Robert Smithson Spiral Jetty Essay Examples

When Hikmet Sidney Loe told her adviser that she wanted to write her master’s thesis in art history on Spiral Jetty, the adviser was dubious.

“He said, ‘You’re not going to write a dead work of art. Spiral Jetty is dead, it’s gone, you can’t write about it,’” Loe recalled in a recent interview.

This was 1993, and Robert Smithson’s earthwork, built in 1970 off Rozel Point into the northern part of the Great Salt Lake, had been submerged under several feet of water for 20 years.

“I showed him pictures and said, ‘It’s just been underwater. It’s not gone. The lake level went down, and it’s still here,’” Loe said.

The adviser, William C. Agee at Hunter College at the City University of New York, replied, “Oh, that’s different. Now you can write about it.”

Thus began Loe’s nearly quarter-century fascination with the land-art masterwork, the result of which is a new book, “The Spiral Jetty Encyclo” (University of Utah Press; softcover, 384 pages, illustrated; $34.95). Loe will read passages from the book and screen Smithson’s documentary about its making, Wednesday, Oct. 4, at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts in Salt Lake City.

In the book, Loe captures and comments on the varied influences on Smithson’s work — arranged alphabetically, from “aerial art” (his belief that his large land-art works should be seen from an airplane) to the poet William Carlos Williams (his pediatrician during the artist’s youth in Paterson, N.J.).

Spiral Jetty is perhaps the best-known work in the land-art movement of the 1960s and 1970s, when artists left the gallery to create large, immobile works in remote places. Smithson and his wife, Nancy Holt (who later created Sun Tunnels, in Box Elder County near the Nevada border), were among the champions of the movement.

Smithson’s gift for public relations within the art world helped make Spiral Jetty, and land art, famous. “Robert Smithson made sure it was everywhere, immediately,” Loe said. “In 1970, boom, if people hadn’t heard about the land-art movement before, they heard about it then.”

Her book opens with the supporting documents that curators and art experts say are as much part of Spiral Jetty as the rocks. One is Smithson’s 1972 essay, in which he recounts how it was built and explains some of his intentions. The other is the film “Spiral Jetty” (1970), which juxtaposes images of rippling pink water, earthmovers relocating rocks into formation, and the dirt roads leading to the remote site in Box Elder County. (The book includes a transcript of the film, with images.)

“Land art is about being at the site, and being with the work, but it’s equally about the journey,” Loe said.

For Smithson, she said, part of the journey was a failed project he, Holt and artist Michael Heizer worked on in California’s Mono Lake. The project held some of the themes — an inland sea, an alkaline lake — that Smithson developed further in Spiral Jetty. The book features words and images from a film about Mono Lake, shot in 1968 and completed by Holt in 2004.

Loe’s breakthrough in research was getting one of the first extensive interviews with Bob Phillips, the Utah contractor Smithson hired to dig the dirt and move the rocks that make up Spiral Jetty. Phillips showed Loe the papers he had saved, including Smithson’s drawings, photos and planning documents.

“He kept everything, had his own archive at home, and was very generous with me and others who were interested in Robert Smithson,” Loe said. She dedicated her book to Phillips, who died in April 2016.

Phillips, she said, particularly remembered when Smithson and Holt visited him and his wife, Judy, in 1972. The Smithsons wanted to go out to the jetty, but the Phillipses begged off the trip.

“Bob Phillips always was very regretful of that, because that was the last time he ever saw Robert Smithson,” Loe said. Smithson died in 1973, at age 35, in a small-plane crash while surveying a site for an earthwork near Amarillo, Texas.

The waters of the Great Salt Lake rose soon after Spiral Jetty was completed. The work disappeared in 1972, reappeared briefly in 1980 and wasn’t seen again until 1993. It was visible for a few years, was swallowed up again in 1997 and has been visible ever since. At its highest, in 1987, the water rose 16 feet above where Smithson built the jetty.

While the jetty was underwater, interest in the art world faded. “There were scholarly papers and the like, but they were at a remove,” Loe said. “Once it came back, people locally saw it first.”

The evolving nature of Spiral Jetty was in keeping with Smithson’s philosophy of land art.

“Smithson said that every time you go to the Spiral Jetty, you’re going to have a different experience. He relished the changeable nature of the environment,” Loe said. “Time becomes this pretty potent medium that is embedded in the Spiral Jetty.”

‘The Spiral Jetty Encyclo’

Art historian Hikmet Sidney Loe will read from her new book, “The Spiral Jetty Encyclo,” and screen Robert Smithson’s 1970 documentary “Spiral Jetty.”

Where • Utah Museum of Fine Arts, 410 Campus Center Drive, Salt Lake City

When • Wednesday, Oct. 4, 7 p.m.

Admission • Free

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(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) The Spiral Jetty earth works on the North edge of the Great Salt Lake created by ... (Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) The Spiral Jetty in 2008. (Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) The Spiral Jetty earth works on the North edge of the Great Salt Lake created by ... (Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) The Spiral Jetty earth works on the North edge of the Great Salt Lake created by ... (Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) The Spiral Jetty earth works on the North edge of the Great Salt Lake created by ... (Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) The Spiral Jetty earth works on the North edge of the Great Salt Lake created by ... (Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo)The Spiral Jetty earth works on the North edge of the Great Salt Lake created by a... (Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) The Spiral Jetty earth works on the North edge of the Great Salt Lake created by ...

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) The Spiral Jetty earth works on the North edge of the Great Salt Lake created by artist Robert Smithson in 1970 is visible on Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2013.(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) The Spiral Jetty in 2008.(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) The Spiral Jetty earth works on the North edge of the Great Salt Lake created by artist Robert Smithson in 1970 is visible on Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2013.(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) The Spiral Jetty earth works on the North edge of the Great Salt Lake created by artist Robert Smithson in 1970 is visible on Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2013.(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) The Spiral Jetty earth works on the North edge of the Great Salt Lake created by artist Robert Smithson in 1970 is visible on Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2013.(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) The Spiral Jetty earth works on the North edge of the Great Salt Lake created by artist Robert Smithson in 1970 is visible on Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2013.(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo)The Spiral Jetty earth works on the North edge of the Great Salt Lake created by artist Robert Smithson in 1970 is visible on Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2013.(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) The Spiral Jetty earth works on the North edge of the Great Salt Lake created by artist Robert Smithson in 1970 is visible on Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2013 as seen through a unique lens with an extreme shallow depth of field.

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(Steve Griffin | Tribune file photo) In this 2011 file photo, Bob Phillips is pictured in his Ogden home holding a giant ph... (Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) Artist Robert Smithson gave Bob Phillips this signed photograph of the Spiral Jetty... (Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) Bob Phillips looks over photos and original designs for the Spiral Jetty in his Og... Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) Bob Phillips looks over the original drawings for the Spiral Jetty in his Ogden, Ut...

(Steve Griffin | Tribune file photo) In this 2011 file photo, Bob Phillips is pictured in his Ogden home holding a giant photograph, taken by photographer Gianfranco Gorgoni of the Spiral Jetty. Phillips was the contractor who built the Spiral Jetty for artist Robert Smithson.(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) Artist Robert Smithson gave Bob Phillips this signed photograph of the Spiral Jetty. Phillips was the contractor who built the Spiral Jetty for Smithson.(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) Bob Phillips looks over photos and original designs for the Spiral Jetty in his Ogden home Thursday, Feb. 24, 2011. Phillips was the contractor who built the Spiral Jetty for artist Robert Smithson.Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) Bob Phillips looks over the original drawings for the Spiral Jetty in his Ogden, Utah Thursday, Feb. 24, 2011. Phillips was the contractor who built the Spiral Jetty for artist Robert Smithson.

In 1959, Robert Smithson, a young abstract painter who would eventually become known as a pioneer of land art, went back to his boyhood home, in New Jersey, to visit his pediatrician. Smithson was twenty-four years old and living in New York City at the time but knew the route out of Manhattan and across the garbage-covered Jersey Meadows by heart. His parents had driven him regularly to the Museum of Natural History, in New York, as a child, and, during high school, he often left early to take classes at the Art Students League, taking a bus back and forth to New Jersey, past smoldering dumps, through fields of rubble-strewn reeds. “Those landscapes embedded themselves in my consciousness at a very early date,” Smithson once said.

Smithson had skipped college for the Army, where he worked as an artist on a base in Georgia, and, after his discharge, had driven across the country several times, hiking and camping, and investigating geology. By the time he was returning to his hometown to see the retired family doctor, he had shown his paintings in New York galleries but was about to take a profound new direction with his art, one that would take him out of the studio, and out of the gallery and the museum itself. His break from painting would eventually lead him to construct—with the help of bulldozers and pilots and his wife and collaborator, the late Nancy Holt—“Spiral Jetty,” his best-known project, completed in 1970. It’sa fifteen-hundred-foot-long, fifteen-foot-wide spiral of stone that extends out into the Great Salt Lake, in Utah. According to the catalogue for an exhibition at the Montclair Art Museum, entitled “Robert Smithson’s New Jersey,” it was Smithson’s visit to his pediatrician that helped steer him toward that new work, and began a new chapter for American landscape art. His pediatrician was William Carlos Williams.

The ailing poet’s home was on Ridge Road, in Rutherford, only a few blocks from the house where Smithson grew up before moving to nearby Clifton, and both places are on the edge of a bowl-like swamp, known then as the Hackensack Meadows and now as the Meadowlands. If Smithson had driven to see Williams in Rutherford, or had taken the bus from the Port Authority Bus Terminal, he would have travelled beneath the Hudson River and up onto the Lincoln Tunnel’s sky-climbing elevated ramp—a trip that Smithson details in “The Monuments of Passaic,” an essay that ran in Artforum in December of 1967.

The essay was illustrated with Smithson’s black-and-white snapshots of the industrial Passaic River, and the piece reads like Smithson’s version of Thomas Cole’s “The Course of Empire,” written and illustrated rather than painted, and infused with a vague sense of futuristic dystopia set in construction rubble. “Across the river, in Rutherford, one could hear the faint voice of a P.A. system and the weak cheers of a crowd at a football game,” he observes. Smithson asks, “Has Passaic replaced Rome as the Eternal City?”

When Smithson arrived at Williams’s home, the older poet had recently suffered several strokes but had just published the final volume of “Paterson,” his epic set in and around the Great Falls of the Passaic, the raging seventy-seven-foot-high cataract in Paterson. In an essay written by the exhibition’s guest curator, Phyllis Tuchman, we learn that Smithson looked at paintings by Marsden Hartley, Charles Demuth, and Ben Shahn in Williams’s home, and that, according to Smithson’s friends, the artist took to heart Williams’s axiom “No ideas, but in things.” In 1972, shortly before Smithson died, he would describe “The Monuments of Passaic” in terms of “Paterson.” “In a way, this article that I wrote on Passaic could be conceived of as a kind of appendix to William Carlos William’s poem Paterson,” he said.

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The far-ranging influence of “Spiral Jetty”and “The Monuments of Passaic” is easy to follow, not just in terms of landscape art but in the fields of architecture and urban planning. Maya Lin’s “Storm King Wavefield,” on the Hudson River at the Storm King Art Center, has “Spiral Jetty” in its genetics. James Corner and Field Operations’s design for the High Line, the reclamation of the old elevated train line on Manhattan’s West Side, could also be an appendix of the tour offered in “The Monuments of Passaic,” although nowadays, given what might be called a fetishization of ruins, industrial artifacts are less likely to be disused spaces; they are increasingly likely to be private and expensive.

Of course, Smithson wasn’t the only person taking art out the studio in 1968. The artist Richard Long took one of his first walks that year, and Long was a student of Anthony Caro, the sculptor who worked with industrial ruins and was an influence on Smithson, too. Claes Oldenburg dug a grave-shaped ditch in Central Park, and Sol LeWitt buried a cube in Holland. All of these artists were featured in the Dwan Gallery’s fall 1968 show, entitled “Earthworks.”

But Smithson was the driving philosophical voice in large part because of the strength and inventiveness of his writing: essays that almost seemed to parody art writing but came in the shape of the experimentation that he promoted. Often they were travel narratives about art in the landscape. In 1966, when Sol LeWitt wrote a letter to Virginia Dwan, who had organized “Earthworks,” LeWitt praised Smithson’s essays: “I think it is the first good explanation of the sort of art I’m involved with, even though I don’t buy everything he says.” The explanation is maybe more praised today, or at least more people are buying. In 2012, the Center for Land Use Interpretation, a Los Angeles-based research and education group that operates along the lines of a university of Robert Smithson, offered a tour of the Meadowlands, entitled “Eulogy to Robert Smithson.” Last fall, the artist Tacita Dean showed a film entitled “JG” at the Firth Gallery, in London, inspired by her correspondence with British author J.G. Ballard, regarding connections between Ballard’s work and “Spiral Jetty.”

Where the spiral in “Spiral Jetty” came from—what things inspired it—has always been a kind of riddle for students of Smithson’s work. Smithson the list-maker left lots of hints—Constantin Brancusi’s spiral-ish portrait of James Joyce, a line from Vladimir Nabokov’s “Speak, Memory” (“The spiral is a spiritualized circle”)—but this exhibit offers a new and constructive insight. Tuchman makes the point that Smithson’s intense exploration of his home landscape between 1967 and 1968, involving actual excavations on more than one occasion, brought Smithson to the productive last seven years of his life.

This might seem like just more hopeful boosterism by a Garden State that exists in the shadow of a Big Apple, except that it’s true.

Above all, Smithson was a mapmaker; his uncle worked for Hagstrom Maps**,** and the young Smithson was in charge of navigation when his parents took him on natural-history adventures across the country in the family car (Smithson’s older brother died of leukemia at the age of nine). In retrospect, the first New Jersey-centered pieces in 1967 map out his plans with startling clarity. Like his Passaic essay, they are manifestos. “Untitled [Map on Mirror-Passaic, New Jersey]” is seven successively smaller copies of a U.S. Geologic Survey map of the Passaic River, stacked like a small tabletop pyramid. Through each map, the Passaic is represented by a mirror twisting through its eponymous city and neighboring towns—a shining silver sliver that manages to reorient the viewer to the (in life) forgotten waterway, to represent it anew in its own exact factness.

“New Jersey, New York” is a Marsden Hartley-like collage built around the two black-and-white photos that center it: a low-angled view of the “War of the Worlds”-esque legs of the swamp-crossing state highway, and another of a road across the garbage lands of Secaucus and East Rutherford. The photos are set inside the crystalline-shaped, cut-out center of a Greater New York road map. What’s cut away on the map is the Meadowlands. The backdrop to it all is a series of pencil-drawn one-inch squares, which, Tuchman argues, are echoes of the Lincoln Tunnel’s square-tiled walls. Smithson described them in “The Crystal Land,” an essay he wrote for Harper’s Bazaar about a trip that he and Holt took with Julie and Donald Judd: “The countless cream colored tiles on the wall sped by, until a sign announcing New York broke the tiles’ order.”

“New York, New Jersey” is the ultimate key to the Utah spiral, in other words. “When he built ‘Spiral Jetty,’ Robert Smithson practically came full circle,” Tuchman writes. The helix built on the side of the Great Salt Lake is a version of the dazzlingly engineered elevated roadway that spun cars out of the tunnel on its Jersey side. Art-history books don’t mention the I-495 tunnel ramp, but it is mentioned in rush-hour traffic reports and Port Authority traffic announcements, and it is referred to as the Helix, a Greek word meaning “twisted” or “spiral.”

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Transit geeks will recognize the Helix as the most western vestige of the now-dead Cross Manhattan Expressway, a highway that, at one point, was planned to run though the Empire State Building: it was to be elevated and would connect the Midtown Tunnel with the Helix. That road died, in the fifties. The idea of the city as a World’s Fair Futurama exhibit died then, too. Smithson’s late work helps the viewer step out of short-term human time, and into the slower time of ecology and geology. Adopting this long view, we can watch as, on either side of the Helix, the city continues to empty during the seventies and then in the nineties slowly refill, like a tide pool with an incoming tide—as wealth and population begin their still-ongoing shift from the suburbs to the city. Meanwhile, Passaic stayed a ruin, as did so many of the small cities of New York and New Jersey and America, a Detroit-like problem that is everywhere. What becomes clear in Smithson Time is that we still don’t have a vision for them.

A place that changed but in many ways stayed the same since Smithson traversed it on his way from Manhattan to William Carlos Williams’s house is the Meadowlands. Despite all that has happened since Smithson died, in a small plane crash scoping out “Amarillo Ranch”—a project later completed by Richard Serra and Nancy Holt, who died this past spring—the Meadowlands is still an edge, partly because of failed projects, partly because of local interest in the vast wetland as something like a non-site. Even today, projects get mired in the still-giant swamp—see American Dream, slated to be the largest mall in the word (“the ultimate location for global retail brands looking to debut their flagship concepts”), and only now on again after being primarily off again since it was announced, in 2011, a reboot of a previous failed giant-mall project.

I went to the press conference announcing American Dream that spring, back when the hope was supposed to open it in time for this past Super Bowl. I remember driving down the old Paterson Plank Road and then heading out to a construction trailer that seemed like it was in the middle of nowhere. I suddenly realized that I was within yards of where Smithson and Holt filmed “Swamp,” the film featured in the last room of the Montclair Art Museum’s exhibit. It’s still a quiet and beautiful showstopper: one person leads another blind through what might be called the mire. There is no end to it, really, and no beginning, really, that being the point.

Top: Robert Smithson in 1969. Photograph by Jack Robinson/Hulton Archive/Getty. Bottom: “New Jersey, New York” (1967). © Estate of Robert Smithson/VAGA, New York, NY. Courtesy Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo.

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