IN 1970, when artist Robert Smithson first set his gaze on the Great Salt Lake’s Rozel Point Peninsula, he knew that he’d found the right site. Smithson was among a vanguard of artists in the late ’60s moving their work out into the landscape, freeing it from the containment of the gallery. Now he was determined to build an earthwork on a massive scale. Smithson had specific requirements: he wanted the color red — like the salt lakes he’d read about in Bolivia, their surface tinged in carnelian tones by micro-bacteria in the water. He wanted remote and he wanted vast — few to no markers of human artifice — to fuck with the viewer’s sense of scale. He wanted a site that would itself inform what he wanted to build.
Smithson and his wife, artist Nancy Holt, scouted Great Salt Lake’s southern shore; but, as he later wrote in his 1972 essay “The Spiral Jetty,” the water wasn’t red enough. At another site near Syracuse, Utah, on the eastern side of the lake, they were shooed off by angry ranchers. After fixing a gashed gas tank, the duo then set off for Rozel Point on the Great Salt Lake’s northern shore. That was it. He was dazzled: “It was as if the mainland oscillated with waves and pulsations, and the lake remained rock still.”
After securing a 20-year lease, Smithson returned in April that same year with a team of front loaders to wrest six thousand tons of basketball-sized black basalt rocks from the nearby hills. Those rocks, plus tons of mud and salt crystals, went into the creation of his Spiral Jetty, which, in aerial photos taken the year it was built, looks like a giant backward-coiling question mark limned by the pink waters of the lake. What questions does a spiral pose? Or, what questions can one ask of a spiral?
I’d long wanted to visit Smithson’s remote creation, now under the aegis of the Dia Art Foundation, which protects and preserves some of the United States’s 20th-century land art masterpieces. I’d memorably visited another site maintained by Dia in New Mexico years earlier — Walter De Maria’s The Lightning Field — and, late this spring, on a road trip with two pals, Judith and Laurie, I finally got my chance to visit Spiral Jetty.
We drove through the rural West for hundreds of miles — unmarred by billboards, graced by hoodoos. Crows. Hawks. Swallows. Cattle. So much of the United States, unpopulated by humans. We switched drivers, listened to Sam Cooke’s greatest hits and sang along with the score from Oklahoma as the road rose and dipped through the vistas of the Great Basin and Range. Our route took us through Tonopah, a Nevada casino town, once one of the richest silver booms in the West. The historic cemetery at the edge of town is populated with the graves of 17 men who perished in a 1911 mine fire. Tin plaques hammered with their birth and death dates are affixed to simple knee-high wooden crosses. A rickety wooden fence surrounds the lonely site, and some of the graves are bounded by their own low fences — perhaps an attempt to claim some space at human scale in the vastness of the surrounding desert.
We stopped in Ely, Nevada, where ear hustling the tired women shopping for baby clothes at the thrift store revealed that the town’s inhabitants were beaten down by more than just the unrelenting wind.
It was the sixth day of our trip when we turned onto Utah Highway 83 to find Spiral Jetty. By late morning, the desert was baking. We passed the Thiokol Propulsion Plant, where in the ’60s and ’70s, workers turned out LGM-30 Minutemen intercontinental nuclear missiles. Vietnam was raging when Smithson built the jetty. The United States was then — and still is — a country at war. We passed through Promontory, Utah — hardly a town. It was here, four years after the Civil War ended, that two locomotives came together for a ceremony marking completion of the country’s first transcontinental railroad, boosting one way of life (white settlers heading west) and continuing to destroy the land and livelihood of the indigenous Plains inhabitants.
It was the young guide at the Golden Spike National Monument (where Laurie left her wallet, we later realized) who kindly sketched out a little map (“Bear right at the fork … about 7 miles…”), which didn’t prevent us from managing a wrong turn onto a bumpy road that dead-ended at a barbed-wire fence festooned with “No Trespassing” warnings. After correcting course, Judith piloted the car on the heavily washboarded road (we’d feel it in our bones for days) at the pace of an oxen-drawn covered wagon — appropriate homage to her pioneer Mormon ancestors. There would be no summoning AAA. All three of us prayed, in our secular ways, that the Prius’s low chassis wouldn’t snag in a rut or puncture a tire. I recalled Smithson’s gashed gas tank.
After nine more painful miles, we were rewarded with a heavenly view: what Smithson called “an uncanny immensity” filled the oval of the front window. In the distance, looming from the salty shore we saw rotted wooden piers, abandoned shacks, junked components of discarded oil rigs. This detritus of 20th-century industrialism fascinated Smithson, who saw it as evidence of a “modern pre-history […] a succession of man-made systems mired in abandoned hopes.”
Smithson never abandoned his own hopes — he was scouting locations for a new earthwork in 1973, when the small plane in which he was a passenger crashed outside of Amarillo, Texas, killing all three on board — the pilot, the photographer, and Smithson. He was only 34. His last earthwork, Amarillo Ramp, was completed that same year by his widow, with an assist from sculptor Richard Serra and other friends.
The Great Salt Lake is a terminal lake, with no outlet to the sea. The historical average elevation of the lake (1847 to the present) is about 4,200 feet, according to the Utah Geological Survey. Rising lake levels beginning in the 1980s (with the historic high in 1986–1987 at 4,211.85 feet) kept Spiral Jetty submerged for more than 20 years, the black stones floating their question. If you visited, you got your feet wet. Now, a combination of historic drought and diverted inflow (for agricultural and human consumption) from the lake’s tributaries has marooned Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (at lake level 4,189 feet) in a startling shimmering dryness.
The bumpy route to the jetty ends in a cul-de-sac on a road in the middle of nowhere. Judith parked the panting Prius. The only other vehicle in the lot was a large van bearing the logo painted in big bold letters: WASATCH COUNTY SENIOR CENTER. Odd field trip, I thought. They looked to be departing soon; I saw faces at the windows. But the driver kept the motor idling and the accordion doors open. I secured my sun hat over my eye and headed down the sloped path toward the jetty, passing the last three hardy stragglers from the senior center — faces flushed from the staggering heat — as I headed down the sloped path. Judith and Laurie lingered back, contemplating the white expanse from the lip of rocks above the path.
As I walked out onto the causeway that forms the tail of the jetty, the landscape melted around me. Yes, the wide valley was melting … together with the white, bright dry sea. Islands floated on the horizon. I was alone in the white glare of salt molecules as lit in a ’70s film by Michelangelo Antonioni. Maybe Smithson and Antonioni knew each other? Improbable, but so was the fact (as I later learned) that the poet William Carlos Williams was Robert Smithson’s pediatrician in his hometown of Patterson, New Jersey. Oh, for a sweet cold purple plum.
I regretted wearing a black T-shirt and black jeans. I was melting like the Wicked Witch of the West, like an Eskimo bar abandoned on the sidewalk of childhood. I was alone in the blinding sun that was indeed pouring down in a crushing light. It was high noon. “Mad dogs and Englishman.” My pupils contracted.
Wait, I wasn’t alone. There was a speck of a human figure at the far end of the jetty, moving more or less in my direction. After an indeterminate amount of time, the tiny figure transformed to a woman who came up only to the height of my chest, though I’m a shorty at five feet and three inches. She wasn’t wearing a hat or dark glasses in the glare. Her gray hair was bobbed; a fringe of bangs framed a pale face and slant blue eyes that were giveaways for Downs. Her fists were clutched around black stones.
“Are you drawing a picture?” she sweetly inquired. A smile of delight played around her mouth. She glanced at the small open notebook in my hands, watching my No. 2 pencil follow the contours of the jetty onto a four-inch-by-six-inch page, my attempt to compress vastness onto a slip of paper, a record of the moment — from my eyes to my hand.
I felt like Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, that aviator stranded in the Sahara, at the moment the Little Prince arrives. If my visitor had asked me to draw her un mouton — a sheep — for her small planet, I would have gladly complied.
She made no such demand, however, sensing a private moment. My nod satisfied her. She observed for a few more moments then exclaimed, “You could stay out here forever! It’s fun!” Her exuberant grin confirmed her pleasure of the place. With a vigorous wave goodbye, she skipped away onto the salt plain, pausing to kneel before the various mini-homages that earlier visitors to Smithson’s work had constructed — spirals of small black rocks; spirals etched into the white crusty soil with fingers or a stick. At each station, she scooped up souvenir rocks, stuffing them into her pockets — then scampered on to the next in an eccentric pattern, moving away until again, she was a tiny speck in the white distance of landscape.
What was large and what was small? It was hard to tell. “[S]cale operates by uncertainty,” Smithson observed. “Size determines an object, but scale determines art. A crack in the wall if viewed in terms of scale, not size, could be called the Grand Canyon.”
I walked the remainder of the 1,500 feet of the jetty’s tail, stumbling over the jagged rocks. The origin of the word “scruple” comes from the Latin for “rough pebble,” the kind that lodges in your sandal or shoe, that pricks and cues your conscience, won’t let you forget. Smithson’s path was rough, it was scrupulous. It prodded memories. As the jetty coiled leftward into its spiral, I thought of those left-spiraling lightning whelks, gorgeous mollusks with a lightning bolt pattern on their shells, that I’d gathered years ago on Captiva Island. Sinistral coils are the rarity among the gastropods. Dante’s pilgrims descend a sinistra — into the funnel of hell. Toward heaven, they ascend a destra, to the right.
Smithson was obsessed with spirals, which suggest both diminishment and expansion. Roland Barthes noted the dialectic nature of the spiral: “[N]othing is first yet everything is new.” Give a child a crayon, the first thing they’ll often draw is a spiral. It’s a primal form, admired and studied by Archimedes, Euclid, and Plato. The spiral is common to numerous world religions and cultures; I’d seen them incised on the stone temples at Mitla, in Oaxaca.
My eyes throbbed. I closed them. Smithson reported of that first visit: “My eyes became combustion chambers churning orbs of blood blazing by the light of sun.” At the nucleus of the gyre, I planted my feet and stood still. Mountain pose. I rotated slowly in place, first counter-clockwise then clockwise though in the moment I never thought about a clock. It just felt necessary to rotate, to connect with my own axis as I stood on the spinning earth.
One, two, three revolutions. Revelations. I raised my arms out wide at shoulder-height, as if to embrace that shattered landscape. Was this how one praised the mutilated world? A poet had posed that quandary after 9/11. Was that the question Smithson was also asking?
I opened my eyes. Everything was fading to white. I was dizzy, no doubt dehydrated. One hundred and one degrees Fahrenheit. I un-gyred, then began my return, carefully minding the path of the stone-strewn jetty, the rubber soles of my Sketchers jarred by the rough basalt.
Before I reached the parking lot, I passed under a sign that entreated all visitors:
DO NOT REMOVE ANY ROCKS.
LEAVE NO TRACE
A stonemason once explained to me the difference between a rock and a stone. “A stone is a rock,” he said, “after you pick it up.” That’s pretty simple, but even so, I often get it backward. I wondered if my sprightly companion had taken with her those rocks she changed into stones. Come to think of it, Robert Smithson removed all those rocks from the hills to begin with.
On the rise, my companions stood waiting, looking, hands shielding their eyes from the sun. As we climbed into the Prius, Laurie confirmed that the last person to board the Wasatch County Senior Center bus was a small woman with lumpy pockets carrying handfuls of basalt contraband, adding, “I figured — since God took all her teeth — that she deserved to take all those stones.”
I agreed. In my mind’s eye, I saw her in a room somewhere, constructing her own miniature spiral jetty on a kitchen table, reliving the joy of unbounded space.
Louise Steinman is the author, most recently, of The Crooked Mirror: A Memoir of Polish-Jewish Reconciliation (Beacon Press). She curates the ALOUD series for the Library Foundation of Los Angeles and co-directs the Los Angeles Institute for Humanities at USC.