My Pilgrimage to Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jettyby Logical Lizard on Dec. 06, 2009, under A-List (Best of the Lizard), Arts, Journeys, Technology
I first became acquainted with the work of the great, enigmatic American artist Robert Smithson while attending New York’s School of Visual Arts during the 1980s. He was fascinated by geology, maps, landscape, earth moving equipment and enjoyed relocating piles of rocks and dirt into fancy galleries. I liked him immediately.
Robert Smithson was born in Passaic, New Jersey in 1938. His father was a natural history enthusiast who built his own small museum, and young Robert planned family vacations (as did I) to include such wonders as the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone National Monument. In 1948 the Smithson family moved to Clifton, NJ and Robert fought the boredom of suburban life by making frequent visits to the American Museum of Natural History and studying at the Art Students League, both in New York City.
As Eugenie Tsai wrote in a collection of essays on Smithson beautifully presented by the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles:
Robert Smithson is perhaps best known as a pioneer of the Earthworks movement and the creator of the iconic Spiral Jetty (1970). However, his involvement in the development of Earthworks is only one of his many contributions to postwar American art. One of the most important concepts Smithson advanced was that of the “site,” a place in the world where art is inseparable from its context.
Smithson picked Rozel Point, a remote spot on the north shore of the Great Salt Lake, Utah for the location of the Spiral Jetty. Over 6,000 tons of basalt rock and boulders were moved into position by dumptrucks in order to fashion the elegant spiral. At the time of construction, the water level was rising and Smithson knew his most ambitious work would soon be entirely—and intentionally—submerged.
I learned from the Dia Art Foundation’s SpiralJetty.org website (Smithson’s estate left the Jetty to Dia after his tragic death in an airplane accident in 1973) that, during the past few years, the water level had subsided enough to make the Spiral Jetty temporarily visible again. I so wanted to visit the site that I had once even suggested to a group of scuba diving buddies that we plan a dive trip there (that idea was met with considerable laughter). Now, after 25 years of daydreaming about the Jetty, it seemed I might at last be able to see it.
I telephoned the Golden Spike National Historic Site, the nearest sign of civilization to the Jetty, and spoke with a charming park ranger named Grace, who was most encouraging and assured me that “Now is an excellent time to visit. The water levels are very low.”
I chose Thanksgiving Day for my personal pilgrimage. I have to say the timing was partly convenience and partly strategy. I happened to be within striking distance of the Jetty in late November, and I also figured it would be pleasantly deserted on America’s most family oriented day. The long trip from Salt Lake City is not really that far in terms of miles—my roundtrip mileage amounted to about 220—but it is a little tricky to find your way. There is a lot of travel to be done on gravel roads, while following directions (very kindly supplied by Dia) along the lines of: “Drive 1.3 miles south to a second fork in the road. Turn right onto the southwest fork, and proceed 1.7 miles to cattle guard #2.”
My rental truck had already suffered one flat tire before departure for the Jetty. At that time I unhappily discovered that the rental company neglected to include a jack with the vehicle. Just a small oversight. I was able to borrow a jack from a colleague (it didn’t fit but we made it work anyway), but only for the duration of the tire change. There were now no tools of any kind in my truck and if I had another flat on Thanksgiving Day, on a dirt road somewhere northeast of the Great Salt Lake, there would be no help on the way.
It was a lovely drive, and chilly. The air felt clean and clear and winding dirt roads were surrounded on all sides by green and sculpted mountains. At some point I realized that the extensive lowlands I’d been traveling through for hours were all once part of the lake, an indication of the great changes that northern Utah has seen over the millennia.
When I rounded Rozel Point the road became so rough I had to leave the truck and hike it. Normally I would have barreled through, but I wasn’t taking any chances without that jack. My first view of Spiral Jetty, lying grand and still against a vast table of white salt, was much the way I felt the first time I saw the actual Mona Lisa or the Golden Gate Bridge. These are images so firmly implanted in the collective unconscious that gazing upon them in real life can be rapturous and slightly unsettling, as if they are vespers from other dimensions that have crossed over into our reality.
The lake had receded far indeed, leaving the Jetty starkly stranded on expansive salt flats. The sky reflected perfectly in the distant waters, creating a seamless chrome-like backdrop. And the whole place was blissfully deserted. I passed a couple of happy hours taking photos, and walking the spiral inside and out. I didn’t want to disturb Smithson’s greatest work, but I did want a souvenir, so I filled a small vial with white sand from the shore next the Jetty.
As I began to contemplate heading back to Salt Lake City, a Land Rover pulled up and parked on the shore. Four people and two dogs piled out, happy and laughing. At first I was slightly disappointed that my reverie had been disturbed, but I quickly revised my opinion: How wonderful and surprising that I’m not the only art enthusiast who is a big enough nut to come all the way out here on Thanksgiving Day. So I went over, said hello, and received a most generous invitation. But that’s a story for another day.
I remained by the Jetty, and the hills above it, almost until sunset. During my slightly melancholy drive back to Salt Lake City and a lonely and empty motel room, I realized very clearly that one of the most memorable days of my life was drawing to a close. A dream come true; a solitary journey into the wilderness for a unique and truly happy Thanksgiving Day; and a close encounter with the progeny of one of the Twentieth Century’s most puzzling and original artists. All things to be thankful for.
To learn more, I recommend the exhibition catalog Robert Smithson (2004) organized by Eugenie Tsai with Cornelia Butler in association with The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, published by the University of California Press.
Photographs © by Geoffrey Notkin. All rights reserved. No reproduction without written permission.