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Westward Spiral
November 22, 2005


Easily one of the iconic visual artworks from the last few decades—and all the more so for having been seen by so few people—Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty (1970) has possibly never looked better. Underwater for years, the land art sculpture reemerged in 2002 after the Great Salt Lake's waters subsided slightly. (Recently, the waters sunk so low that the piece was briefly landlocked.) Consider this stunning photograph of the Jetty (taken by photoblogger Chas Bowie) and you'll understand why art fans—including more than a few art bloggers—are making pilgrimages in record numbers to see the earthwork. (The surge in "attendance" has no doubt been buoyed by the Smithson retrospective, which debuted last year at MOCA in LA and is currently on display at the Whitney; discussion of Smithson's legacy by Arthur Danto and Peter Schjeldahl, to name just two; and the realization of Floating Island To Travel Around Manhatten Island, a project that has before now existed only as a sensibly named sketch. Not a bad year for Smithson.)

The Jetty is such a remarkable work because it intersects so many conversations in the art world (which is all the more extraordinary given its remote location). Tyler Green wrote the following perceptive comments after his visit:

The Jetty is one of the masterpieces of American art. It explodes the 19th-century landscape painting of Frederic Church and his contemporaries, exposing it as the art equivalent of transitional technology. Here Smithson doesn't merely borrow land as a subject, he uses it as the canvas for his art.

That's a great connection and introduces the third party: the gorgeous, unrelenting western landscape. I would quibble with Green over some points—that Church and friends didn't explode the landscapes themselves, in particular. Nevertheless, Smithson picked exactly the right site for an environment that would affect his work in a major way. Throughout his life the artist studied the scientific concept of entropy enthusiastically, and he rejected prevailing notions about pure form; his understanding of energy and chaos are at hand in the piece. The Jetty is a nearly 7,000-ton, 1,500-foot basalt installation—and every once in a while the Lake nonchalantly tucks it out of sight, only to leisurely return the rocks to view after sheathing them with fine salt crystals.

Painting by Albert Bierstadt

Albert Bierstadt, Among the Sierra Nevada, California, 1868, Smithsonian American Art Museum, 1977.107.1

What about Church and his Hudson River School contemporaries? Their paintings sought to place the exotic, untamed New World into the context of their day. Church's Aurora Borealis situates man in a position to marvel at the awesome natural spectacle, as if man were its intended audience. That sense of theater—the divine revelation to man through nature at the compositional and narrative center of the canvas—is key to Albert Bierstadt's sublime western landscapes, which belied the harsh reality of crossing unforgiving mountains and surviving on hostile frontier plains.

For American artists, the natural frontier serves as a crucible against which art is made, whether 100 years ago or today. Bierstadt and Church collapsed that natural element into their landscapes, hoping to draw out providence from the uncategorizable. Smithson introduced that same element to the Jetty in order to make a large manmade object a happenstance player in an ongoing natural drama.

Posted by Kriston on November 22, 2005 in American Art Elsewhere


Comments

I really enjoyed this post! The links to the photoblog and other sites had me "book-marking" a great deal! What I really took away from this story is the invitingly delicious complexity of an American "Masterpiece."

This was a really interesting post. I remember studying the Spiral Jetty my freshman year of college. I very much enjoyed being reminded about it; I can appreciate from a new perspective now. I especially enjoyed the connection to the Hudson River School.

In Spiral Jetty Smithson ultimately creates an evolving work of art in which the human artist is only a tool and nature reclaims its dominance as divine creator. The work, like other works in the 1960s-70s, collapses high art and thus the work both functions as performance piece, a sculptural piece, a gestural painting, and a print of the earth's changing rhythms.

Furthermore, an argument could be made that Robert Smithson is at least as important as a thinker and critic as he is as an artist. In the art history of the Seventies, his words are certain to be returned to and returned to. As Spiral Jetty reveals, Smithson is one of those figures whose thought at once defines and transcends his own time.

A question derived from one of the links:

Would beer cans, graffiti, and a gradual destruction due to human traffic be in sync or not with the artist's intentions?

Hey Bob,

Would beer cans, graffiti, and a gradual destruction due to human traffic be in sync or not with the artist's intentions?

I imagine that the U.S. Department of the Interior frowns on beer cans and graffiti along the Great Salt Lake no matter the artist's intentions. But the Jetty is intended to be trampled on.

Smithson wrote about eventually having more rocks added to the Jetty, but he died only 3 years after the work was completed and never fully stated his wishes for its curation. No one's added any rocks to the pile yet.

Hey Bob,

Would beer cans, graffiti, and a gradual destruction due to human traffic be in sync or not with the artist's intentions?

I imagine that the U.S. Department of the Interior frowns on beer cans and graffiti along the Great Salt Lake no matter the artist's intentions. But the Jetty is intended to be trampled on.

Smithson wrote about eventually having more rocks added to the Jetty, but he died only 3 years after the work was completed and never fully stated his wishes for its curation. I don't know what will happen, but no one's added any rocks to the pile yet.

Although when I was there making the afore-linked photo, previous visitors had piled a collection of rocks taken from various points on the jetty and piled them at the tip of the line, creating a sort of nipple at the end, which stacked to about a foot higher than the rest of the jetty. I couldn't imagine caring enough about the Jetty to drive all the way there, only to add your own stupid little touch at the end. It reminded me of the old Steve Martin bit in which he travels to France, and describes basking in the awe of a glorious cathedral, drinking in the stained glass windows and architecture—only to pull at a can of spray paint to leave a dopey tag behind. Needless to say, I dismantled the distracting little pile (those rocks are indeed heavy).

Bob:

I looked around and found an entry by Todd Gibson about his visit to the Jetty (I've never been). And he says there's a surprising degree of manmade entropy at hand.

It is valid great connection and introduces the third party: the gorgeous, unrelenting western landscape.

Spiral Jetty, no doubt, always look better but it was exceedingly better in the decades of 70s.

Wow, that is an incredible painting. It reminds me of a scene out of Lord of The Rings.

If you think it's over the top now, imagine how it must have looked to people in 1868!

It reminds me of a scene out of Lord of The Rings.

Excellent post! I found it out through a google search. The Jetty is surely a remarkable piece of art which should be preserved.

Wow! Hadn't heard of the Jetty before. Thanks.

I only came across this page via a search for Jetty, but fell in love with the artwork on the page.

I love it, terrific pictures!

My home is not far from there. I will have to check out the Jetty. How typical that the locals are not aware of what is close to home. Is that a trees for the forest thing?

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