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 ofblack rocks extending into the waters of the Great Salt Lake,waters that shimmer from blue to unearthly rose depending on theturn of the wind. Climb higher up the point, watching for rattlers,and the line of rocks composes itself: a spiral coiling into thered lake water. It recalls a whirlpool, a chambered nautilus’swhorls. 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 delightagain.
A product of the 1960s, the movement known as Earth Art is hotin 2005. Near Nevada’s Golden Gate Mountains, Michael Heizer isdigging City, a labyrinthine construction of terraces burrowed intothe desert dirt. In northern Arizona, James Turrell is creating Roden Crater. Like earlier earthworks―Walter DeMaria’s Lightning Field in New Mexico, Heizer’s Double Negative in Nevada―City and Roden Crater are pieces of art fashioned by bulldozersinstead 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 completeddecades ago by an artist long dead. Underwater for more than 20years, Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty has resurfaced. His brief but brilliant careeris resurfacing too. A Smithson retrospective, organized by the LosAngeles Museum of Contemporary Art, has opened at New York’sWhitney Museum. And Spiral Jetty is, well, almost a tourist attraction.
“I think he must be enjoying himself, wherever he is,” saysHikmet Sidney Loe, a Salt Lake City art historian who collaborateswith the Dia Art Foundation, the New York organization that nowmanages Spiral Jetty. “Everybody is paying homage to him.”
Born in New Jersey, Smithson made a name for himself in New Yorkcircles while still in his 20s, with art that was at oncescientific, deadpan, and bleak, such as his mock-heroic photoseries, “The Monuments of Passaic.” But like the others whoconverged in the Earth Art movement, Smithson wanted to work on alarger scale. Inevitably, he was drawn west.
“I think each of us had our own reasons for coming west,” saysSmithson’s widow, artist Nancy Holt, who created her own earthwork,Sun Tunnels, in the desert west of the Great Salt Lake. But for allof the artists, the interior West’s sheer size and relativeemptiness were big draws: Here was the widest, blankest canvas onecould find.
Smithson became fascinated by the Great Salt Lake. “He wantedsalt,” says Loe. “And water with red in it.” The lake’s northernthird is so saline that only microorganisms and brine shrimpsurvive―these give the water a red cast. Smithson also wantedrocks: Rozel Point, on the lake’s remote northern shore, was jaggedwith black volcanic basalt.
And so in 1970, Smithson showed up at the Parson ConstructionCompany in Ogden, Utah, looking for a contractor. “He had long darkhair,” 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 feetwide, 1,500 feet long.
“I told him I’d get a bid on it,” Phillips says. “I thought thatwould scare him away.”
But it didn’t. Smithson agreed to pay $6,000. Phillips hiredfour men to drive dump trucks and loaders and carry 6,650 tons ofrocks from the shoreline into the lake to shape the jetty. Smithsonoversaw the work, usually wielding a camera: The shots wereincorporated 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 reshapethe spiral’s center. And then the artist disappeared.
The artwork that Smithson and Phillips created would not bevisible for long. Lacking any natural outlet, the Great Salt Lakeswells and recedes, depending on rainfall. By 1973, after a few wetyears, the rising lake submerged Spiral Jetty. Smithson, too, had a career shorter thananyone could imagine. He was surveying the site for a new artproject when he died in a Texas plane crash in 1973.
Yet the reputation of the work and its artist endured. Withinmonths of its construction, Spiral Jetty was world famous. Today there is hardly acollege art-history textbook that does not contain a photograph ofit. In death Smithson became the James Dean, the Kurt Cobain ofEarth Art: The genius cut down too soon.
Now Spiral Jetty has reappeared. A six-year drought lowered thelake and the jetty resurfaced, first teasingly, then completely,and this summer―after heavy snow melt and rain―onlypartially again. But even partly submerged, the jetty looms large.”Earthworks are getting more recognition,” says Eugenie Tsai, whocurated the Whitney retrospective. “Part of it is the sheerambition of the work. It’s so unlike art you see inmuseums―tame art, on a pedestal.”
Says Holt, “It’s taken all this time for people to reallycomprehend what was new about Earth Art. There’s a whole generationthat has grown since we started our work. And they’re having afresh look.”
As it happens, Smithson located his jetty very near anotherlandmark: Golden Spike National Historic Site, where the CentralPacific and Union Pacific Railroads met to form the world’s firsttranscontinental railroad in 1869. You can think of the railroadculverts and grades still visible here as examples of a moreutilitarian kind of Earth Art.
Almost accidentally, the park’s visitor center has become aninformation 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 outthere”―but its new popularity still raises issues. To see it,you need to drive on dirt roads across private ranchland. And thejetty is showing signs of wear and tear after 35 years. Should itbe rebuilt? Left to decay? What will happen when the lakeinevitably reclaims it?
Still, for now, many Utahans―who were bemused by orignorant of the jetty for decades―are enjoying its newrenown. Loe says that when she gives talks on Smithson’s art, heraudiences 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 hisconstruction office; he remembers the first time he went out byhimself to view the work he and Smithson had done.
“I thought, My word, that is beautiful,” Phillips says. “The waythe red water is against the black rocks and white foam. I hadalways built things that had to have a use. I had never builtanything 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 ofGolden Spike National Historic Site.