Today I’m catching a plane for the Southwest. I’m heading out to Quemado and Marfa, and I can’t wait. (Posting Wed-Fri? No idea. Maybe.) My mind is full of earth art, in part because of where I’m going and in part because I revisited Smithson at the Whitney over the weekend. Here’s what I wrote about visiting the Jetty last September:
Understandably, the greatest Smithson isn’t in the retrospective either. That work, titled Spiral Jetty, is a 6,650-ton, 1,500-foot spiraling installation of rock that extends out from the shore of Utah’s Great Salt Lake. The Jetty has long been a point of pilgrimage for art lovers; with MOCA’s exhibit and a renewed public interest in earth art, attendance is up. According to a National Park Service ranger at the Golden Spike National Historic Site, in the last couple of weeks the number of visitors to the Jetty is running three-to-five times normal.
After seeing the MOCA show, I went to the Jetty to see for myself whether it is great art or if those who have made the trip talk it up as a way to justify the trek into Box Elder County, Utah.
After flying to Salt Lake City, renting a truck, driving two-and-a-half-hours, and after finally swerving my way down a rocky, rutted road only an SUV could love, I was ready to believe that the journey begat the Jetty legend.
Once arrived, I extracted myself from my battered SUV, looked out at the Jetty and became a believer. After five minutes of staring at it my entire face was sore, just like it is after a roller coaster ride. I couldn’t stop smiling.
I walked out onto the Jetty, following its spiral curve to the center. Most art isn’t made to be touched, let alone walked on. The Jetty is. Like virtually no other artwork, Spiral Jetty transforms art viewing into a five-sense experience. I smelled brine, I heard chirps and voices carried over the flat by the light breeze; I tasted the lake on my lips, I felt the crusty salt crystals that cover the black basalt of the Jetty, and my eyes happily ignored the topographic drama around me so they could fix on the Jetty.
Until now, like most people, I had only seen the Jetty in photographs. Jetty images usually fall into two categories: aerial shots that make it look like something big enough to be seen from space, or pictures shot from over the lake, looking back at the shore. No one, save a few pilots, sees the Jetty that way. The way to see it is from land, with northern Utah before you.
In pursuit of the best view, I scrambled 300 feet up a hill of volcanic debris called Rozel Point. To my left and right mountains looked down on the lake in front of me. Islands far, far away provided visual depth, reminding me how huge the Great Salt Lake is. From Rozel Point, the Jetty is just a doodle on the landscape. It is art as ornament, Smithson-made bling-bling for Mother Nature.
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.
A few hundred yards east of Smithson’s spiral is an old industrial jetty, used for oil exploration from the 1920’s to the 1980’s. It is rotting toward dissolution. While he didn’t write about it, Smithson saw it when he was building Spiral Jetty. He must have known that the oil jetty would eventually decay and disappear, while his artwork would survive, forming a partnership with nature. It will last.