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How Robert Smithson made art out of the landscape itself

Smithson’s once-submerged Utah sculpture Spiral Jetty is a richly metaphorical work.

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The work of Robert Smithson comes tightly wrapped in some ­unforgiving artistic concepts. Smithson (1938-73) came of age in the 1960s when a flurry of knotty movements, ideas and adherences were gaining purchase – minimalism, land art, psychogeography, site-specific art, video art and more. Although his life was short, dying at 35 in a plane crash as he ­surveyed potential sites for a large-scale project near Amarillo, Texas, he tried as many of them as he could.

Smithson won early renown as a painter and collagist but became disenchanted with the traditional art world – museums, he thought, were “mausoleums” – and his interest quickly turned to the landscape, both manmade and natural. In particular, he became fascinated by entropy, the idea of natural degradation.

Smithson was a writer as well as an artist, and documented his evolving thoughts in numerous essays that could be verbose, self-indulgent and theoretical as well as lucid and aphoristic.

In 1967, for example, he described a walk in his hometown of Passaic, New Jersey. As he went along, he came across a crater full of water that was being pumped into the nearby river. “This constituted a monumental fountain,” he wrote. “The great pipe was in some enigmatic way connected with the infernal fountain. It was as though the pipe was secretly sodomising some hidden technological orifice, and causing a monstrous sexual organ (the fountain) to have an orgasm. A psychoanalyst might say that the landscape displayed ‘homosexual tendencies’, but I will not draw such a crass anthropomorphic conclusion. I will merely say, ‘It was there.’”

[see also: The dreamscapes of Maxfield Parrish]

“It was there” also describes his most striking work, Spiral Jetty of 1970, a 1,500ft-long and 15ft-wide coil of rock and earth that juts into the Great Salt Lake in Utah. “I like landscapes that suggest prehistory,” Smithson said, and this massive structure most clearly recalls the Nazca lines in Peru – the gigantic animals and birds scraped in outline on to the desert floor some time between 500 BC and AD 500. They, too, only reveal themselves fully from the air and Spiral Jetty bears a marked similarity to the curled tail of the monkey, one of the most famous of the geoglyphs. But it also nods to the infrastructure of the lake’s industrial past with its pontoons, loading docks and causeways.

Smithson, decked out in waders, strode into the lake and staked the outline with flags before directing an assortment of earth- moving trucks to create the work: he was unhappy with its first iteration and recalled the construction specialist to change its shape. In all, it took three weeks to make and, according to the contractor, “I don’t think he had done any geology work or anything on it. He just had in his mind what it should look like.” Nevertheless, although Spiral Jetty comprises 6,000 tons of basalt and earth, it is impermanent as well as permanent. When the level of the Great Salt Lake drops below 4,198ft above sea level the work is visible, when the water rises, it disappears: repeated dousing has given the structure a jewel-like crusting of salt crystals.

Two years after it was made, the water level rose and Spiral Jetty disappeared, re-emerging, like some mythical beast, only in 2002 when droughts hit the region. For 30 years it existed solely in memory, photographs and in a trippy film Smithson made as he ran along the spiral to its central coil. He described the sensation, which may have become evident only once it was completed: “Constriction or concentration exists within the inner coils… whereas on the outer edge you’re kind of thrown out.”

For Smithson, the work was meant to demonstrate his repudiation of the picturesque and his conviction that “nature does not proceed in a straight line, it is rather a sprawling development”. It was to be the very opposite of how city dwellers perceived nature: “Objects in a park suggest static repose rather than any ongoing dialectic,” he said. “Parks are finished landscapes for finished art.” Spiral Jetty, on the other hand, is ongoing; given geological time, his whorl would curl tighter and tighter until it broke off into a Catherine wheel that would spin slowly out into the lake. Smithson was fond of suprahuman ideas, so it also calls to mind such other big concepts as a galaxy wheeling in space (it was made a year after the first moon landing) or an atom with its orbiting electrons.

[see also: The pioneering landscapes of Paul Bril]

Smithson’s jetty is therefore an abstract concept made real, just as he once described an experiment to prove the irreversibility of eternity. He pictured a box of sand divided with dark sand on one side and light sand on the other. Then a child steps into the box and runs clockwise until the sand is mixed and turned to grey. “After that we have him run anti-clockwise, but the result will not be a restoration of the original division but a greater degree of greyness and an increase of entropy.” Spiral Jetty is a realisation of that experiment halted at the halfway point.

Since Smithson’s death, the work has been adopted as a symbol of climate change – its emergence and submergence giving a handy visual metaphor (one of many it offers) for our deleterious effect on the landscape. As a result, extensive efforts have been made to preserve it: a strict “leave no trace” policy operates at the site with visitors fined for removing rocks or lighting fires, and plans to drill for oil a few miles away were met with an outraged response. The irony being that as such well-meaning attempts are made to conserve the jetty, Smithson – in making it in the first place – was willing entropy on. 

Michael Prodger is associate editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article appears in the 13 November 2020 issue of the New Statesman, America after Trump