The Spiral Jetty

On the shores of Utah's Great Salt Lake,
a long-vanished masterpiece has risen again. PETER FISH reports on the world's most famous submerged artwork

From the Rozel Point shoreline, you see a straggling line of black rocks extending into the waters of the Great Salt Lake, waters that shimmer from blue to unearthly rose depending on the turn of the wind. Climb higher up the point, watching for rattlers, and the line of rocks composes itself: a spiral coiling into the red lake water. It recalls a whirlpool, a chambered nautilus's whorls. It has been classed as a work of genius, as a hoax. Now, after decades of invisibility, Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty has risen to baffle and delight again.

A product of the 1960s, the movement known as Earth Art is hot in 2005. Near Nevada's Golden Gate Mountains, Michael Heizer is digging City, a labyrinthine construction of terraces burrowed into the desert dirt. In northern Arizona, James Turrell is creating Roden Crater. Like earlier earthworks―Walter De Maria's Lightning Field in New Mexico, Heizer's Double Negative in Nevada―City and Roden Crater are pieces of art fashioned by bulldozers instead of paintbrushes, with the canvas replaced by the landscape: specifically, the landscape of the American West.

But no earthwork is creating a bigger stir than one completed decades ago by an artist long dead. Underwater for more than 20 years, Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty has resurfaced. His brief but brilliant career is resurfacing too. A Smithson retrospective, organized by the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, has opened at New York's Whitney Museum. And Spiral Jetty is, well, almost a tourist attraction.

"I think he must be enjoying himself, wherever he is," says Hikmet Sidney Loe, a Salt Lake City art historian who collaborates with the Dia Art Foundation, the New York organization that now manages Spiral Jetty. "Everybody is paying homage to him."

Born in New Jersey, Smithson made a name for himself in New York circles while still in his 20s, with art that was at once scientific, deadpan, and bleak, such as his mock-heroic photo series, "The Monuments of Passaic." But like the others who converged in the Earth Art movement, Smithson wanted to work on a larger scale. Inevitably, he was drawn west.

"I think each of us had our own reasons for coming west," says Smithson's widow, artist Nancy Holt, who created her own earthwork, Sun Tunnels, in the desert west of the Great Salt Lake. But for all of the artists, the interior West's sheer size and relative emptiness were big draws: Here was the widest, blankest canvas one could find.

Smithson became fascinated by the Great Salt Lake. "He wanted salt," says Loe. "And water with red in it." The lake's northern third is so saline that only microorganisms and brine shrimp survive―these give the water a red cast. Smithson also wanted rocks: Rozel Point, on the lake's remote northern shore, was jagged with black volcanic basalt.

And so in 1970, Smithson showed up at the Parson Construction Company in Ogden, Utah, looking for a contractor. "He had long dark hair," says Bob Phillips, whom Smithson approached to do the job. "And big dark eyes that stared through you."

Smithson showed Phillips drawings of a spiral jetty, 15 feet wide, 1,500 feet long.

"I told him I'd get a bid on it," Phillips says. "I thought that would scare him away."

But it didn't. Smithson agreed to pay $6,000. Phillips hired four men to drive dump trucks and loaders and carry 6,650 tons of rocks from the shoreline into the lake to shape the jetty. Smithson oversaw the work, usually wielding a camera: The shots were incorporated into a film that would be part of the artwork. Phillips and his crew worked five days, with two extra days (and $3,000) added on a week later because Smithson wanted to reshape the spiral's center. And then the artist disappeared.

The artwork that Smithson and Phillips created would not be visible for long. Lacking any natural outlet, the Great Salt Lake swells and recedes, depending on rainfall. By 1973, after a few wet years, the rising lake submerged Spiral Jetty. Smithson, too, had a career shorter than anyone could imagine. He was surveying the site for a new art project when he died in a Texas plane crash in 1973.

Yet the reputation of the work and its artist endured. Within months of its construction, Spiral Jetty was world famous. Today there is hardly a college art-history textbook that does not contain a photograph of it. In death Smithson became the James Dean, the Kurt Cobain of Earth Art: The genius cut down too soon.

Now Spiral Jetty has reappeared. A six-year drought lowered the lake and the jetty resurfaced, first teasingly, then completely, and this summer―after heavy snow melt and rain―only partially again. But even partly submerged, the jetty looms large. "Earthworks are getting more recognition," says Eugenie Tsai, who curated the Whitney retrospective. "Part of it is the sheer ambition of the work. It's so unlike art you see in museums―tame art, on a pedestal."

Says Holt, "It's taken all this time for people to really comprehend what was new about Earth Art. There's a whole generation that has grown since we started our work. And they're having a fresh look."

As it happens, Smithson located his jetty very near another landmark: Golden Spike National Historic Site, where the Central Pacific and Union Pacific Railroads met to form the world's first transcontinental railroad in 1869. You can think of the railroad culverts and grades still visible here as examples of a more utilitarian kind of Earth Art.

Almost accidentally, the park's visitor center has become an information source for art lovers trying to locate Spiral Jetty. Chief ranger Melissa Cobern is a Spiral Jetty fan―"It's different every time you go out there"―but its new popularity still raises issues. To see it, you need to drive on dirt roads across private ranchland. And the jetty is showing signs of wear and tear after 35 years. Should it be rebuilt? Left to decay? What will happen when the lake inevitably reclaims it?

Still, for now, many Utahans―who were bemused by or ignorant of the jetty for decades―are enjoying its new renown. Loe says that when she gives talks on Smithson's art, her audiences seem proud that Utah possesses such a famous work, whether or not they actually like it.

And Bob Phillips still loves Spiral Jetty. He shows off photographs of it in his construction office; he remembers the first time he went out by himself to view the work he and Smithson had done.

"I thought, My word, that is beautiful," Phillips says. "The way the red water is against the black rocks and white foam. I had always built things that had to have a use. I had never built anything for the fun of it. Anything that was just beautiful."

The Spiral Jetty lies 32 miles west of Brigham City, Utah, and 15 miles south of Golden Spike National Historic Site.