Spiral Jetty – Robert Smithson’s Quintessential And Weird Land Art Piece

On the shores of the Great Salt Lake in Utah is one of the most famous and important pieces of land art in the world. Spiral Jetty, created by American artist Robert Smithson, is a 460 metre (1,500 feet) long jetty that spirals out counterclockwise into the striking pink waters of the lake. While it is sometimes submerged under the salty water, other times it is available for visitors to visit, and even walk on.

Drawing of Robert Smithson's Land Art Work Spiral Jetty in Utah

Building Of Spiral Jetty

The site chosen for Spiral Jetty was the pink side of Great Salt Lake, near Rozel Point. Smithson chose this location because of the red-pink colour, caused by an abundance of salt-tolerant algae and bacteria.

Smithson created Spiral Jetty in April of 1970. It was a colossal task that required a team of contractors, 2 dump trucks, a loader and a tractor. It was constructed from 6650 tons of basalt rock and earth. The construction was filmed by Smithson, who released the video, also titled Spiral Jetty.

Smithson hired construction contractor Bob Philips to handle the heavy lifting. He was reportedly reluctant to take on the job, as the mud of the building site presented significant challenges for his equipment. The Jetty was actually built twice. After six days of work, the Jetty had a strange hook shape, looking more like a J-shape than a spiral shape. Smithson decided it needed adjusting, calling the crew back for another three days to correct the shape.

Drawing of Spiral Jetty in Utahs Great Salt Lake pink water land art

Impact And Legacy Of Spiral Jetty

The result was one of the greatest pieces of land art ever built. Nearly half a kilometre long, and 4.6 metres (15 feet) wide, Smithson called his work “the work of the decade.” The state of Utah adopted the work as the state’s official work of land art in 2017.

Spiral Jetty was one of the most influential works that kicked off the land art movement, moving art from the gallery to the outdoors. It’s ambitious and daring, yet totally pointless as a jetty. It’s elegant, but in an obtrusive way that doesn’t quite fit with the natural world around it. While the spiral is a common shape found in nature, such as the shell of a snail, this spiral has the man-made Archimedian shape that features constant distance between lines.

Robert Smithson

Robert Smithson (1938-1973) began his art career as a painter, before moving on to sculpture using glass and neon lights to explore light as an art material. Around 1968, he began experimenting with land art ideas in industrial sites. Works such as Map Of Broken Clear Glass (Atlantis) (1969) and Eight-Part Piece (Cayuga Salt Mine Project) (1969) are notable examples of his use of industrial materials.

Besides Spiral Jetty, other large-scale land art projects included Broken Circle/Spiral Hill (1971) in Emmen, The Netherlands. The 42.6 metre (140 feet) work was a circular form built on the edge of a quarry lake, with half the circle constructed of sand over the water, and the other half a canal dug into the land. Partially Buried Woodshed (1970) was another notable example, although the structure has now collapsed, and just a mound of dirt and concrete foundations remains.

Unfortunately, just three years after making his most famous work, Smithson died in a plane crash whilst doing an aerial survey for his next work, Amarillo Ramp. He was just 35 years old. His wife, Nancy Holt, continued to make land art after his passing, with her own groundbreaking work, Sun Tunnels, considered another quintessential land art work.

Visiting Spiral Jetty

The owner of the Spiral Jetty is the Dia Art Foundation, who acquired the work after donation by Nancy Holt in 1999. The foundation maintains the artwork, which can be visited by anybody. Visitors are reminded to leave no trace of their visit; no littering, building of fire pits, or taking of rocks. While there is a carpark for visitors, the site does not have any facilities such as restrooms or food or drink. Spiral Jetty is at the end of Spiral Jetty Road, about an hour’s drive from Corinne, Utah, and 2 hour’s drive from Salt Lake City.

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While very remote, and a long drive to access, visiting Robert Smithson’s artwork is one of the unexpected and interesting things to do around the Great Salt Lake area. Decades on from its construction, Spiral Jetty remains one of the most important works from the land art movement.


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