The 30th anniversary of Robert Smithson’s ‘Spiral Jetty’

May 6, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT


JEFFREY BROWN: Several hours’ drive out of Salt Lake City, it was never easy to see the unique sculpture called “The Spiral Jetty.” But for some 30 years, it was actually impossible. Now, “The Spiral Jetty” is visible again.

Coiling out into the Great Salt Lake, 1,500 feet long, 15 feet wide, the Jetty was built in 1970 by an artist named Robert Smithson, one of a number of artists at the time who tried to change how people think about art, including taking it out of the gallery or museum and into the natural landscape. In creating the Jetty, Smithson, who died in 1973, made the most famous example of what’s known as “Earth art.”

NANCY HOLT, Earth Artist: I think it could have only happened here in America, and it’s because of our landscape, the vastness of our landscape.

JEFFREY BROWN: Artist Nancy Holt was married to Robert Smithson and worked with him on the Jetty and other projects. Smithson had first taken natural materials into the art gallery but soon began to build outdoors. Other artists were doing the same, including Nancy Holt, who took us to see her “Sun Tunnels” on a remote plot she owns beneath Utah’s Pilot Range Mountains: Four concrete and steel tubes that interact with the sun, the sky and the land.

NANCY HOLT: This particular place has the quality of giving you the sensation that you’re on the planet Earth. When you walk out a bit there and you step on the ground, you may be the first human being ever to step on that place. That is thrilling.

JEFFREY BROWN: Is that how you felt when you first came here?

NANCY HOLT: Absolutely.

JEFFREY BROWN: One reason Robert Smithson chose his particular spot: The unique character and colors of a salt lake.

ROBERT SMITHSON: North of the Lucent Cutoff, the water is a red or pink color due to algae in the brine.

JEFFREY BROWN: In this 1970 film, Smithson talked about the site, the sense of history, and even the mythology of a spiral in the midst of the Great Salt Lake.

ROBERT SMITHSON: The notion that the lake must be connected to the Pacific Ocean by a subterranean channel at the head of which a huge whirlpool threatened the safety of lake craft was not dispelled until the 1870s.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, if all this sounds a bit, well, bizarre, imagine how it must have seemed to Bob Phillips.

BOB PHILLIPS: That was when it was completed — about this time, 35 years ago.

JEFFREY BROWN: In 1970, he was a young local contractor who got a most unusual phone call.

JEFFREY BROWN: Had you ever heard of Earth art before you got that call from Robert Smithson?

BOB PHILLIPS: No, sir, I had not heard of it. I had no idea of what he was talking about. In fact, I asked him about it. He showed me that portfolio of some of the things he’d done. And the one that really got me was, it was a plain, wooden box filled with rocks. And I worked on construction and one of the things I worked on was a rock crusher, and if you messed up, they said you were dumber than a box of rocks.

So that’s kind of what I equated to what — these things he was trying to do. And, so, he’s telling me about the jetty and how he wants it built and what he wants to do, and I asked him, “Well, how can you make a living doing this?” I can’t believe I asked him that, but I asked him, “Can you make a living doing this kind of thing?”

JEFFREY BROWN: In fact, Smithson got funding for the project from a New York art gallery, a lease on the site from the state. And, a job being a job, Bob Phillips signed on, moving some 7,000 tons of rocks from the nearby hills and dumping them, often precariously, into the shallow water. Phillips describes working with his unusual boss.

BOB PHILLIPS: He was the conductor of the orchestra, you might say. He laid the thing out using sticks and strings and one thing of another and laid the spiral out. And then, if something got out of line, he came down and had the loader operator move the rock almost like he knew where every rock was supposed to go.

NANCY HOLT: Part of it was being able to us large-scale equipment — bulldozers and back loaders and trucks — to be the tools of art.

JEFFREY BROWN: Of course, it’s kind of funny because a lot of people watching this would think, “A bulldozer as a tool or art?” Why is that art?

NANCY HOLT: Well, art can be made with any tool. It’s the intent that makes the art.

JEFFREY BROWN: But there’s still more to this story and the reason for our visit. Three years after the work was done, something happened that Robert Smithson hadn’t expected: The waters of the lake began to rise. Soon, you could read about the Spiral Jetty in art history books, but you couldn’t see this. For nearly three decades, the Spiral Jetty lay underwater here in the Great Salt Lake.

When it was first covered, it was black, like the rocks in the hills nearby. But when it reappeared after years of drought, it was something quite new. At ground level, you can now see thick salt crystals clinging to the rocks. Some recent visitors getting their first look thought they were in the midst of a snow field. On the day of our visit, rain had washed over the top of the rocks, giving them a salt and pepper look.

HIKMET LOE, Dia Foundation: You know, I had studied art history as an undergraduate and had known about Robert Smithson.

JEFFREY BROWN: Hikmet Loe works with the Dia Art Foundation, which now owns the Spiral Jetty and brings visitors eager to finally get to see the famous work.

HIKMET LOE: People notice things very differently than when they’re out here. What are the rocks like? What is the salt like? What does the salt taste like? Why is the water — why does it look that way? There are all sort of different questions, then, that come about based on this work being in the land that are questions that you never get whenever you’re in a museum.

JEFFREY BROWN: Robert Smithson was just 35 when he died in a crash while scouting a Texas site for another artwork. I asked Nancy Holt what he might think about the changes the jetty’s gone through.

NANCY HOLT: I think Bob had the feeling that he wanted to make a work that was strong enough and would last long enough so that it could go through whatever natural changes might occur. I think he would have been awed just like we are when we see the white jetty or the black jetty, you know.

JEFFREY BROWN: For his part, the young contractor who knew nothing of Earth art came to greatly appreciate the jetty and the man.

BOB PHILLIPS: He was taken at an awful young age, and I’ve come out here and sat and thought a lot about what would he have done? What would his next project have been? How would he have done something bigger and better than this? Would I have been able to get involved in that?

JEFFREY BROWN: In fact, Robert Smithson is now getting a new round of attention. The Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles has put together an exhibition of his works– those that can be moved. Now traveling around the country, its next stop is New York’s Whitney Museum.

In the meantime, snow and rain this winter have helped bring Utah’s drought to an end. With the waters beginning to rise, there are now new questions: Should rocks be added to raise the jetty? Or should it remain untouched, perhaps to once again lie beneath the waters of the Great Salt Lake?