A swirl in time

Times Staff Writer

Several years of drought have caused the waters of the Great Salt Lake to recede hundreds of yards from shore, leaving a thick blanket of still whiteness all around. It looks like snow. Snow gives a bit when you walk on it, even if packed or icy, but this salt crust is nearly as hard as the black basalt rock beneath it. The temperature on a late September morning is inching toward 74 degrees, speckling the rugged hills with yellow masses of black-eyed Susans; they nod in a light breeze beneath a vast blue sky streaked with cirrostratus clouds. Yet frozen tundra seems to spread out in every direction. Reach down to touch it, and the barbed surface feels like sandpaper.

When New York artist Robert Smithson chose this remote spot to construct what would become a definitive Earthwork -- the engineering term he applied to sculpture made in the landscape, with bulldozers, dump trucks and other heavy equipment replacing chisels, welding torches or studio foundries -- the Great Salt Lake looked different. In 1970, the water-surface altitude was considerably higher.

But Rozel Point, an otherwise innocuous site on the north side of the huge and ancient lake, was not selected because it’s a scenic overlook. Southwest of the Golden Spike National Historic Site in Promontory, where the transcontinental railroad first linked East and West a century before, and down 15 miles of increasingly bad road, the view is not exceptional or picturesque.


Instead, Smithson chose this place for other reasons. The water along the shore attracted him because it was washed with the color of blood. And a modern ruin lies nearby.

You can see the red water clearly in the half-hour movie Smithson made about this Earthwork, called “The Spiral Jetty,” which screens continuously in the auditorium at Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art. MOCA has organized a bracing survey of Smithson’s profound and influential art (through Dec. 13), which will travel next year to Dallas and New York. “The Spiral Jetty” is his masterpiece.

Portions of the lake run red because of masses of tiny brine shrimp that live there. If, as an eager child, you ever ordered “sea monkeys” from an ad in the back of a comic book, what came in the mail were dormant brine shrimp. The shrimp feed on plankton in the Great Salt Lake’s shallows. Like tourists at the Dead Sea, they bob near the surface of the dense, sodium-rich water. Even now that the lake has receded, after several years of meager rainfall, the salt crust left behind is spotted with a residue of pink blush. In the distance, a thin red line separates the white field of salt from the silvery blue lake beyond.

Blood -- the fluid that circulates through vertebrate creatures bringing nourishment and oxygen as well as hauling off waste -- seems an incongruous association for this hard, adverse landscape, where the only animals you’re likely to see have wings with which to escape. But it does suggest perpetual rhythms of life and death. Those cadences permeate this harsh and alien place. It’s the perfect spot to construct a slow swirl at the edge of a sea.

“Slow Swirl at the Edge of the Sea” is the title of a famous 1944 painting by Mark Rothko, a canvas now in the collection of New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Smithson no doubt knew this pivotal icon in the evolution of Abstract Expressionist painting. He was 19 and a hopeful young painter when he arrived in Manhattan from neighboring New Jersey in 1957, after discharge from the Army Reserve and several months spent hitchhiking around the United States and Mexico. He loved the paintings of the New York School.

Inspirations and deviations

Whether the Rothko rumbled around his mind no one can say, but the ethos of Abstract Expressionism was certainly critical to the diverse directions art took in the 1960s. Often the response was one of resistance and repudiation, deftly mingled with admiration and affection. Rothko’s painting shows strange, schematic figures, somewhat ridiculous in demeanor, arising within an amorphous field of soft color. The catastrophe of World War II was threatening to swallow humanity whole, and his seriocomic abstraction created a wry metaphor of the origins of consciousness emerging from primordial soup.

Likewise, war and catastrophe were everywhere in the American consciousness at the end of the 1960s, as Smithson’s ideas -- and “The Spiral Jetty” -- took shape. Some of it was blatant, like body bags returning from Vietnam. Some was subtle, like the strange turn of mind that saw a “war” on poverty as an appropriate way to address the social brutality of economic deprivation. Ghetto revolts against exclusion and repression in Watts and Detroit, Newark, N.J., and Washington, D.C., punctuated the summers between 1965 and 1969. Critic Suzaan Boettger, writing in her astute history, “Earthworks: Art and the Landscape of the Sixties,” notes that the production and reception of the new sculptural form was motivated by “a deepening skepticism toward institutions in general.” “The Spiral Jetty” left the art museum and the gallery system -- the establishment -- behind.

In Smithson’s Earthwork the yawning void is an actual place, not the mythic or illusionistic one it was for Abstract Expressionist artists of a prior generation, and human destiny is equivocal. An ancient landscape unfurls beneath your feet, but the cold certainty of impermanence and inevitable decay trumps any faith in timelessness and linear progress.

As Smithson put it in a sober reality check, “Human beings might just be different than dinosaurs, rather than better.”

Like most hyper-saline bodies of water, the Great Salt Lake is a simple ecosystem operating mostly on the imperceptible level of algae. (Forget about fish; the water is four or five times saltier than the ocean.) A remnant of prehistoric Lake Bonneville, a freshwater lake that was 10 times larger than it is now, it rests on a shallow playa. The shallowness means that small changes in water level cause big changes in surface area. Like some gigantic blob of ectoplasm, the lake has shrunk to as small as 950 square miles and swollen to as much as 3,300 square miles, just since 1965. Right now it covers about 1,700 square miles -- more than 3 1/2 times the size of the city of Los Angeles. The flood years between 1983 and 1987 saw record flows of freshwater enter the lake, degenerating the saline content, changing the production of brine shrimp and altering the water’s colors.

The rise in American ecological awareness that peaked on April 22, 1970, with the first Earth Day may have helped to cement Earthworks in the popular consciousness. Coincidentally, that was the same month Smithson hired a puzzled contractor, Bob Phillips, in nearby Ogden to fabricate a work of art out in the middle of nowhere. Phillips and his crew used a front-loader and a couple of dump trucks to scoop up more than a million pounds of black basalt from along the lake’s shore. Then, following stakes set out into the shallow water by Smithson, his artist-wife, Nancy Holt, and sculptor Richard Serra, the basalt was redistributed into a 15-foot-wide path. The rough-hewn jetty, all 1,500 feet of it, took a few weeks to build -- not to mention $9,000 of gallery owner Virginia Dwan’s money. To underwrite the film, Los Angeles art dealer Douglas Chrismas put up a similar amount -- more than $40,000 in today’s currency.

Back-to-nature platitudes, however, are not what Smithson was after. The red water was one inspiration for the sculpture’s precise location, but another lay just east of the site. What’s there comes as a complete -- and revealing -- surprise.

Like the bear that went over the mountain to see what he could see, your perch on Smithson’s jetty lets you spy another jetty. The second jetty in the near distance is the remnant of a utilitarian earthwork -- the engineering kind -- built by commercial crews in the 1920s as part of an oil drilling operation. The path of “The Spiral Jetty” runs counterclockwise, metaphorically setting your journey against time. Walk all the way “back” to its center, and the unraveling trail finally positions you to look out toward the northeast. You don’t directly face the Great Salt Lake, disappearing on the horizon, or the rocky shore, rising up into the Wasatch Mountains. Instead you look out between them to an inelegant oil rig.

Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty” turns out to be the poetic pinnacle of a post-industrial Grand Tour. He takes you on a rugged journey to the remote edge of an ancient ocean, the better to behold an industrial ruin disintegrating within the void. The experience is moving, powerful -- and oddly tragicomic.

“This site gave evidence of a succession of man-made systems mired in abandoned hopes,” the artist once wrote. It’s a wilderness echo of his 1967 photo essay, “The Monuments of Passaic,” in which he presented the industrial decay of suburban New Jersey as if it possessed all the heroic grandeur of ancient Herculaneum.

Metaphoric meanings

I had been meaning to come to this mire for 30 years. Smithson was a charismatic figure -- an artist whose unprecedented work grabbed your imagination with the scale of its ambition and whose wit and erudition made him at once impressive and approachable.

I met him only once, in the spring or fall of 1971 (I can’t be certain which), when he came as a visiting artist to the small college where I was an undergraduate to show the recently completed “The Spiral Jetty” film and to meet with students.

Make a list of every spiral related to the Earthwork, we were instructed, as an exercise in understanding that significant artistic form is not arbitrary. The inventory is long. Salt crystals grow in a spiral pattern. A local myth says the Great Salt Lake was formed by an ancient whirlpool. The path of the Earth as it revolves on its axis and rotates around the sun is spiral, as is the galaxy in which that sun is one small star. Even film spirals through a movie camera and then a projector when “The Spiral Jetty” movie is screened.

To that list you could add the mainspring of a pocket watch. A relatively recent display at the Golden Spike ranger station, the last bit of human habitation before you get to “The Spiral Jetty,” is instructive. It shows how the railroad’s union of East and West in 1869 closed the idea of an American frontier while it also shifted our conception of time away from natural cycles toward industrial rhythms. A case with several pocket watches used by railroad men includes one that has been dismantled to expose its coiled mainspring.

Five years after I met Smithson -- and after the 35-year-old artist had been killed in a 1973 plane crash, while working on an Earthwork in Amarillo, Texas -- I managed to persuade a graduate school committee to let me make his work the subject of a doctoral dissertation. I never wrote it. I never got to Rozel Point, either. Around the time of Smithson’s death the waters of the Great Salt Lake had begun to rise.

For a quarter century “The Spiral Jetty” remained underwater, a lost Atlantis visible only from the air and slowly being coated with a thick layer of salt. The sculpture, like the fabled Salt Lake whirlpool, began to enter the realm of art world myth. In 1997 the young British artist Tacita Dean made an audio work based on her futile effort to find the submerged legend.

Then the drought came. Two years ago a travel writer in London’s Independent described an early stage of the reemergence: “Broken lines of sparkling rocks protrude from the surface at the Jetty’s edges, but most of it looms between six inches and two feet under.” Last spring another journalist wrote that receding water washed only around the spiral’s farthest edges. Now it has been beached. Notoriety from MOCA’s show is bringing visitors.

The difference between Smithson’s jetty and its ancient site was originally defined by color and materials -- “mud, salt crystals, rock, water,” as the artist repeats over and over in his film. His incantation is made in praise of the truth of physicality over transcendence.

Today the distinction between sculpture and site is mostly one of texture. The rough salt crust of the rock-strewn path grates visually against the smooth white plain of salt trailing off into swampy mush toward the water’s edge. Even without the blood-red water lapping at your feet, though, the exquisitely scaled path still draws its slow swirl at the edge of the sea. You feel faintly ridiculous, cavorting in the primordial soup. The unforgettable experience is humbling and joyous.

Christopher Knight is The Times’ art critic. He can be reached at