If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content

Course: AP®︎/College Art History > Unit 6

Lesson 2: Modern and contemporary art

Robert Smithson, Spiral Jetty

Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty, a 1970 artwork in Utah's Great Salt Lake, is a unique blend of nature and human intervention. The spiral design, made of basalt stones and soil, changes over time due to natural forces. This reflects Smithson's interest in entropy, the process of things breaking down. The artwork also symbolizes the tension between industrial growth and nature preservation. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

Want to join the conversation?

Video transcript

(piano music) - [Steven] In 1970, Robert Smithson hired several people to help him create Spiral Jetty. We're standing right in the middle, at the edge of the Great Salt Lake in Utah. - [Beth] But we're not seeing this the way that it existed when Smithson first created it, where it was an intersection between the land and the very odd water of the Great Salt Lake. - [Steven] This is a terminal basin, a huge lake that had been largely freshwater, but there is no outlet, so the water, once it flows here from rivers and streams, collects and then simply evaporates. Which means that the water is dense with minerals. - [Beth] And especially with salt, very much like the Dead Sea in the Middle East. And this is one of a handful of these terminal basins that exist in the world. - [Steven] Almost nothing can live here. There are a few fish that live at the outlet of some of the freshwater rivers, and-- - [Beth] And there are brine shrimp, and algae, in fact there's a particular kind of algae that makes the water turn pinkish-red, and that was true when Smithson created Spiral Jetty. But today as we look out at the lake, it's blue. - [Steven] With help from the Dawn Gallery, which represented him, Smithson was able to bring a front-loader and dump trucks, a tractor, to help move these basalt stones and sand and some soil into place. - [Beth] By creating a spiral, Smithson created lots of opportunities where the land and the water could meet one another. - [Steven] But right now, because the American West is in the midst of a drought, the water has receded and is at a great distance from this earthwork. - [Beth] So, instead of the water filling the spaces in between the spiral, we have sand. So this was very much meant to be a work of art that changed, based on natural principles. - [Steven] Smithson was interested in the idea of entropy, the idea of the way things break down. And his intervention in this natural landscape, it's an expression of the way in which artists thought about the landscape for many years. - [Beth] We could go back to artists like Caspar David Friedrich, who thought about the overwhelming size and power of nature and the smallness of man, and that's certainly one of the themes here, for me, as we stand here. But we could also think about the importance of the vastness of the American landscape in 19th-century American painting, or even its importance to the Abstract Expressionists in the 1950s. - [Steven] We can go even further back and look at the artwork of indigenous peoples in the Americas, long before the Europeans arrived, the geoglyphs, better known as the Nazca Lines, in Peru, in South America, or the earthworks that come out of the Fort Ancient culture in North America. And in fact, the very shape of Spiral Jetty is a form that has shown up in petroglyphs throughout the American West. - [Beth] And it's a form that appears in nature, quite frequently. - [Steven] One of the anecdotes that Smithson was apparently aware of was the centuries-old idea that the Great Salt Lake contained a whirlpool that somehow connected it to the Pacific Ocean. So the idea of a spiral or whirlpool is active even in these stories that predate Smithson. But this is also a sculpture that is rooted in the 20th century, in an industrial culture. 1970 was the year of the first Earth Day, and that signaled an important early moment in the environmental movement. The idea of the ruination that man was visiting on nature is clearly informing work like this. - [Beth] And Earth Day being this time when we reflect on environmental issues, but the relationship between the growing industrial nature of the United States and the amazingly beautiful, vast, virgin landscape that was here when Europeans arrived, is a theme throughout 19th-century American painting. And as we stand here, we see mountains, we see the basalt that's formed from a volcano. So we have a very powerful sense of the passage of time that I think was very interesting to Smithson. By putting art outside in the world it becomes part of the process of nature. It can't be conserved. - [Steven] In 1970, this was still a radical idea, the idea of taking art off the wall, bringing it outside, outside of the confines of a home or a museum. - [Beth] And thereby outside of the commercial, of a work that could be bought and sold. - [Steven] Smithson was interested in creating a porous relationship between that more controlled gallery experience and the experience of art in the world. So can a work like this also exist in Manhattan? Can it also exist in a gallery? - [Beth] Well, we did drive two hours from Salt Lake City. So one does have to make an intentional pilgrimage to see this. We're really in the middle of a vast, empty space in the American West. - [Steven] And yet this artwork was not conceived of as existing only here. - [Beth] There's a video, there are aerial photographs. And so, like many works of art in the 1960s and '70s that were ephemeral, they exist through their documentation. Although this still exists here also. - [Steven] And I have to say, I wouldn't feel as if experienced this work of art fully had I not come out here. - [Beth] Standing here looking at Spiral Jetty and being really aware of how different it is than when Smithson created it in 1970 really makes me think about museums as places where we entrust works of art. We lock them away from time, we conserve them and create special conditions to stop time from hurting them. But here Smithson creates something that time is supposed to change. - [Steven] Museums in a sense try to do the impossible, which raises a really interesting question: what do we do with the significant work of art that was intended to change over time? This work of art and the land that it sits on came under the control of the Dia Art Foundation. What does an institution like Dia do with something like this? Does it try to protect it? Does it allow natural and industrial forces to play with the landscape around it? And so what Dia did is, in concert with the Getty Conservation Institute, is to make the decision to regularly document this object. - [Beth] You mentioned this idea of entropy, which was so important to Smithson, this idea that the tendency of all things, according to the laws of physics, is to move from order to disorder, to chaos. And I think we have that sense of things coming apart here. - [Steven] So Smithson is imposing a geometric order into this natural landscape, into this vast space that is in the process, over millions of years, of disassembling. Here, more specifically, we can see the way his intervention is slowly coming apart. - [Beth] And I think that sense that over millions of years this will come apart makes us aware of the brevity of our own lifespans in the grandeur of time. (waves lapping)