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10 / The Natural World

Spiral Jetty
Spiral Jetty
Artist / Origin Robert Smithson (American, 1938–1973)
Region: North America
Date 1970
Material Mud, precipitated salt crystals, rocks, and water
Dimensions L: 1500 ft. (457.2 m.), W: 15 ft. (4.57 m.)
Location Rozel Point, Great Salt Lake, Utah
Credit © Estate of Robert Smithson/VAGA, New York/CORBIS

expert perspective

John BeardsleyDirector, Garden & Landscape Studies, Dumbarton Oaks

Spiral Jetty

» Robert Smithson (American, 1938–1973)

expert perspective

John Beardsley John Beardsley Director, Garden & Landscape Studies, Dumbarton Oaks

A lot of artists in the late sixties and early seventies wanted to engage this idea of physical experience in space. Artists, I think, wanted to deal with ideas about the body moving through space over time and so they moved their art into real space as a way of engaging more of the senses. Spiral Jetty is probably the best known work by Robert Smithson, who was one of the most interesting artists of the late sixties and early seventies. He was a writer as well as a sculptor and left us with a really challenging and interesting body of written work that’s provided the foundation for a lot of subsequent work that’s been done in the landscape.

The Spiral Jetty is a coil of black basalt rock and earth that spins about 1,500 feet into the Great Salt Lake. And it’s made in the shape of a spiral, Smithson said, because as he stood at the foot of the site, the site seemed to spin around him to rotate out to the horizon like a cyclone. He also liked the fact that there’s a Native American legend that the Great Salt Lake is connected to the ocean through a whirlpool in its center. And he drew analogies between the spiral and the shape of the salt crystals that form on the rocks as the water rises and falls. So, it was made for a specific site, or it was made in response to the conditions of a specific site. But Smithson wasn’t drawn to just any kind of landscape. He preferred landscapes that had a sort of challenging quality to them, sites that were derelict in some way or seemed disturbed in some way. And he was drawn to the Great Salt Lake because it’s in a very arid environment, but also because the water is so salty that nothing can grow in it except for colonies of an algae that turns the water pink. So he was drawn to these extreme environmental conditions with the idea that art could somehow draw you into landscapes that you might not otherwise go to.

Spiral Jetty exists in many forms. It exists as a physical artifact in the landscape itself, it exists as drawings, it exists as a film, it exists as a text—he wrote an essay called ‘The Spiral Jetty.’ So it doesn’t exist only as a physical entity in the landscape, it exists in all these other forms as well. And, it’s really meant to be experienced through all those media.” 


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