Magazine article Sunset

The Spiral Jetty

Magazine article Sunset

The Spiral Jetty

Article excerpt

On shores of Utah's Great Salt Lake, a long-vanished masterpiece has risen again. PETER FISH reports on the world's most famous submerged artwork

From the Rozel Point shoreline, you see a straggling line of black rocks extending into the waters of the Great Salt Lake, waters that shimmer from blue to unearthly rose depending on the turn of the wind. Climb higher up the point, watching for rattlers, and the line of rocks composes itself: a spiral coiling into the red lake water. It recalls a whirlpool, a chambered nautilus's whorls. It has been classed as a work of genius, as a hoax. Now, after decades of invisibility, Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty has risen to baffle and delight again.

A product of the 1960s, the movement known as Earth Art is hot in 2005. Near Nevada's Golden Gate Mountains, Michael Heizer is digging City, a labyrinthine construction of terraces burrowed into the desert dirt. In northern Arizona, James Turrell is creating Roden Crater. Like earlier earthworks-Walter De Maria's Lightning Field in New Mexico, Heizer's Double Negative in Nevada-City and Roden Crater are pieces of art fashioned by bulldozers instead of paintbrushes, with the canvas replaced by the landscape: specifically, the landscape of the American West.

But no earthwork is creating a bigger stir than one completed decades ago by an artist long dead. Underwater for more than 20 years, Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty has resurfaced. His brief but brilliant career is resurfacing too. A Smithson retrospective, organized by the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, has opened at New York's Whitney Museum. And Spiral Jetty is, well, almost a tourist attraction.

"I think he must be enjoying himself, wherever he is," says Hikmet Sidney Loe, a Salt Lake City art historian who collaborates with the Dia Art Foundation, the New York organization that now manages Spiral Jetty. "Everybody is paying homage to him."

Born in New Jersey, Smithson made a name for himself in New York circles while still in his 20s, with art that was at once scientific, deadpan, and bleak, such as his mock-heroic photo series, "The Monuments of Passaic." But like the others who converged in the Earth Art movement, Smithson wanted to work on a larger scale. Inevitably, he was drawn west.

"I think each of us had our own reasons for coming west," says Smithson's widow, artist Nancy Holt, who created her own earthwork, Sun Tunnels, in the desert west of the Great Salt Lake. But for all of the artists, the interior West's sheer size and relative emptiness were big draws : Here was the widest, blankest canvas one could find.

Smithson became fascinated by the Great Salt Lake. "He wanted salt," says Loe. "And water with red in it." The lake's northern third is so saline that only microorganisms and brine shrimp survivethese give the water a red cast. Smithson also wanted rocks: Rozel Point, on the lake's remote northern shore, was jagged with black volcanic basalt.

And so in 1970, Smithson showed up at the Parson Construction Company in Ogden, Utah, looking for a contractor. "He had long dark hair," says Bob Phillips, whom Smithson approached to do the job. "And big dark eyes that stared through you."

Smithson showed Phillips drawings of a spiral jetty, 15 feet wide, 1,500 feet long.

"I told him I'd get a bid on it," Phillips says. "I thought that would scare him away."

But it didn't. Smithson agreed to pay $6,000. Phillips hired four men to drive dump trucks and loaders and carry 6,650 tons of rocks from the shoreline into the lake to shape the jetty. …

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