For nearly three decades, Robert Smithson's "Spiral Jetty" lay underwater in the Great Salt Lake. Since 1999, as drought has lowered the water level, this famous American earth sculpture a 1,500-foot coil of black basalt has slowly re-emerged. Now it is completely exposed; the rocks encrusted with white salt crystals are surrounded by shallow pink water in what looks like a vast snow field.
In 1970, when Smithson built the "Jetty," which is considered his masterpiece, the giant black coil contrasted starkly with the dark pink water of the lake. But time and nature have left their marks.
Thousands of people have visited this once-elusive artwork while an argument is brewing 2,000 miles away about whether to leave it as is or restore it.
"The spiral is not as dramatic as when it was first built," said Michael Govan, the director of the Dia Art Foundation in New York City, which owns the work. "The 'Jetty' is being submerged in a sea of salt."
To ensure that "Spiral Jetty" is accessible to future generations, the Dia, which exhibits and preserves art made since the 1960s, has discussed raising it by adding more rocks. The Dia is also studying whether nature will restore the contrast the "Jetty" originally had with its surroundings by dissolving some of the salt crystals when the lake's waters rise, or whether the foundation needs to do something more.
But the idea of doing anything to this artwork worries some people. And the intentions of the artist, who died in a plane crash at 35 in 1973, are not clear.
"When refurbishing earthworks, you don't want to create a Tussaud's wax sculpture," said Robert Storr, a former senior curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and a professor at the New York University Institute of Fine Arts. "Earthworks were not made to last forever. There is a danger when restoring them to make a more perfect thing than was originally done."
Smithson built "Spiral Jetty" at a site called Rozel Point on the northeast shore because he liked the dark pink color of the water, an effect that results primarily from bacteria and algae that grow there.
Rozel Point is about 100 miles northwest of Salt Lake City, on state-owned land accessible by a 15-mile dirt road with giant potholes that can trap small cars; four-wheel drive is recommended. Smithson's estate donated "Spiral Jetty" to the Dia in 1999 when the piece was first emerging.
"The trip to see the artwork brings people to a place they would not normally experience," said Nancy Holt, Smithson's widow and executor, who lives in New Mexico. "The 'Jetty' is a vortex that draws in everything in the landscape around it."
Smithson built the spiral out of black basalt rocks taken from the shore and arranged them to a height just above the surface of the water so people could walk on the earthwork as if on a pier.
He was one of a number of artists in the 1960s and early '70s who chose to build site-specific pieces outdoors in the West, far from the commercialism of art galleries. Holt, also an earthwork artist, built a piece called "Sun Tunnels" near the abandoned town of Lucin, Utah, in a remote area near the Nevada border. Smithson in particular was intrigued by the idea of entropy, the inevitable disintegration of all objects in nature. But there is no definitive record of how he felt about the disintegration of his own artworks.
Just before his death he hinted at his beliefs in an interview with Moira Roth, chairwoman of the art department at Mills College in Oakland, Calif. The complete text of the interview is to be printed in the catalog accompanying a Smithson retrospective opening in September at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. (It will travel to the Dallas Museum of Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York in 2005.)
In the interview, he said "Spiral Jetty" was strong enough to take care of itself, adding, "Because it's 80 percent rock, it won't erode completely." Later in the conversation, he said he planned for his pieces to be permanent and seemed to say he wanted them preserved. Holt said she agreed with that interpretation.
Finding a contractor willing to build a giant artwork in such a remote spot was a challenge. Many Utah contractors were suspicious of a New York artist who wore black leather pants in the middle of summer, said Bob Phillips, the contractor from Ogden who finally signed on to help Smithson move rocks into the lake.
"Man, his ideas sounded really strange," Phillips said. "I'd never heard about anything like earth art before."
Phillips and another worker used two dump trucks, a tractor and a large front-loader to move 6,650 tons of rock and earth from the shore into the water. At 1,500 feet long, the giant spiral is large enough to be seen in photographs taken from space.
Phillips said Smithson had a precise vision for the project and supervised every step, making sure individual rocks fell in the right spots.
"He would raise each rock up and roll it around, then he would move this one, change that one until it looked exactly right," Phillips said. "He wanted it to look like it was a growing, living thing, coming out of the center of the earth." At the time, the Great Salt Lake was unusually shallow because of a drought. Holt said that after the water level went up, her husband talked about adding rocks to make his work more visible. Over time, glistening white salt crystals encrusted the black rocks. The crystals accumulated all around the jetty, turning the whole area a glaring white.
"He liked that the work was strong enough that it could survive these natural changes," Holt said. "He loved that these natural processes can be seen."
The drought in the West, which has been going on since 1999, has brought the earthwork more attention than it has received in decades.
"We have people come in all the time and ask where the 'Spiral Jetty' is," said Noel Christensen, who works at the nearest gas station, 30 miles away.
Over the summer, visitors came from as far away as France and Italy to make pilgrimages to the "Jetty." One day in September, a family of five was floating in the lake's salty waters just off the rocks. Two men from Salt Lake City walked to the center of the spiral as their Labrador retrievers splashed in the water.
But all these visitors could ruin "Spiral Jetty," said Hikmet Loe, a Salt Lake City librarian who wrote her master's thesis on the earthwork and continues to stay in close contact with the Dia and Holt. Because the lake is so shallow and there has been so much salt buildup, people and animals can run between the coils instead of staying on the part Smithson intended for walking. Loe said she would like to see the Dia preserve the earthwork.
"If people are walking across the spiral and kicking up rocks, the shape of the piece will start to erode," she said.
For years, the Dia has cared for other major earthworks like Walter De Maria's "Lightning Field," an installation of 400 metal rods in the high desert of southwestern New Mexico, as well as some smaller Smithson works. But foundation officials say making "Spiral Jetty" more accessible is especially complicated.
"We started surveying the land area, mapped out the size of the piece and its height to see if there's anything we need to do to restore it," Govan said. Anything the foundation does would be in close consultation with Holt, he said. Wally Gwynn, a Utah geologist and editor of "Great Salt Lake: An Overview of Change," said "Spiral Jetty" would be submerged again as soon as Utah's drought ends. But he is not sure it is necessary to make the jetty more accessible.Comment on this story
"It has as much mystique underwater as it does when it is exposed," he said. "It's kind of like Nessie, the Loch Ness Monster. We know it's there, even if we can't see it."
Phillips, the contractor, who was initially suspicious of Smithson's plans, is now one of the earthwork's biggest fans. While the jetty was submerged, he said, he even considered adding rock to it himself. But he decided it would be wrong to alter the piece in any way without Smithson to supervise the project.
"Smithson had something to do with every rock out there," Phillips said. "It would not be the same thing if somebody else monkeyed around with it. It would no longer be Smithson's work."