded by shallow pink water in what looks like
a vast snow field.
In 1970, when Smithson built the "Jetty," which is considered his masterpiece,
the giant black coil contrasted starkly with the dark pink water of the lake.
But time and nature have left their marks.
Thousands of people have visited this once-elusive artwork while an argument
is brewing 2,000 miles away about whether to leave it as is or restore it.
"The spiral is not as dramatic as when it was first built," said Michael Govan,
the director of the Dia Art Foundation in New York City, which owns the work. "The
`Jetty' is being submerged in a sea of salt."
To ensure that "Spiral Jetty" is accessible to future generations, Dia, which
exhibits and preserves art made since the 1960's, has discussed raising it by
adding more rocks. Dia is also studying whether nature will restore the contrast
the "Jetty" originally had with its surroundings by dissolving some of the salt
crystals when the lake's waters rise, or whether the foundation needs to do something
But the idea of doing anything to this artwork worries some people. And the intentions
of the artist, who died in a plane crash at 35 in 1973, are not clear.
"When refurbishing earthworks, you don't want to create a Tussaud's wax sculpture," said
Robert Storr, a former senior curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York
and a professor at the New York University Institute of Fine Arts. "Earthworks
were not made to last forever. There is a danger when restoring them to make
a more perfect thing than was originally done."
Smithson built "Spiral Jetty" in the country's saltiest lake. He chose a site
called Rozel Point on the northeast shore because he liked the dark pink color
of the water, an effect that results primarily from bacteria and algae that grow
Rozel Point is about 100 miles northwest of Salt Lake City, on state-owned land
accessible by a 15-mile dirt road with giant potholes that can trap small cars;
four-wheel drive is recommended. Smithson's estate donated "Spiral Jetty" to
Dia in 1999 when the piece was first emerging.
"The trip to see the artwork brings people to a place they would not normally
experience," said Nancy Holt, Smithson's widow and executor, who lives in New
Mexico. "The `Jetty' is a vortex that draws in everything in the landscape around
Smithson built the spiral out of black basalt rocks taken from the shore and
arranged them to a height just above the surface of the water so people could
walk on the earthwork as if on a pier.
He was one of a number of artists in the 1960's and early 70's who chose to build
site-specific pieces outdoors in the West, far from the commercialism of art
galleries. Ms. Holt, also an earthwork artist, built a piece called "Sun Tunnels" near
the abandoned town of Lucin, Utah, in a remote area near the Nevada border. Smithson
in particular was intrigued by the idea of entropy, the inevitable disintegration
of all objects in nature. But there is no definitive record of how he felt about
the disintegration of his own artworks.
Just before his death he hinted at his beliefs in an interview with Moira Roth,
chairwoman of the art department at Mills College in Oakland, Calif. The complete
text of the interview is to be printed in the catalog accompanying a Smithson
retrospective opening in September at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles.
(It will travel to the Dallas Museum of Art and the Whitney Museum of American
Art in New York in 2005.) In the interview he said "Spiral Jetty" was strong
enough to take care of itself, adding, "Because it's 80 percent rock, it won't
erode completely." Later in the conversation he said he planned for his pieces
to be permanent and seemed to say he wanted them preserved. Ms. Holt said she
agreeds with this interpretation.
When Smithson set out to build "Spiral Jetty" in 1970, he hired a contractor
and another worker who used two dump trucks, a tractor and a large front-loader
to move 6,650 tons of rock and earth from the shore into the water. At 1,500
feet long, the giant spiral is large enough to be seen in photographs taken from
space. Finding a contractor willing to build a giant artwork in such a remote
spot was a challenge. Many Utah contractors were suspicious of a New York artist
who wore black leather pants in the middle of summer, said Bob Phillips, the
contractor from Ogden, Utah, who finally signed on to help Smithson move rocks
into the lake.
"Man, his ideas sounded really strange," Mr. Phillips said. "I'd never heard
about anything like earth art before."
But he quickly understood that Mr. Smithson was an extraordinarily successful
artist. An entourage watched the construction of the sculpture over six days.
Helicopters flew over their heads. A film crew recorded their progress. Mr. Phillips
said Smithson had a precise vision for the project and supervised every step,
making sure individual rocks fell in the right spots.
"He would raise each rock up and roll it around, then he would move this one,
change that one until it looked exactly right," Mr. Phillips said. "He wanted
it to look like it was a growing, living thing, coming out of the center of the
At the time the Great Salt Lake was unusually shallow because of a drought. Ms.
Holt said that after the water level went up, her husband talked about adding
rocks to make his work more visible. Over time glistening white salt crystals
encrusted the black rocks. The crystals accumulated all around the jetty, turning
the whole area a glaring white. "He liked that the work was strong enough that
it could survive these natural changes," Ms. Holt said. "He loved that these
natural processes can be seen."
The drought in the West — which has been going on since 1999 — has brought the
earthwork more attention than it has received in decades.
"We have people come in all the time and ask where the `Spiral Jetty' is," said
Noel Christensen, who works at the nearest gas station, 30 miles away, and took
her four children there to show them Rozel Point one day late last summer.
Over the summer visitors came from as far away as France and Italy to make pilgrimages
to the "Jetty." One day in September a family of five was floating in the lake's
salty waters just off the rocks. Two men from Salt Lake City walked to the center
of the spiral as their Labrador retrievers splashed in the water.
But all these visitors could ruin "Spiral Jetty," said Hikmet Loe, a Salt Lake
City librarian who wrote her master's thesis on the earthwork and continues to
stay in close contact with Dia and Ms. Holt. Because the lake is so shallow and
there has been so much salt buildup, people and animals can run between the coils
instead of staying on the part Smithson intended for walking. Ms. Loe said she
would like to see Dia preserve the earthwork.
"If people are walking across the spiral and kicking up rocks, the shape of the
piece will start to erode," she said.
For years Dia has cared for other major earthworks like Walter De Maria's "Lightning
Field," an installation of 400 metal rods in the high desert of southwestern
New Mexico, as well as some smaller Smithson works. But foundation officials
say making "Spiral Jetty" more accessible is especially complicated.
"We started surveying the land area, mapped out the size of the piece and its
height to see if there's anything we need to do to restore it," Mr. Govan said.
Anything the foundation does will be in close consultation with Ms. Holt, he
Wally Gwynn, a Utah geologist and editor of "Great Salt Lake: An Overview of
Change," which was published by the state Department of Natural Resources in
2002 and which discusses "Spiral Jetty," said the earthwork would be submerged
again as soon as Utah's drought ends. But he is not sure it is necessary to make
the jetty more accessible.
"It has as much mystique underwater as it does when it is exposed," he said. "It's
kind of like Nessie, the Loch Ness Monster. We know it's there, even if we can't
Mr. Phillips, the contractor, who was initially suspicious of Smithson's plans,
is now one of the earthwork's biggest fans. While the jetty was submerged, he
said, he even considered adding rock to it himself. But he decided it would be
wrong to alter the piece in any way without Smithson to supervise the project.
"Smithson had something to do with every rock out there," Mr. Phillips said. "It
would not be the same thing if somebody else monkeyed around with it. It would
no longer be Smithson's work."
SELECTED ARTICLES/REVIEWS/ESSAYS ABOUT ROBERT SMITHSON
Robert Smithson's Drawings, by Carter Ratcliff, 1962, © 2000, Art on Paper
A Heap of Language: Robert Smithson and American Hieroglyphic,
by Richard Sieburth, Professor of French and Comparative Literature, New York University,
From a talk on November 18, 1999
The Salt of the Earth, By MELISSA SANFORD, Published: January 13, 2004
Yucatan is Elsewhere, On Robert Smithson's Hotel Palenque
(First printed in Parkett 43, 1995, page. 133)
Sculpture From the Earth, But Never Limited by
It By MICHAEL KIMMELMAN, New York Times, June 24, 2005
Setting Sights on an American Visionary
BY DANIEL KUNITZ, New York Sun, June 23, 2005
The Whitney brings a little of
Robert Smithson’s outward-looking art back into the white box.
By Mark Stevens , New York Magazine
IKONS by Katy Siegel