Robert Smithson was an American sculptor and writer associated with the Land Art movement. His large-scale sculptures, called Earthworks, engaged directly with nature and were created by moving and constructing with vast amounts of soil and rocks.
Smithson preferred to work with ruined or exhausted sites in nature. Using the earth as his palette, he created archetypal forms: spirals, circles, and mounds. Although, like other land artists of the late 1960s and early '70s—including Walter De Maria, Nancy Holt, Michael Heizer, and Carl Andre—Smithson chose to make his major work outside what he and his colleagues considered a compromised gallery system, he nevertheless also created smaller objects, which he called "nonsites," for museum and gallery settings. These nonsite pieces employed topographic maps of an area juxtaposed with minimalist displays of materials taken from the actual sites as a form of pseudo-archaeological evidence that made reference to the "real" outdoor work. He also documented his work extensively with photographs and film.
Smithson was largely self-taught. He earned a two-year scholarship to the Art Students League in New York City, and he studied briefly at the Brooklyn Museum School in 1956. His initial artwork was in the form of painting in the manner of the Abstract Expressionists. After a trip to Rome in 1961, he brought mythological and religious subjects into this work. After marrying the American sculptor Nancy Holt in 1963, he started making painted metal sculptures. As he did so, he began to question the role of the autonomous object in the museum context. He proceeded to make a number of minimalist sculptures, using industrial materials such as glass and mirrors. As he became increasingly preoccupied with the context for works of art, he began to work outside in natural sites ruined by industrial waste or mining.
“I am for an art that takes into account the direct effect of the elements as they exist from day to day apart from representation. The parks that surround some museums isolate art into objects of formal delectation. Objects in a park suggest static repose rather than any ongoing dialectic. Parks are finished landscapes for finished art. A park carries the values of the final, the absolute, and the sacred. Dialectics have nothing to do with such things. I am talking about a dialectic of nature that interacts with the physical contradictions inherent in natural forces as they are – nature as both sunny and stormy. Parks are idealizations of nature, but nature in fact is not a condition of the ideal. Nature does not proceed in a straight line, it is rather a sprawling development. Nature is never finished.
Could it be that certain art exhibitions have become metaphysical junkyards? Categorical miasmas? Intellectual rubbish? Specific intervals of visual desolation? The warden-curators still depend on the wreckage of metaphysical principles and structures because they don’t know any better. The wasted remains of ontology, cosmology, and epistemology still offer a ground for art.”
In 1971, for one of a growing number of outdoor projects, he took a 20-year lease on 10 acres of lakefront land at the Great Salt Lake in Utah, and, using hired contractors, he made a huge spiral extending 1,500 feet into the lake. This work, titled Spiral Jetty, can still be seen periodically, depending on the water level. At the time Dia acquired Spiral Jetty, the work was fully submerged in the lake. Beginning in the early 2000s, however, sustained drought in Utah caused water levels to recede, and Spiral Jetty became visible for the first prolonged period in its history.
Smithson reportedly chose the Rozel Point site of the Great Salt Lake based on the blood-red color of the water and its connection with the primordial sea. The red hue of the water is due to the presence of salt-tolerant bacteria and algae that thrive in the extreme 27 percent salinity of the lake's north arm, which was isolated from freshwater sources by the building of a causeway by the Southern Pacific Railroad in 1959. While observing the construction of the piece from a helicopter, Smithson reportedly remarked "et in Utah ego" as a counterpoint to the pastoral Baroque painting et in Arcadia ego by Nicolas Poussin.
To move the rock into the lake, Smithson hired Bob Phillips of nearby Ogden, Utah, who used two dump trucks, a large tractor, and a front end loader to haul the 6,650 tons of rock and earth into the lake. It is reported that Smithson had a difficult time convincing a contractor to accept the unusual proposal. Spiral Jetty was the first of his pieces to require the acquisition of land rights and earthmoving equipment.
He began work on the jetty in April 1970. The work was actually constructed twice; the first time requiring six days. After contemplating the result for two days, Smithson called the crew back and had the shape altered to its present configuration, an effort requiring moving 7,000 tons of basalt rock during an additional three days.
During the construction of the jetty, Robert Smithson wrote and directed a 32-minute color film, Spiral Jetty. The film was shot by Smithson and his wife Nancy Holt, and funded by Virginia Dwan and Douglas Christmas. The film is a poetic and process minded film depicting a "portrait" of his renowned earth work as it juts into the shallows off the shore of Utah's Great Salt Lake. A voice-over by Smithson reveals the evolution of the Spiral Jetty. Sequences filmed in a natural history museum are integrated into the film featuring prehistoric relics that illustrate themes central to Smithson's work. A one minute section is filmed by Nancy Holt for inclusion in the film as Smithson wanted Holt to shoot the "earth's history". This idea came from a quote Smithson found ..."the earth's history seems at times like a story recorded in a book each page of which is torn into small pieces. Many of the pages and some of the pieces of each page are missing". Smithson and Holt drove to the Great Notch Quarry in New Jersey, where he found a facing about 20 feet high. He climbed to the top and threw handfuls of ripped pages from books and magazines over the edge of the facing as Holt filmed it.
Smithson stated: "Back in New York, the urban desert, I contacted Bob Fiore and Barbara Jarvis and asked them to help me put my movie together. The movie began as a set of disconnections, a bramble of stabilized fragments taken from things obscure and fluid, ingredients trapped in a succession of frames, a stream of viscosities both still and moving. And the movie editor, bending over such a chaos of "takes'' resembles a paleontologist sorting out glimpses of a world not yet together, a land that has yet to come to completion, a span of time unfinished, a spaceless limbo on some spiral reels. Film strips hung from the cutter's rack, bits and pieces of Utah, out-takes overexposed and underexposed, masses of impenetrable material. The sun, the spiral, the salt buried in lengths of footage. Everything about movies and moviemaking is archaic and crude. One is transported by this Archeozoic medium into the earliest known geological eras. The movieola becomes a "time machine" that transforms trucks into dinosaurs.
The film recapitulates the scale of the Spiral Jetty. Disparate elements assume a coherence. Unlikely places and things were stuck between sections of film that show a stretch of dirt road rushing to and from the actual site in Utah. A road that goes forward and backward between things and places that are elsewhere. You might even say that the road is nowhere in particular. The disjunction operating between reality and film drives one into a sense of cosmic rupture.
As I looked at the site, it reverberated out to the horizons only to suggest an immobile cyclone while flickering light made the entire landscape appear a quake. A dormant earthquake spread into the fluttering stillness, into a spinning sensation without movement. This site was a rotary that enclosed itself in an immense roundness. From that gyrating space emerged the possibility of the Spiral Jetty. No ideas, no concepts, no systems, no structures, no abstractions could hold themselves together in the actuality of that evidence. My dialectics of site and nonsite whirled into an indeterminate state, where solid and liquid lost themselves in each other. It was as if the lake became the edge of the sun, a boiling curve, an explosion rising into a fiery prominence. Matter collapsing into the lake mirrored in the shape of a spiral. No sense wondering about classifications and categories, there were none."
In Spiral Jetty and all of his other Earthworks, Smithson was interested in evoking geologic time through scale and the use of ancient rocks and dirt. He investigated many prehistoric sites, such as Stonehenge in England, and felt that his work was directly associated with such locations. Smithson was also interested in concepts of entropy—how energy gets dispersed in nature from the orderly to the disorderly over time—and he saw that as a metaphor for a philosophical orientation to life. He was a highly romantic artist whose most sublime and spiritual thoughts appear in his numerous writings. Smithson died in a plane crash at age 35 while inspecting a site in West Texas for an Earthwork to be titled Amarillo Ramp. This piece was finished posthumously by Holt, Tony Shafrazi, and Richard Serra.