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Robert Smithson Spiral Jetty Essay Writing

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.

* * *

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.”

* * *

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.


The Salt of the Earth

Published: January 13, 2004

ALT LAKE CITY, Jan. 12 — For nearly three decades Robert Smithson's "Spiral Jetty" lay underwater in the Great Salt Lake. Since 1999, as drought has lowered the water level, this famous American earth sculpture — a 1,500-foot coil of black basalt rocks — has slowly re-emerged. Now it is completely exposed; the rocks encrusted with white salt crystals are surrounded by shallow pink water in what looks like a vast snow field.

In 1970, when Smithson built the "Jetty," which is considered his masterpiece, the giant black coil contrasted starkly with the dark pink water of the lake. But time and nature have left their marks.

Thousands of people have visited this once-elusive artwork while an argument is brewing 2,000 miles away about whether to leave it as is or restore it.

"The spiral is not as dramatic as when it was first built," said Michael Govan, the director of the Dia Art Foundation in New York City, which owns the work. "The `Jetty' is being submerged in a sea of salt."

To ensure that "Spiral Jetty" is accessible to future generations, Dia, which exhibits and preserves art made since the 1960's, has discussed raising it by adding more rocks. Dia is also studying whether nature will restore the contrast the "Jetty" originally had with its surroundings by dissolving some of the salt crystals when the lake's waters rise, or whether the foundation needs to do something more.

But the idea of doing anything to this artwork worries some people. And the intentions of the artist, who died in a plane crash at 35 in 1973, are not clear.

"When refurbishing earthworks, you don't want to create a Tussaud's wax sculpture," said Robert Storr, a former senior curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and a professor at the New York University Institute of Fine Arts. "Earthworks were not made to last forever. There is a danger when restoring them to make a more perfect thing than was originally done."

Smithson built "Spiral Jetty" in the country's saltiest lake. He chose a site called Rozel Point on the northeast shore because he liked the dark pink color of the water, an effect that results primarily from bacteria and algae that grow there.

Rozel Point is about 100 miles northwest of Salt Lake City, on state-owned land accessible by a 15-mile dirt road with giant potholes that can trap small cars; four-wheel drive is recommended. Smithson's estate donated "Spiral Jetty" to Dia in 1999 when the piece was first emerging.

"The trip to see the artwork brings people to a place they would not normally experience," said Nancy Holt, Smithson's widow and executor, who lives in New Mexico. "The `Jetty' is a vortex that draws in everything in the landscape around it."

Smithson built the spiral out of black basalt rocks taken from the shore and arranged them to a height just above the surface of the water so people could walk on the earthwork as if on a pier.

He was one of a number of artists in the 1960's and early 70's who chose to build site-specific pieces outdoors in the West, far from the commercialism of art galleries. Ms. Holt, also an earthwork artist, built a piece called "Sun Tunnels" near the abandoned town of Lucin, Utah, in a remote area near the Nevada border. Smithson in particular was intrigued by the idea of entropy, the inevitable disintegration of all objects in nature. But there is no definitive record of how he felt about the disintegration of his own artworks.

Just before his death he hinted at his beliefs in an interview with Moira Roth, chairwoman of the art department at Mills College in Oakland, Calif. The complete text of the interview is to be printed in the catalog accompanying a Smithson retrospective opening in September at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. (It will travel to the Dallas Museum of Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York in 2005.) In the interview he said "Spiral Jetty" was strong enough to take care of itself, adding, "Because it's 80 percent rock, it won't erode completely." Later in the conversation he said he planned for his pieces to be permanent and seemed to say he wanted them preserved. Ms. Holt said she agreeds with this interpretation.

When Smithson set out to build "Spiral Jetty" in 1970, he hired a contractor and another worker who used two dump trucks, a tractor and a large front-loader to move 6,650 tons of rock and earth from the shore into the water. At 1,500 feet long, the giant spiral is large enough to be seen in photographs taken from space. Finding a contractor willing to build a giant artwork in such a remote spot was a challenge. Many Utah contractors were suspicious of a New York artist who wore black leather pants in the middle of summer, said Bob Phillips, the contractor from Ogden, Utah, who finally signed on to help Smithson move rocks into the lake.

"Man, his ideas sounded really strange," Mr. Phillips said. "I'd never heard about anything like earth art before."

But he quickly understood that Mr. Smithson was an extraordinarily successful artist. An entourage watched the construction of the sculpture over six days. Helicopters flew over their heads. A film crew recorded their progress. Mr. Phillips said Smithson had a precise vision for the project and supervised every step, making sure individual rocks fell in the right spots.

"He would raise each rock up and roll it around, then he would move this one, change that one until it looked exactly right," Mr. Phillips said. "He wanted it to look like it was a growing, living thing, coming out of the center of the earth."

At the time the Great Salt Lake was unusually shallow because of a drought. Ms. Holt said that after the water level went up, her husband talked about adding rocks to make his work more visible. Over time glistening white salt crystals encrusted the black rocks. The crystals accumulated all around the jetty, turning the whole area a glaring white. "He liked that the work was strong enough that it could survive these natural changes," Ms. Holt said. "He loved that these natural processes can be seen."

The drought in the West — which has been going on since 1999 — has brought the earthwork more attention than it has received in decades.

"We have people come in all the time and ask where the `Spiral Jetty' is," said Noel Christensen, who works at the nearest gas station, 30 miles away, and took her four children there to show them Rozel Point one day late last summer.

Over the summer visitors came from as far away as France and Italy to make pilgrimages to the "Jetty." One day in September a family of five was floating in the lake's salty waters just off the rocks. Two men from Salt Lake City walked to the center of the spiral as their Labrador retrievers splashed in the water.

But all these visitors could ruin "Spiral Jetty," said Hikmet Loe, a Salt Lake City librarian who wrote her master's thesis on the earthwork and continues to stay in close contact with Dia and Ms. Holt. Because the lake is so shallow and there has been so much salt buildup, people and animals can run between the coils instead of staying on the part Smithson intended for walking. Ms. Loe said she would like to see Dia preserve the earthwork.

"If people are walking across the spiral and kicking up rocks, the shape of the piece will start to erode," she said.

For years Dia has cared for other major earthworks like Walter De Maria's "Lightning Field," an installation of 400 metal rods in the high desert of southwestern New Mexico, as well as some smaller Smithson works. But foundation officials say making "Spiral Jetty" more accessible is especially complicated.

"We started surveying the land area, mapped out the size of the piece and its height to see if there's anything we need to do to restore it," Mr. Govan said. Anything the foundation does will be in close consultation with Ms. Holt, he said.

Wally Gwynn, a Utah geologist and editor of "Great Salt Lake: An Overview of Change," which was published by the state Department of Natural Resources in 2002 and which discusses "Spiral Jetty," said the earthwork would be submerged again as soon as Utah's drought ends. But he is not sure it is necessary to make the jetty more accessible.

"It has as much mystique underwater as it does when it is exposed," he said. "It's kind of like Nessie, the Loch Ness Monster. We know it's there, even if we can't see it."

Mr. Phillips, the contractor, who was initially suspicious of Smithson's plans, is now one of the earthwork's biggest fans. While the jetty was submerged, he said, he even considered adding rock to it himself. But he decided it would be wrong to alter the piece in any way without Smithson to supervise the project.

"Smithson had something to do with every rock out there," Mr. Phillips said. "It would not be the same thing if somebody else monkeyed around with it. It would no longer be Smithson's work."


Robert Smithson's Drawings, by Carter Ratcliff, 1962, © 2000, Art on Paper
A Heap of Language: Robert Smithson and American Hieroglyphic,
by Richard Sieburth, Professor of French and Comparative Literature, New York University,
From a talk on November 18, 1999
The Salt of the Earth, By MELISSA SANFORD, Published: January 13, 2004
Yucatan is Elsewhere, On Robert Smithson's Hotel Palenque
(First printed in Parkett 43, 1995, page. 133)
Sculpture From the Earth, But Never Limited by
It By MICHAEL KIMMELMAN, New York Times, June 24, 2005
Setting Sights on an American Visionary
BY DANIEL KUNITZ, New York Sun, June 23, 2005
The Whitney brings a little of
Robert Smithson’s outward-looking art back into the white box.
By Mark Stevens , New York Magazine
IKONS by Katy Siegel


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