Spiral Jetty

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Spiral Jetty
Robert Smithson's "Spiral Jetty" as seen from Rozel Point
Artist Robert Smithson
Year 1970 (1970)
Type Sculpture
Dimensions 4.572 m × 457.2 m (15 ft × 1500 ft)
Location Rozel Point, Great Salt Lake, Utah
Coordinates Coordinates: 41°26′16″N 112°40′8″W / 41.43778°N 112.66889°W / 41.43778; -112.66889
Owner State of Utah

Spiral Jetty is an earthwork sculpture constructed in April 1970 that is considered to be the central work of American sculptor Robert Smithson. Smithson documented the construction of the sculpture in a 32-minute color film also titled Spiral Jetty.

Built on the northeastern shore of the Great Salt Lake near Rozel Point in Utah entirely of mud, salt crystals, and basalt rocks, Spiral Jetty forms a 1,500-foot-long (460 m), 15-foot-wide (4.6 m) counterclockwise coil jutting from the shore of the lake. The water level of the lake varies with precipitation in the mountains surrounding the area, revealing the jetty in times of drought and submerging it during times of normal precipitation.

Originally black basalt rock against ruddy water, Spiral Jetty is now largely white against pink due to salt encrustation.

Since the initial construction of Spiral Jetty, those interested in its fate have dealt with questions of proposed changes in land use in the area surrounding the sculpture and of the proper amount of preservation, if any.


Spiral Jetty is an earthwork sculpture constructed in April 1970 on the northeastern shore of the Great Salt Lake near Rozel Point in Utah. The sculpture is built of mud, precipitated salt crystals, and basalt rocks. The sculpture forms a 1,500-foot-long (460 m), 15-foot-wide (4.6 m) counterclockwise coil jutting from the shore of the lake.[1] The sculpture is sometimes visible and sometimes submerged, depending upon the water level of the Great Salt Lake.


Smithson reportedly chose the Rozel Point site 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.

Smithson was reportedly attracted to the Rozel Point site because of the stark anti-pastoral beauty and industrial remnants from nearby Golden Spike National Historic Site, as well as an old pier and a few unused oil rigs.[2] 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.[3]

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.[4]

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.[5]

Construction contractor[edit]

Robert "Bob" Phillips (5 August 1939 – 11 April 2016) worked for 40 years in construction, including positions as a bid estimator for Utah contracting companies Jack B. Parsons Construction, and Whitaker Construction. He often told people that his best-known construction job was “the only thing I ever built that ... was to look at and had no purpose.”

Phillips was an expert at construction materials and techniques, and was proficient in projecting the cost and effort required for a projected job.

Phillips was uneasy about using earth-moving equipment in the muck around Rozel Point, where Smithson wanted to create the jetty. “It’s tricky working out on that lake,” Phillips said. “There’s lots of backhoes buried out there.” Smithson, in hip-wader boots, was in full command on the site. “When we got out there, he just took over,” Phillips said. “I don’t think he had done any geology work or anything on it. He just had in his mind what it should look like.… He just had the eye for it. I assume it was the artist in him.”

Smithson actually had Phillips’ crew build the jetty twice. The first took six days of work, using heavy equipment, but two days later, Smithson had Phillips’ team redo it, to create today's spiral shape.

Phillips said Smithson liked to use words like “entropy” to describe the interaction of the basalt and the lake.

Robert Phillips was born in Spanish Fork, Utah and grew up in Cache Valley. He married Judy Crocket in January 1961. they had four children. He earned a degree in entomology from Utah State University. He died of cancer in Ogden.[5]

Person standing in the middle of Spiral Jetty, photographed from the shore


Spiral Jetty - March 2016, water has receded and left a white salt desert in its place
Salt desert at Spiral Jetty

The sculpture becomes submerged whenever the level of the Great Salt Lake rises above an elevation of 4,195 feet (1,279 m).[6] In 1970 the lake's water level was unusually low due to drought. Within a few years, the water level returned to a normal level, submerging the stones for the next three decades. In 2002, the area experienced another drought, lowering the water level in the lake and revealing the jetty for a second time.[2] The jetty remained completely exposed for almost a year. During the spring of 2005, the lake level rose again[citation needed] due to a near-record-setting snowpack in the surrounding mountains, partially submerging the sculpture. In spring 2010, lake levels receded and the sculpture was again walkable and visible. By late June 2011, runoff from a record snowpack again submerged the Jetty. October 2015, the jetty was again above water and visible. As of March 2016, the water has receded nearly a half mile, and in its place is a white salt desert.

Financing and ownership[edit]

The sculpture was financed in part by a $9,000 USD grant from the Virginia Dwan Gallery of New York. A 20-year lease for the site was granted for $100 annually.

Smithson died in a helicopter crash in Texas three years after finishing the jetty.[7]

The sculpture has been owned by the state of Utah since June 2011.[8] Previously, the area was leased by the Dia Art Foundation of New York City, who acquired the piece by a donation from Smithson's estate in 1999.[9] The Dia Art Foundation is currently seeking a new lease from the state.[10]


The current exposure of the jetty to the elements and to the ravages of its growing number of visitors has led to a controversy over the preservation of the sculpture. The discoloration of the rocks and the exposure of the lake bed having altered the colors of the original, a proposal has emerged to buttress the sculpture and restore the original colors by the addition of new basalt rocks in the spirit of the original. It is expected that without such additions, the sculpture will be submerged again once the drought is over.

The issue has been complicated by ambiguous statements by Smithson, who expressed an admiration for entropy in that he intended his works to mimic earthly attributes in that they remain in a state of arrested disruption and not be kept from destruction.[5]

In 2008 plans were announced for exploratory oil drilling approximately five miles from the jetty.[11] This was met with strong resistance from artists, and the state of Utah received more than 3,000 e-mails about the plan, most opposing the drilling.[12]


External video
Smithson, Spiral Jetty, 1970, Smarthistory[13]
http://www.getty.edu/conservation/publications_resources/videos/focus/spiral_jetty_sunrise.html Sunrise over Spiral Jetty], J. Paul Getty Trust[14]

In 1970 during the construction of the jetty, Robert Smithson wrote and directed a 32-minute color film, Spiral Jetty.[15] The film was shot by Smithson and his wife Nancy Holt, and funded by Virginia Dwan and Douglas Christmas.

The film documented the construction process and also formed an ancillary artwork. Smithson combines his interest in geology, paleontology, astronomy, mythology and cinema, stating that he had an interest in documenting "the earth's history".[16] In conjunction with filmed sequences of the jetty, Smithson incorporates footage of dinosaurs in a natural history museum and the ripped pages from a history text. During this scene, Smithson refers to the institutions of history: "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".[15] Smithson's narrative supports an alternative view of historical discourse and the art object's placement or production outside of the museum institution. His writings also indicate that the helicopter film sequences over the jetty were a method of "recapitulating the scale of the jetty".[16] By visually disorienting the viewer, Smithson is able to negate a time and place for the materiality of the artwork or create what he calls a "cosmic rupture".[16] Through this state, the viewer is meant to be unable to categorize or classify the site, and will be left in a state free from the dialect of history.


  1. ^ "Spiral Jetty". robertsmithson.com. James Cohan Gallery. Retrieved 6 November 2012. 
  2. ^ a b Kimmelman, Michael (13 October 2002). "Out of the Deep". nytimes.com. The New York Times Company. Retrieved 6 November 2012. 
  3. ^ Smithson, Robert (1979). Holt, Nancy, ed. The Writings of Robert Smithson: Essays with Illustrations. New York NY: New York University Press. ISBN 9780814733943. 
  4. ^ "A Finding Aid to the Robert Smithson and Nancy Holt papers". Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. Retrieved 29 November 2012. 
  5. ^ a b c [http://saltlaketribune.ut.newsmemory.com/ Sean P. Means, Contractor brought Spiral Jetty to life, Salt Lake Tribune, 19 April 2016, p. A11
  6. ^ Case, William F. "Pink Water, White Salt Crystals, Black Boulders, and the Return of Spiral Jetty!". ugs.state.ut.us. State of Utah. Archived from the original on 6 May 2008. 
  7. ^ Pagel, Angelika. "The Immobile Cyclone: Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty". nps.gov. National Park Service. Archived from the original on 25 July 2008. Retrieved 6 November 2012. 
  8. ^ Warchol, Glen. The Salt Lake Tribune. "Control of iconic sculpture Spiral Jetty in dispute"
  9. ^ The Center for Land Use Interpretation. "Spiral Jetty"
  10. ^ Dobner, Jennifer. Deseret News. "Art foundation seeks new Spiral Jetty lease"
  11. ^ Kennedy, Randy. The New York Times. "Artists Rally for Spiral Jetty in Utah"
  12. ^ Johnson, Kirk. The New York Times, 27 March 2008. "Plans to Mix Oil Drilling and Art Clash in Utah"
  13. ^ "Smithson, Spiral Jetty, 1970". Smarthistory at Khan Academy. Retrieved 28 February 2013. 
  14. ^ "Sunrise over Spiral Jetty". J. Paul Getty Trust. Retrieved 28 February 2013. 
  15. ^ a b "Spiral Jetty, 1970 Film by Robert Smithson". robertsmithson.com. James Cohan Gallery. Retrieved 6 November 2012. 
  16. ^ a b c Smithson, Robert. The Spiral Jetty, 1970, published in Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings, edited by Nancy Holt, New York University Press, pp. 109-113

External links[edit]