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10 / The Natural World

Spiral Jetty
Spiral Jetty
Artist / Origin Robert Smithson (American, 1938–1973)
Region: North America
Date 1970
Material Mud, precipitated salt crystals, rocks, and water
Dimensions L: 1500 ft. (457.2 m.), W: 15 ft. (4.57 m.)
Location Rozel Point, Great Salt Lake, Utah
Credit © Estate of Robert Smithson/VAGA, New York/CORBIS

expert perspective

John BeardsleyDirector, Garden & Landscape Studies, Dumbarton Oaks

Additional Resources

Baker, George, Bob Phillips, Ann Reynolds, and Lytle Shaw. Robert Smithson: Spiral Jetty. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California, 2005.

Beardsley, John. Earthworks and Beyond: Contemporary Art in the Landscape. New York: Abbeville Press, 2006.

Grande, John K. Art Nature Dialogues: Interviews with Environmental Artists.Foreword by Edward Lucie-Smith. Albany: SUNY Press, 2004.

Kastner, Jeffrey. Land & Environmental Art. London: Phaidon, 2005.

Reynolds, Ann. Robert Smithson: Learning from New Jersey and Elsewhere. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2004.

Shapiro, Gary. Earthwards: Robert Smithson and Art after Babel. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California, 1997.

Tufnell, Ben. Land Art. London: Tate Publishing, 2007.

Spiral Jetty

» Robert Smithson (American, 1938–1973)

In the 1960s and ’70s, a number of artists, primarily in the United States and Britain, became interested in moving out of the confines and commercial economy of museum and gallery spaces and creating art that would engage the audience in a more encompassing experience or at a more profound level than traditional painting and sculpture allowed. Land Art, also called Earthworks, developed during this period.

The category is inclusive of a diverse assortment of projects created in dialogue with the natural world, ranging from Richard Long’s non-intrusive walks to Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s Running Fence, Sonoma and Marin Counties, California, 1972–76.

The American Southwest, with its vast open spaces and dramatic landscapes, became an especially popular site for Earthworks in the 1970s. By the end of the decade, Walter de Maria had erected 400 stainless steel poles to form The Lightning Field in western New Mexico, Nancy Holt had installed her Sun Tunnels in Utah’s Great Salt Lake Desert, and James Turrell had started his underground project inside the Roden Crater, an extinct volcano in Arizona. One of the earliest and best-known examples of Land Art from this era is Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, which juts out into an isolated area of the Great Salt Lake known as Gunnison Bay.

Drawn to the Great Salt Lake because of its pinkish-red hue (from the water’s algae population), Smithson did not know what form his project would take until he arrived at the location. In his 1972 essay on Spiral Jetty, Smithson recalled his first impression of the area. “As I looked at the site,” he remembered, “it reverberated out to the horizons only to suggest an immobile cyclone while flickering light made the entire landscape appear to quake. A dormant earthquake spread into the fluttering stillness, into a spinning sensation without movement.” This feeling of spinning while at the same time standing still inspired Smithson’s design—a 1,500-foot-long, black basalt coil. In April 1970, two dump trucks, a tractor, and a front loader moved the 6,650 tons of rock and earth needed to create Spiral Jetty. Despite this disruptive construction process, the resulting work exists in perfect harmony with its surroundings.

Like much Land Art, Spiral Jetty is subject to the cycles of nature and vicissitudes of the environment in which it exists. As water levels rise and fall with the tides or amount of rain, Smithson’s great spiral also changes. In fact, two years after its completion, Spiral Jetty completely disappeared under water. After years of only brief, periodic reappearances, a major drought brought Spiral Jetty to the surface again in 2002. Sometime in the distant future, the repeated process of submergence and re-emergence will ultimately lead to the erosion of Spiral Jetty and the work will cease to exist. Smithson embraced the notion of entropy—a complex concept, originating in physics, that describes an irreversible trend towards disorder and chaos, resulting in the obsolescence of works like Spiral Jetty. He also recognized that the work’s location would make it unavailable to a broad audience. With these things in mind, he documented Spiral Jetty in a number of more permanent, more accessible forms including photography, film, and text.

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