One of the most famous works of art in America, Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty transcends the “earth art” genre to which critics have consigned it, and has become an emblem of the American sublime. It is made of black basalt boulders, bulldozed into a straight line that stretches, jetty-like, 1,500 feet from the eastern shore in the upper reaches of the Great Salt Lake, terminating in a spiral with three whorls. From the air it has the look of a bishop’s crosier with an unusually ornamental crook. It has a way of disappearing and reappearing, which somehow gives it a touch of magic. Soon after it was made, it was submerged beneath the saline water that gives the lake its name, and on re-emerging at a later time, when the water-level fell, it was covered with a dense patina of salt crystals. It is reached with difficulty, requiring a trek over rutted roads, and there is no guarantee that it will be visible when one gets there; I failed to see it on the two occasions I made the attempt. So the work is as elusive as it is compelling, and though it belongs to its moment in history, it also has the timeless air of some ancient monument left behind by a vanished civilization.
Smithson’s intentions remain difficult to discern. He appears to have been interested in Great Salt Lake at first because he’d been told that the water was the color of tomato soup. “That was enough of a reason to go out there and have a look,” he writes. Recalling his first visit, he wrote as if the site itself implied the work:
As I looked at the site, it reverberated out to the horizons only to suggest an immobile cyclone while flickering light made the entire landscape appear to quake. A dormant earthquake spread into the fluttering stillness, into a spinning sensation without movement. The site was a rotary that enclosed itself in an immense roundness. From that gyrating space emerged the possibility of the Spiral Jetty. No ideas, no concepts, no systems, no structures, no abstractions could hold themselves together in the actuality of that evidence.
Reading these lines, one has the impression that Smithson is resorting to a kind of logical stammering–“immobile cyclone,” “dormant earthquake,” “fluttering stillness”–to convey a reality that transcends the limits of rational thought. And the work he made from this site has a similar effect on critics, whom it ultimately leaves speechless, as befits the sublime. Spiral Jetty fits Kant’s notion of meaningfulness without any specific meaning. Its closest artistic kin in North America is the great Serpent Mound outside Cincinnati, about which nothing is really understood.
Still, like everything else he did, Spiral Jetty had a polemical subtext. Smithson writes:
Logical purity suddenly finds itself in a bog, and welcomes the unexpected event…. In the Spiral Jetty the surd takes over and leads one into a world that cannot be expressed by number or rationality. Ambiguities are admitted rather than rejected, contradictions are increased rather than decreased–the alogos undermines the logos. Purity is put in jeopardy.
In 1970, when Smithson made Spiral Jetty, these were fighting words. For purity had been a defining criterion for New York artists and art critics in the orbit of Clement Greenberg. In his 1960 paper “Modernist Painting,” Greenberg argued that aesthetic purity required the elimination from any art of whatever does not belong to the medium that defines it. Painting, for example, had to become flat and abandon figuration, which suggested a relationship to the three-dimensional reality beyond it, while sculpture had to reject any painterly qualities. “Thus would each art be rendered ‘pure,’ and in its ‘purity’ find the guarantee of its standard of quality.” But purity seemed entirely beside the point of Spiral Jetty. Hence the wry joke contained in Mark Tansey’s 1982 painting Purity Test. Painted in his characteristically uninflected illustrational style, Tansey’s work shows a group of four American Indians depicted in the late-nineteenth-century style of Frederick Remington, mounted on horses, gazing downward from a rise in the land onto Spiral Jetty extending into the lake below them.