The End of the Road

Glenn Kaufmann

“It’s not really what I expected.”

Standing on a snowy windswept hill on the edge of Utah’s Great Salt Lake, I can’t help but think that, for many artists, this must be one of the best responses to their work.

In 1970 Robert Smithson completed what would become, arguably, his most influential and well-known work, the Spiral Jetty. Built of earth and basalt rock, the Jetty is 1,500 feet in length and 15 feet wide. Jutting out from Rozel Point into the Great Salt Lake, Smithson’s sculpture is subject to the vagaries of nature and its environment. As a result the sculpture is almost never the same from one viewing to the next.

Visiting the jetty can be a dicey prospect in good weather, and my notions of seeing it during Utah’s winter were considered by many to be a pipe dream. Rangers at a nearby national monument strongly suggested using a 4-wheel drive truck even in the summer. In winter, who knows…. I’d been warned.

Looking down the slope at Smithson’s Spiral Jetty is the completion of a life goal for me. My first glimpse of Smithson’s rocky spiral was nearly 20 years ago in the pages of my college art history text. The image of a solitary earthen spiral reaching out incongruously in such a stark natural environment was both haunting and compelling. For years I was merely fascinated by the image. Later I was drawn to it.

Seeing it now, it is most definitely not what I expected. In fact my expectations fail me. I cannot remember what I had expected. There is only the stark grayish pink water and the black jetty, punctuated by a stinging wind. Spiral Jetty demands your immediate attention. What you thought before your arrival is irrelevant. It is here, now, with you. That is all that matters.

Frequently encrusted with salt crystals, the jetty often has a mostly white appearance. At times when the salt has been washed away, the natural black of the rock dominates the work’s color palette. There are even some photos that show the jetty with an earthy green hue. Often the waters around the jetty are tinged with red, a function of the algae and bacteria in the water. But the jetty’s greatest trick is its ability to disappear.

Shortly after the jetty’s completion the lake’s water level rose and engulfed Smithson’s work. In the years that followed Spiral Jetty would reappear and then disappear again as the Great Salt Lake’s water levels rose and fell at the whim of droughts and mountain snowmelt. The jetty’s most recent reemergence began in 2002 and appears to be on the verge of ending as the waters have begun to slowly but steadily rise. Unless current weather patterns change the jetty will soon slip beneath the lake’s waters and once again be hidden from view.

A pioneering figure in the earthworks or “land art” sculpture movement, Robert Smithson was something of an enigmatic figure and a visionary. Much of his work focuses on the themes of entropy, and cycles of decay and renewal. With its ever-changing waterline and the constant buildup and erosion of salt crystals these dominant themes are visible in an immediate and visceral way when viewing Spiral Jetty.

Roughly three years after completing Spiral Jetty, on July 20, 1973, Smithson’s life was cut short in a plane crash. At the time of his death, Smithson was working in Texas on Amarillo Ramp, an earthworks sculpture that was posthumously completed by his wife, artist Nancy Holt.

to be continued

Copyright Glenn D. Kaufmann, 2006. All Rights Reserved