Magazine article The American Prospect

No Art for Oil: It's Sadly Ironic That a Work of Art Designed to Critique the Commercialization of Art and Nature Is Threatened by Oil Exploration in the Great Salt Lake

Magazine article The American Prospect

No Art for Oil: It's Sadly Ironic That a Work of Art Designed to Critique the Commercialization of Art and Nature Is Threatened by Oil Exploration in the Great Salt Lake

Article excerpt


IN 1970, ARTIST ROBERT SMITHSON rejected the gleaming white gallery spaces and"canonieal" minimalism of the New York art scene in search of an entirely different setting for his sculpture. After several exploratory trips, he selected a spot more than 2,000 miles from the Big Apple: Utah's Great Salt Lake. Rozel Point, on the northeast end of the lake's Gunnison Bay, would become the home of his most important piece of sculpture: Spiral Jetty, a 1,500-foot-long, 15-foot-wide, 6,650-ton coil of black basalt rock and mounded earth extending counterclockwise into the pinkish water of the lake. The site was remote but not virgin territory. Oil seeped from the ground, and scattered around the lake were the derelict instruments from prior efforts to extract that oil. "A great pleasure arose from seeing all those incoherent structures," Smithson wrote in 1972. "This site gave evidence of a succession of man-made systems mired in abandoned hopes."

Abandoned, but not forgotten. Today, as oil costs rise, even difficult extraction missions become potentially lucrative projects. Unconventional sources--be they shale oil in Canada or crude tar under a briny lake in Utah--previously considered too inhospitable, expensive, or politically untenable are being given a second look. In a development that has alarmed art followers around the world, oil developers are returning to the Great Salt Lake, mere miles from Jetty. Even in a remote corner of Utah, the commercial world caught up with Smithson.

This is all sadly ironic, given that Spiral Jetty is arguably the world's foremost example of land art (also known as earth art or earthworks), a genre that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s as a fierce critique of the commercialization of art and nature. Defying the commodification of art objects, earth artists intervened in the landscape itself, trading brushes for excavators. At a time when gallery and museum spaces were facing unprecedented scrutiny as structures that shaped the way viewers understood art as well as the course of art's development, earth artists like Smithson transformed natural spaces into the work itself. Land art married site-specific installation, minimalist aesthetics, and institutional critique with a nascent environmentalist movement.

Smithson's name appears in nearly every textbook written about art published between World War II and the present day. At one time better known for his criticism than his work, he developed a theoretical distinction for art, categorizing objects as "site" and "non-site." A non-site work can be displayed in any space (say, an art gallery), whereas a site work exists in a dialectical relationship with its settings. Since most of his significant work was of the site variety, his finished projects are relatively few for an artist of his stature. However, his accomplishments were extraordinary given that he was only 35 when he was killed in a 1973 plane crash while surveying a site for Amarillo Ramp, a rock semicircle that emerged from an artificial lake in Texas. The piece was completed by artists Nancy Holt (who was also Smithson's wife), Richard Serra, and others. A retrospective of the artist's paintings, sculptures, and writings as well as photographs and ephemera related to his land works was mounted in 2004 by the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles and traveled in 2005 to the Dallas Museum of Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art. For the New York stage of the tour, the Whitney (with the support of Minetta Brook, a nonprofit arts organization) realized Floating Island, a project Smithson designed but never executed, in which a small island of rocks, trees, and pathways was built on a barge and pulled by a tugboat around Manhattan.

HOLT, SMITHSON'S WIDOW, FIRST got word that Spiral Jetty was in danger from Lynn DeFreitas, executive director of Friends of the Great Salt Lake, an organization primarily charged with safeguarding the lake's watershed. …

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