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The Spiral Jetty Essay Writing

Adding to the excitement I presumed we now shared: The road conditions near the jetty were highly variable, which was to say not always roads. The lake’s water levels, too, needed to be below 4,195 feet for us to see it, and those levels were partly dependent on snowfall (this winter there was lots) and how much of that snow, by the time we arrived, had melted and sluiced down the mountains — water that also, en route to the lake, could turn the 16 miles of unpaved roads into impassable mush.

Where we were headed, in other words, we might not be able to reach. And even if we were, what we traveled so far to see might not be visible.

‘‘Will there be internet?’’ they asked.

I appealed, finally, to their desire to see me happy, a strategy that, thus far in our lives, had failed 100 percent of the time. I told them that, for more than a decade, I’d wanted to visit ‘‘Spiral Jetty,’’ as though these years of compressed desire had become a diamond that I could flash in their faces, my little crows.

This ploy worked as well as it ever had. They grudgingly accepted their fate. I accepted mine. You cannot sell others on a pilgrimage. You cannot drum desire out of nothing. Unlike me, the crows had not once held a piece of the jetty in their hands. It was 2004. I was in Los Angeles. My friend, Christopher James, an artist and Smithson admirer, had been tracking the water levels around the jetty for years. Because, for almost three decades — roughly since the death of its creator, at age 35, in a plane crash — the jetty, except for a few brief reappearances, was submerged. Around 1999, the lake’s water started to recede (because of drought) so that by 2002 the jetty could, again, be seen; people, again, could walk it. People like James could get in their trucks and drive thousands of highway miles and then through the cow fields and out to the Great Salt Lake, where the coastline ‘‘reverberated out to the horizons,’’ according to Smithson, ‘‘only to suggest an immobile cyclone while flickering light made the entire landscape appear to quake.’’

James arrived to find that the jetty’s black rocks, following their lengthy submersion, had become coated in pinkish-white salt formations like barnacles affixed to the hull of a sunken ship. He took one of the salt formations — cracked free from the rock to which it had been affixed — home as a souvenir. This was how I came to hold not a piece of the jetty, exactly, so much as a commemoration — the material accrual — of its disappearance. ‘‘Time turns metaphors into things,’’ Smithson wrote. The salt formation was the size of my fist and weighty, warm and damp. ‘‘It’s half the size that it used to be,’’ I remember James saying. Exposed to the air, and possibly to the dryness of California, he guessed, the salt formation was evaporating. Within a few months, the time in my hand would finish changing states, conclude its vanishing act and disappear.

We landed in Salt Lake City. We rented a four-wheel-drive vehicle because my husband, calling ahead to a ranger at the Golden Spike National Historic Site, where the asphalt ends and the dirt begins, had been warned that the road to the jetty was ‘‘pretty bad.’’ We received a similarly grim prognosis from the rental agent, who, on learning our destination, asked us whether we had checked the water levels. ‘‘I don’t think you’ll be able to see it,’’ he said.

We did not panic. Instead we rejoiced. The natural obstacles on and around which the jetty was built, along with Smithson’s prolific writings, suggest he designed the jetty to be both difficult to reach and difficult to see. He constructed it during a drought in 1970; he knew the water would someday rise. While in Rome, in 1961, surrounded by art tourists, he wrote in a letter to Nancy Holt (who would later become his wife): ‘‘People want to stare with aggressive eagerness or they feel they must stare in order to grant approval. There is something indecent about such staring.’’

An underwater artwork is the perfect remedy for indecency.

On the highway, mountains surrounded us. The crows had never witnessed a landscape like this; save once when tiny, they had never been west of the East. I urged them to look out the car windows rather than at their phones, and confirm that they were totally undone by the awesomeness. I demanded their indecent staring. But the crows are predominantly city creatures. Nature didn’t interest them as much as civilization and its inhabitants did. We passed an abandoned amusement park, the roller coaster coiling like a train track yanked skyward by a tornado. We passed defunct factories that, with their silos and peaks, resembled the Mormon churches we could see in the distance, isolated and chalk white against the brown mountainsides in which they were embedded. The billboards advertised Bibles and services you could pay for to deal with local plagues (‘‘FIRE WATER MOLD STORM’’). At regular intervals we drove beneath a digital sign that read ‘‘ZERO HIGHWAY FATALITIES.’’ The smaller print told a slightly less cheerful story: ‘‘26 out of 47 Days.’’ The landscape thrummed with vastness; other than the highway’s thin river of commerce, the world outside our car was unmarked and uncontained (and un-time-stamped) by buildings and sidewalks and people.

I could tell: The bigness of Utah was freaking out the crows. They didn’t know what to make of such an uninhabited expanse. ‘‘I’m interested,’’ Smithson once said, ‘‘in that area of terror between man and land.’’

Smithson did not begin his career as an earth artist; nor, given his intellectually garrulous persona, would he probably wish to be called one. Born in Passaic, N.J., in 1938, Smithson became keenly cognizant of how the local postindustrial landscape — what he described as ‘‘ruins in reverse’’ — shaped his sensibilities, as did natural features like quarries, which he said were ‘‘embedded in my psyche.’’

Contrary to popular belief, or maybe just contrary to my assumption, Smithson didn’t extend beyond his New York City studio to work in the outdoors because he desired more space. ‘‘I don’t think you’re freer artistically in the desert than you are inside a room,’’ he said. In his 1968 essay ‘‘A Sedimentation of the Mind: Earth Projects,’’ Smithson noted the importance, to his thinking, of the nighttime drive by a fellow New Jersey artist Tony Smith on an unfinished stretch of the Jersey Turnpike, in the dark, with students from Cooper Union. ‘‘[Smith] is talking about a sensation,’’ Smithson wrote. ‘‘[He] is describing the state of his mind in the ‘primary process’ of making contact with matter.’’ In the same essay, he noted that Freud referred to this commingling experience as ‘‘oceanic.’’ When Smithson first started working outdoors, he made boxes and containers to hold, for example, slate from a Pennsylvania quarry, which he then displayed in a gallery. Still, the tension between freedom and restriction remained an exhilarating struggle.

‘‘If art is art, it must have limits,’’ Smithson wrote. ‘‘How can one contain this ‘oceanic’ site’?’’

Clearly the crows, while lacking Smithson’s theoretical framework, were asking themselves the same question. One crow remarked fearfully, ‘‘Everything is dead here.’’

The littler crow stared out the window and sang a soothing song to itself, the lyrics of which consisted of one repeated sentence:

No people.

No people.

No people.

No people.

Before visiting the jetty, I was thinking a lot about interior landscapes, those uninhabited places inside of us that cannot be contained (or explained) by any map. Interior landscapes are shaped by all kinds of forces: geographic or familial or cultural or genetic. When I was the age of the crows, for example, I lived in Maine. It was cold and dark the majority of the time. We were surrounded by ocean that produced food and bracing relief from the annual week of heat but was otherwise a gray, impetuous slab. People with some frequency were snatched off rocks by waves and drowned. Also, it being the ’70s and ’80s, we could not escape stories of nuclear annihilation, which was a perennial story line for television series and books, many of them aimed at young-adult audiences. Like a great number of my contemporaries, I became hooked on the narrative of nuclear annihilation, and via that obsession I started to plan. Because my home life was stable, I had the luxury of dreaming up very bad situations and strategizing how to survive them. It was as if my entire upbringing had bred in me a delight in destruction’s aftermath, as well as in destruction’s problem-solving thrills.

Interior landscapes interest me because I am not only a parent but also a college professor. I regularly encounter young adults from similarly comfortable backgrounds who seem mentally undone by the often mild daily challenges they encounter (mild compared to a nuclear apocalypse, at any rate). I do not want to make uninformed guesses about why this is the case; I simply want to state that it is the case. Stress, anxiety, unhappiness, they thrive in these young adults. Which has, in turn, made me wonder about the crows. How prepared will they be to handle daily challenges, both banal and catastrophic? How might I help them cultivate their interior landscapes so as to improve their chances of survival — even happiness? I am admittedly limited by nostalgia for my own upbringing, which I like to think has served me decently. Perhaps for no better reason, I’ve wondered: Are they enough into their future annihilation? Should they be, as a means to gain present-day control over the frightening and the uncertain, more into it?

Basically, I wanted the crows to be more regularly scared.

But the crows (and their contemporaries), perhaps because of the future catastrophes they face — those of the global-warming variety, which are not ‘‘maybes’’ but ‘‘definitelies’’ — seem less receptive to destruction narratives that might shape their interior landscapes. Nuclear war was avoidable (or so I optimistically chose to believe), but what they will encounter as adults is not. Their interior landscapes, thus, are the only landscapes that may not end in ruin. Those are the only landscapes over which they may have any control.

On the east-west road — the one that cut through Corinne, the last chance for gas — the even emptier terrain became entrancingly beautiful. The waterlogged fields suggested that a tsunami had recently receded, leaving the earth striated by long glassy puddles that acted as mirrors between the planting rows. What beat past our windows at 80 m.p.h. was land-sky-land-sky, and soon we didn’t know down from up.

The crows remarked, with slightly more enthusiasm, ‘‘It looks like Minecraft out here.’’

The disorientation caused by so much natural beauty clearly explained the abundance of ‘‘DROWSY DRIVERS NEXT EXIT’’ signs we saw back on the highway. Or maybe Drowsy Drivers was a roadside service the state of Utah provided, a type of GPS device you strapped into your back seat so it could babble map coordinates to you from the dream world. Technically, we were driving over a former ocean floor, or at least this is what we were told at a hot springs by a man with a dread god tattoo on his arm. This, he said, accounted for the water’s high mineral content. The land around us was still saturated by the residue of that vanished ocean and the life it once contained.

Smithson grew interested in salt lakes, in part, because the water was filled with salt-loving bacteria that turned the surface pink and sometimes ‘‘the color of tomato soup.’’ He started to explore the Great Salt Lake, looking for a place to make an artwork, and eventually settled on Rozel Point, location of a defunct oil jetty and a handful of derelict structures, what he described as ‘‘man-made systems mired in abandoned hopes.’’

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"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.

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