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You can take the art museum girl out of the city . . .

David L. Ulin is book editor of The Times.

ERIN HOGAN is an unlikely candidate to take a solo road trip to tour the West’s land art. Director of public affairs at the Art Institute of Chicago, she is all urbanite: “I have an urban haircut -- very short, trimmed every four weeks,” she writes in “Spiral Jetta: A Road Trip Through the Land Art of the American West.” ". . . . I have urban eyewear -- titanium-framed glasses designed by a German. I enjoy the energy and movement of cities, the sense of being part of a larger whole of people and stories and sights and lights.”

For this reason, perhaps, “Spiral Jetta” is an inconsistent book. The title refers to the car Hogan drove from Chicago to see Robert Smithson’s earthwork “Spiral Jetty” in Utah’s Great Salt Lake, and then through Nevada, New Mexico and finally to Marfa, the Texas town southeast of El Paso that is dedicated to the work of the late Donald Judd. Part memoir, part art travelogue, the book is both smart and self-indulgent.

Hogan is not afraid to voice her disappointment that the art is often less than thrilling -- when it can be seen. The 1,500-foot-long rock-and-dirt coil of “Spiral Jetty” is “incredibly intimate, dare I say, even tiny. You can walk its spine in just a few minutes; three or four giant steps can cover the ground between the loops.”

That’s better than Nancy Holt’s “Sun Tunnels,” which she can’t find, or Michael Heizer’s “Double Negative,” too massive to be perceived up close. For Hogan, these projects represent the dichotomy between deep and human time, between the indifference of nature and our need to imprint ourselves upon the world.

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That’s meaty stuff, but too often “Spiral Jetta” reads like a whiny screed. Hogan is at her worst when she details her fears and insecurities: her terror at spending the night alone in a motel room, her concerns about the clientele of a local bar. Clearly, she wants to broaden the book by adding a personal dimension, but that part of her journey falls into stereotype.

“I imagined, ridiculously, these lonely romeos chasing me in pickup trucks across the salt flats. . . .” she writes of two men she meets in that tavern. “All the enthusiasm I had for being ‘out West’ -- seeing ‘Spiral Jetty’ and having ‘deep’ conversations with architects and artists, floating in the Great Salt Lake, eating great almond mole alone in a restaurant in Salt Lake City -- drained away.”

In some sense, this is also true of Hogan’s aesthetic vision: “Is earth art,” she wonders, “a fraud?” But then, she reaches Walter De Maria’s “Lightning Field,” 400 steel poles in New Mexico, and her trip finds its focal point. Initially, Hogan is underwhelmed, but at dawn, after sleeping in a nearby cabin, she has the transformative experience she’s sought. “I was conscious only of the crunch of my footsteps . . . ,” she writes. “It was not just the individual poles or neighborhoods that were unveiled; it was the sense of choice and possibility. Vistas opened up, new views appeared with every footstep and ray of light.” Unfortunately in “Spiral Jetta,” we get there a little late. *

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david.ulin@latimes.com


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