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Art Through Time: A Global View

The Natural World Art: Spiral Jetty

» Robert Smithson (American, 1938–1973)

Spiral Jetty

Spiral Jetty
Artist / Origin: Robert Smithson (American, 1938–1973)
Region: North America
Date: 1970
Period: 1900 CE – 2010 CE
Material: Mud, precipitated salt crystals, rocks, and water
Medium: Video, Installation, and Performance
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

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 Jettyin a number of more permanent, more accessible forms including photography, film, and text.

Expert Perspective:
John Beardsley Director, Garden & Landscape Studies, Dumbarton Oaks

“A lot of artists in the late sixties and early seventies wanted to engage this idea of physical experience in space. Artists, I think, wanted to deal with ideas about the body moving through space over time and so they moved their art into real space as a way of engaging more of the senses. Spiral Jetty is probably the best known work by Robert Smithson, who was one of the most interesting artists of the late sixties and early seventies. He was a writer as well as a sculptor and left us with a really challenging and interesting body of written work that’s provided the foundation for a lot of subsequent work that’s been done in the landscape.

The Spiral Jetty is a coil of black basalt rock and earth that spins about 1,500 feet into the Great Salt Lake. And it’s made in the shape of a spiral, Smithson said, because as he stood at the foot of the site, the site seemed to spin around him to rotate out to the horizon like a cyclone. He also liked the fact that there’s a Native American legend that the Great Salt Lake is connected to the ocean through a whirlpool in its center. And he drew analogies between the spiral and the shape of the salt crystals that form on the rocks as the water rises and falls. So, it was made for a specific site, or it was made in response to the conditions of a specific site. But Smithson wasn’t drawn to just any kind of landscape. He preferred landscapes that had a sort of challenging quality to them, sites that were derelict in some way or seemed disturbed in some way. And he was drawn to the Great Salt Lake because it’s in a very arid environment, but also because the water is so salty that nothing can grow in it except for colonies of an algae that turns the water pink. So he was drawn to these extreme environmental conditions with the idea that art could somehow draw you into landscapes that you might not otherwise go to.

Spiral Jetty exists in many forms. It exists as a physical artifact in the landscape itself, it exists as drawings, it exists as a film, it exists as a text—he wrote an essay called ‘The Spiral Jetty.’ So it doesn’t exist only as a physical entity in the landscape, it exists in all these other forms as well. And, it’s really meant to be experienced through all those media.”

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.

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Art Through Time: A Global View

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Produced by THIRTEEN in association with WNET.ORG. 2009.
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  • ISBN: 1-57680-888-2