Spiral Jetty Essay By Robert Smithson

"I am for an art that takes into account the direct effect of the elements as they exist from day to day apart from representation."


Although Robert Smithson died at the age of only 35, his short career has inspired more young artists than most among the generation that emerged in the 1960s. A formidable writer and critic as well as an artist, his interests ranged from Catholicism to mineralogy to science fiction. His earliest pieces were paintings and collages, but he soon came to focus on sculpture; he responded to the Minimalism and Conceptualism of the early 1960s and he started to expand his work out of galleries and into the landscape. In 1970, he produced the Earthwork, or Land art, for which he is best known, Spiral Jetty, a remarkable coil of rock composed in the colored waters of the shore of the Great Salt Lake in Utah. In 1973, he died in an aircraft accident when he was surveying the site for another Earthwork in Texas.

Key Ideas

Smithson is one of the most influential artists of the diverse generation that emerged in the wake of Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism, known as the Post-Minimalists. Although inspired by Minimalism's use of industrial materials and interest in the viewer's experience of the space around the art object (as much as the object itself), the Post-Minimalists sought to abandon even more aspects of traditional sculpture. Smithson's approaches are typical of this group; he constructed sculptures from scattered materials, he found ways to confuse the viewer's understanding of sculpture (often by using mirrors or confusing scales), and his work sometimes referred to sites and objects outside of the gallery, leading the viewer to question where the art object really resided.

Much of Smithson's output was shaped by his interest in the concept of entropy, the second law of thermodynamics that predicts the eventual exhaustion and collapse of any given system. His interest in geology and mineralogy confirmed this law to him, since in rocks and rubble he saw evidence of how the earth slows and cools. But the idea also informed his outlook on culture and civilization more generally; his famous essay Entropy and the New Monuments (1969) draws analogies between the quarries and the strip malls and tract housing of New Jersey, suggesting that ultimately the later will also perish and return to rubble.

Smithson's concepts of Site and Nonsite - the former being a location outside the gallery, the latter being a body of objects and documentation inside the gallery - were important contributions to the body of ideas surrounding Land art in the 1960s. His discussion of monuments and ruins in his writing also helped many to think about the purpose art might have in the landscape, after the demise of the tradition of commemorative public sculpture.

Most Important Art

Spiral Jetty (1970)

The northern section of the Great Salt Lake, where Smithson chose to site Spiral Jetty, was cut off from fresh water supplies when a nearby causeway was constructed by the Southern Pacific Railroad in 1959. This encouraged the water's unique red-violet coloration, because it produced a concentration of salt-tolerant bacteria and algae. Smithson particularly liked the combination of colors because it evoked a ruined and polluted sci-fi landscape. And, by inserting the Jetty into this damaged section, and using entirely natural materials native to the area, Smithson called attention to environmental blight. Nevertheless, he also sought to reference the importance of time in eroding and transforming our environment. The coiling structure of the piece was inspired by the growth patterns of crystals, yet it also resembles a primeval symbol, making the landscape seem ancient, even while it also looks futuristic.

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Robert Smithson Artworks in Focus:

Robert Smithson Overview Continues Below



Robert Smithson expressed a profound interest in the arts from an early age. While still attending high school in Clifton, New Jersey, during the mid 1950s, he attended art classes on the side in New York City. For two years, he was enrolled at The Art Students League in New York and, for a briefer period, at The Brooklyn Museum School.

Through his studies and training, Smithson became fascinated with the Abstract Expressionists, in particular with David Smith, Tony Smith, Jackson Pollock, and Morris Louis. Later in his career, Smithson said that he found David Smith's sculpture particularly captivating for its use of unnatural materials (i.e. steel) that were altered by time and natural elements (i.e. rust, decay, and discoloring). Several years before Smithson expressed any interest in Minimalism, Conceptual art, and working with the natural environment, the young artist was drawing, painting, and making collages.

Early Training

In the late 1950s, Smithson was noticed by art dealer Virginia Dwan and granted his first solo show at the Artists' Gallery in 1959. At this time, Smithson's paintings, drawings, and collages (he had yet to begin sculpting) drew in part on Abstract Expressionism; his works were multimedia, but were still two-dimensional artworks made using gouache, crayon, pencil, and photography.

Through his connection with Dwan, Smithson was introduced to several key artists and sculptors who were pioneering the Minimalist art movement of the early-1960s, including Carl Andre, Donald Judd, Robert Morris, Claes Oldenburg, and Smithson's soon-to-be wife, Nancy Holt. Holt and Smithson married in 1963. The formation of these friendships would mark a significant turning point in Smithson's career.

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Robert Smithson Biography Continues

The collages he produced in the early-1960s, including Untitled (Tear) (1961-63), Untitled (Conch Shell, Spaceship and World Land Mass) (1961-63), and Algae (c. 1962), were still very much in keeping with an abstract and expressionist aesthetic, but they clearly suggest the artist's growing fascination with the earth as an inspirational resource and his concern with themes of permanence, natural and unnatural materials, and site-specific art.

By 1964, Smithson had taken up sculpture, inspired in large part by the Minimalism that was coming into vogue. It was clear from the beginning, however, that Smithson was not entirely comfortable confining himself and his work to the studio. Throughout the mid-1960s, he made several trips to New Jersey to visit quarries and industrial wastelands. He also paid several visits to the American West and Southwest, sparking in him an interest in deserts and sprawling tracts of land that appear unblemished by human intervention.

Mature Period

Smithson's sculptures of the mid 1960s maintain a strong resemblance to the Minimalist installations of Donald Judd, Carl Andre, Sol LeWitt, and Robert Morris. Painted steel works such as Plunge (1966), Alogon #2 (1966), and Terminal (1966), employed industrial materials, geometric forms, and a restricted palette. They were built indoors and intended for indoor display.

By 1967, Smithson was focused on two peculiar forms of sculpture, Sites and Non-sites, using mirrors and natural materials to create a new form of three-dimensional work. For his Sites projects, Smithson made several trips to New Jersey, Mexico, England, and West Germany, among other places, often accompanied by his wife Nancy Holt and dealer Virginia Dwan. While at these chosen sites (barren wastelands, salt flats, and wooded areas), Smithson placed a series of mirrors in natural settings and photographed the newly altered landscapes. The results created an effect of beauty and unease at having inserted such blatantly unnatural materials into an untouched setting.

For his Non-sites, Smithson situated mirrored surfaces into the corner or center of a room, in effect creating virtual doorways. Contrasting with these mirrors were the natural materials Smithson had scavenged from his trips, including mica, essen soil, red sandstone, limestone, sand, gravel, and other materials. Many of these Non-site projects would directly mirror his Sites, as in the case of Chalk Mirror Displacement (1969), a single work located in two different locales: its original quarry site in Oxted, England (Site), and later in the gallery space (Non-site). What made the Sites/Non-sites such a unique artistic endeavor was that Smithson was first altering the landscape, and then bringing the exhibition materials from the site in the gallery.

Simultaneous with Smithson's production of Sites/Non-sites, the artist was also creating a series of works called Photo-Markers (1968), which were in many ways the direct opposite of Sites/Non-sites. Photo-Markers also explored the effects of human intervention into the natural landscape, but applied a very different methodology. Smithson would photograph specific sites, enlarge the images, and place these enlargements into the physical landscapes they depicted. He then re-photographed the landscapes, creating an odd juxtaposition of the natural and the reproduced in the same shot - as if nature were referencing itself.

Smithson's first fully-fledged Earthworks were little more than preliminary sketches: site-specific proposals that existed only on paper. Throughout 1969 and 1970, he created a large number of drawings depicting projects that would soon come to fruition - and a few that would not. Early Earthworks, such as Asphalt Rundown (1969) and Glue Pour (1969), were inspired in part by his interest in entropy and abstraction, since the dumped and cooled materials created hardened abstract forms that resulted from their loss of heat. They were also demonstrations of Smithson's growing fascination with industrial areas and human neglect of wastelands.

His grandest achievement and most famous work was Spiral Jetty (1970). After much searching, Smithson purchased a plot of land on the northern shore of the Great Salt Lake, Utah, and inserted into the violet-red water a massive spiral constructed of some 6650 tons of earth. The Jetty, unlike previous Earthworks, maintained a harmony with its natural environment; it is an unnatural extension of the natural landscape, albeit one that, according to Smithson "[had been] disrupted by industry, reckless urbanization, or nature's own devastation." In subsequent years, Smithson embarked on other Earthworks projects that were in keeping with this artistic philosophy. In 1971, he completed Broken Circle/Spiral Hill, located in a quarry near Emmen, Holland, after which he returned to the United States to undertake what would be his last project, one Smithson himself would never realize.

Late Years and Death

In the summer of 1973 Smithson was traveling in a small airplane to survey the site for his newest project, called Amarillo Ramp. The plane crashed, killing him, the pilot, and the photographer who was accompanying them. Even though Smithson was robbed of the opportunity to build Amarillo Ramp, the project was completed shortly after his death by his widow Nancy Holt, Richard Serra, and others.


In addition to being an artist, Smithson was also an accomplished critic, essayist, and theoretician. Writing for the publications Artforum and Arts Magazine, mostly between the years 1967 and 1970, he developed intriguing theories involving the convergence of earth, language, and art. In a September 1968 Artforum piece entitled A Sedimentation of the Mind: Earth Projects he wrote, "Embedded in the sediment is a text that contains limits and boundaries which evade the rational order, and social structures which confine art. In order to read the rocks we must become conscious of geologic time, and of the layers of prehistorical material that is entombed in the Earth's crust."

The above text is indicative of a constant theme in Smithson's writings and art: time. Throughout his career, he became increasingly fascinated with the element of time and with humankind's repeated attempts to control it. These attempts, according to Smithson, were foolish. He viewed any attempt to control time as tantamount to devaluing it altogether and defrauding the earth of its essential right to exist. He also presented this theme in his 1970 Earthwork Partially Buried Woodshed, located in Kent, Ohio, which consisted of a woodshed partially buried under 20 truckloads of earth. This piece was "built" to illustrate the effects of geologic time and its eventual consumption of all man-made endeavors. Incidentally, other major works, such as Spiral Jetty, would eventually be consumed (temporarily) by the waters that surrounded them.


Robert Smithson not only coined the term "Land art," he gave birth to the movement itself. Interestingly, Smithson's death could be said to have accelerated the Land art movement. Inspiring a new generation of artists to leave the studio altogether and create art out in the open, the movement represented a unique convergence of installation, Conceptual art, and environmental awareness. Adding a strange twist to the world of popular art, most of Smithson's works were designed to be consumed by time and nature; thus they were constructed to have a finite life span. Predating Smithson's arrival into the art world, artists hoped to immortalize themselves by creating works that would easily outlast the span of human life. Smithson, in a sense, sought the opposite. His incursions into wastelands and no-man's lands were dialectical attempts to show nature's fragility in the industrial world and its powerful ability to defend itself against such incursions.


The Salt of the Earth

Published: January 13, 2004

ALT LAKE CITY, Jan. 12 — For nearly three decades Robert Smithson's "Spiral Jetty" lay 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 more.

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 there.

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 it."

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 earth."

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 said.

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 see it."

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."


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


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