Robert Smithson Spiral Hill Analysis Essay

"I am for an art that takes into account the direct effect of the elements as they exist from day to day apart from representation."


Although Robert Smithson died at the age of only 35, his short career has inspired more young artists than most among the generation that emerged in the 1960s. A formidable writer and critic as well as an artist, his interests ranged from Catholicism to mineralogy to science fiction. His earliest pieces were paintings and collages, but he soon came to focus on sculpture; he responded to the Minimalism and Conceptualism of the early 1960s and he started to expand his work out of galleries and into the landscape. In 1970, he produced the Earthwork, or Land art, for which he is best known, Spiral Jetty, a remarkable coil of rock composed in the colored waters of the shore of the Great Salt Lake in Utah. In 1973, he died in an aircraft accident when he was surveying the site for another Earthwork in Texas.

Key Ideas

Smithson is one of the most influential artists of the diverse generation that emerged in the wake of Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism, known as the Post-Minimalists. Although inspired by Minimalism's use of industrial materials and interest in the viewer's experience of the space around the art object (as much as the object itself), the Post-Minimalists sought to abandon even more aspects of traditional sculpture. Smithson's approaches are typical of this group; he constructed sculptures from scattered materials, he found ways to confuse the viewer's understanding of sculpture (often by using mirrors or confusing scales), and his work sometimes referred to sites and objects outside of the gallery, leading the viewer to question where the art object really resided.

Much of Smithson's output was shaped by his interest in the concept of entropy, the second law of thermodynamics that predicts the eventual exhaustion and collapse of any given system. His interest in geology and mineralogy confirmed this law to him, since in rocks and rubble he saw evidence of how the earth slows and cools. But the idea also informed his outlook on culture and civilization more generally; his famous essay Entropy and the New Monuments (1969) draws analogies between the quarries and the strip malls and tract housing of New Jersey, suggesting that ultimately the later will also perish and return to rubble.

Smithson's concepts of Site and Nonsite - the former being a location outside the gallery, the latter being a body of objects and documentation inside the gallery - were important contributions to the body of ideas surrounding Land art in the 1960s. His discussion of monuments and ruins in his writing also helped many to think about the purpose art might have in the landscape, after the demise of the tradition of commemorative public sculpture.

Most Important Art

Spiral Jetty (1970)

The northern section of the Great Salt Lake, where Smithson chose to site Spiral Jetty, was cut off from fresh water supplies when a nearby causeway was constructed by the Southern Pacific Railroad in 1959. This encouraged the water's unique red-violet coloration, because it produced a concentration of salt-tolerant bacteria and algae. Smithson particularly liked the combination of colors because it evoked a ruined and polluted sci-fi landscape. And, by inserting the Jetty into this damaged section, and using entirely natural materials native to the area, Smithson called attention to environmental blight. Nevertheless, he also sought to reference the importance of time in eroding and transforming our environment. The coiling structure of the piece was inspired by the growth patterns of crystals, yet it also resembles a primeval symbol, making the landscape seem ancient, even while it also looks futuristic.

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Robert Smithson Artworks in Focus:

Robert Smithson Overview Continues Below



Robert Smithson expressed a profound interest in the arts from an early age. While still attending high school in Clifton, New Jersey, during the mid 1950s, he attended art classes on the side in New York City. For two years, he was enrolled at The Art Students League in New York and, for a briefer period, at The Brooklyn Museum School.

Through his studies and training, Smithson became fascinated with the Abstract Expressionists, in particular with David Smith, Tony Smith, Jackson Pollock, and Morris Louis. Later in his career, Smithson said that he found David Smith's sculpture particularly captivating for its use of unnatural materials (i.e. steel) that were altered by time and natural elements (i.e. rust, decay, and discoloring). Several years before Smithson expressed any interest in Minimalism, Conceptual art, and working with the natural environment, the young artist was drawing, painting, and making collages.

Early Training

In the late 1950s, Smithson was noticed by art dealer Virginia Dwan and granted his first solo show at the Artists' Gallery in 1959. At this time, Smithson's paintings, drawings, and collages (he had yet to begin sculpting) drew in part on Abstract Expressionism; his works were multimedia, but were still two-dimensional artworks made using gouache, crayon, pencil, and photography.

Through his connection with Dwan, Smithson was introduced to several key artists and sculptors who were pioneering the Minimalist art movement of the early-1960s, including Carl Andre, Donald Judd, Robert Morris, Claes Oldenburg, and Smithson's soon-to-be wife, Nancy Holt. Holt and Smithson married in 1963. The formation of these friendships would mark a significant turning point in Smithson's career.

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Robert Smithson Biography Continues

The collages he produced in the early-1960s, including Untitled (Tear) (1961-63), Untitled (Conch Shell, Spaceship and World Land Mass) (1961-63), and Algae (c. 1962), were still very much in keeping with an abstract and expressionist aesthetic, but they clearly suggest the artist's growing fascination with the earth as an inspirational resource and his concern with themes of permanence, natural and unnatural materials, and site-specific art.

By 1964, Smithson had taken up sculpture, inspired in large part by the Minimalism that was coming into vogue. It was clear from the beginning, however, that Smithson was not entirely comfortable confining himself and his work to the studio. Throughout the mid-1960s, he made several trips to New Jersey to visit quarries and industrial wastelands. He also paid several visits to the American West and Southwest, sparking in him an interest in deserts and sprawling tracts of land that appear unblemished by human intervention.

Mature Period

Smithson's sculptures of the mid 1960s maintain a strong resemblance to the Minimalist installations of Donald Judd, Carl Andre, Sol LeWitt, and Robert Morris. Painted steel works such as Plunge (1966), Alogon #2 (1966), and Terminal (1966), employed industrial materials, geometric forms, and a restricted palette. They were built indoors and intended for indoor display.

By 1967, Smithson was focused on two peculiar forms of sculpture, Sites and Non-sites, using mirrors and natural materials to create a new form of three-dimensional work. For his Sites projects, Smithson made several trips to New Jersey, Mexico, England, and West Germany, among other places, often accompanied by his wife Nancy Holt and dealer Virginia Dwan. While at these chosen sites (barren wastelands, salt flats, and wooded areas), Smithson placed a series of mirrors in natural settings and photographed the newly altered landscapes. The results created an effect of beauty and unease at having inserted such blatantly unnatural materials into an untouched setting.

For his Non-sites, Smithson situated mirrored surfaces into the corner or center of a room, in effect creating virtual doorways. Contrasting with these mirrors were the natural materials Smithson had scavenged from his trips, including mica, essen soil, red sandstone, limestone, sand, gravel, and other materials. Many of these Non-site projects would directly mirror his Sites, as in the case of Chalk Mirror Displacement (1969), a single work located in two different locales: its original quarry site in Oxted, England (Site), and later in the gallery space (Non-site). What made the Sites/Non-sites such a unique artistic endeavor was that Smithson was first altering the landscape, and then bringing the exhibition materials from the site in the gallery.

Simultaneous with Smithson's production of Sites/Non-sites, the artist was also creating a series of works called Photo-Markers (1968), which were in many ways the direct opposite of Sites/Non-sites. Photo-Markers also explored the effects of human intervention into the natural landscape, but applied a very different methodology. Smithson would photograph specific sites, enlarge the images, and place these enlargements into the physical landscapes they depicted. He then re-photographed the landscapes, creating an odd juxtaposition of the natural and the reproduced in the same shot - as if nature were referencing itself.

Smithson's first fully-fledged Earthworks were little more than preliminary sketches: site-specific proposals that existed only on paper. Throughout 1969 and 1970, he created a large number of drawings depicting projects that would soon come to fruition - and a few that would not. Early Earthworks, such as Asphalt Rundown (1969) and Glue Pour (1969), were inspired in part by his interest in entropy and abstraction, since the dumped and cooled materials created hardened abstract forms that resulted from their loss of heat. They were also demonstrations of Smithson's growing fascination with industrial areas and human neglect of wastelands.

His grandest achievement and most famous work was Spiral Jetty (1970). After much searching, Smithson purchased a plot of land on the northern shore of the Great Salt Lake, Utah, and inserted into the violet-red water a massive spiral constructed of some 6650 tons of earth. The Jetty, unlike previous Earthworks, maintained a harmony with its natural environment; it is an unnatural extension of the natural landscape, albeit one that, according to Smithson "[had been] disrupted by industry, reckless urbanization, or nature's own devastation." In subsequent years, Smithson embarked on other Earthworks projects that were in keeping with this artistic philosophy. In 1971, he completed Broken Circle/Spiral Hill, located in a quarry near Emmen, Holland, after which he returned to the United States to undertake what would be his last project, one Smithson himself would never realize.

Late Years and Death

In the summer of 1973 Smithson was traveling in a small airplane to survey the site for his newest project, called Amarillo Ramp. The plane crashed, killing him, the pilot, and the photographer who was accompanying them. Even though Smithson was robbed of the opportunity to build Amarillo Ramp, the project was completed shortly after his death by his widow Nancy Holt, Richard Serra, and others.


In addition to being an artist, Smithson was also an accomplished critic, essayist, and theoretician. Writing for the publications Artforum and Arts Magazine, mostly between the years 1967 and 1970, he developed intriguing theories involving the convergence of earth, language, and art. In a September 1968 Artforum piece entitled A Sedimentation of the Mind: Earth Projects he wrote, "Embedded in the sediment is a text that contains limits and boundaries which evade the rational order, and social structures which confine art. In order to read the rocks we must become conscious of geologic time, and of the layers of prehistorical material that is entombed in the Earth's crust."

The above text is indicative of a constant theme in Smithson's writings and art: time. Throughout his career, he became increasingly fascinated with the element of time and with humankind's repeated attempts to control it. These attempts, according to Smithson, were foolish. He viewed any attempt to control time as tantamount to devaluing it altogether and defrauding the earth of its essential right to exist. He also presented this theme in his 1970 Earthwork Partially Buried Woodshed, located in Kent, Ohio, which consisted of a woodshed partially buried under 20 truckloads of earth. This piece was "built" to illustrate the effects of geologic time and its eventual consumption of all man-made endeavors. Incidentally, other major works, such as Spiral Jetty, would eventually be consumed (temporarily) by the waters that surrounded them.


Robert Smithson not only coined the term "Land art," he gave birth to the movement itself. Interestingly, Smithson's death could be said to have accelerated the Land art movement. Inspiring a new generation of artists to leave the studio altogether and create art out in the open, the movement represented a unique convergence of installation, Conceptual art, and environmental awareness. Adding a strange twist to the world of popular art, most of Smithson's works were designed to be consumed by time and nature; thus they were constructed to have a finite life span. Predating Smithson's arrival into the art world, artists hoped to immortalize themselves by creating works that would easily outlast the span of human life. Smithson, in a sense, sought the opposite. His incursions into wastelands and no-man's lands were dialectical attempts to show nature's fragility in the industrial world and its powerful ability to defend itself against such incursions.

In 1959, Robert Smithson, a young abstract painter who would eventually become known as a pioneer of land art, went back to his boyhood home, in New Jersey, to visit his pediatrician. Smithson was twenty-four years old and living in New York City at the time but knew the route out of Manhattan and across the garbage-covered Jersey Meadows by heart. His parents had driven him regularly to the Museum of Natural History, in New York, as a child, and, during high school, he often left early to take classes at the Art Students League, taking a bus back and forth to New Jersey, past smoldering dumps, through fields of rubble-strewn reeds. “Those landscapes embedded themselves in my consciousness at a very early date,” Smithson once said.

Smithson had skipped college for the Army, where he worked as an artist on a base in Georgia, and, after his discharge, had driven across the country several times, hiking and camping, and investigating geology. By the time he was returning to his hometown to see the retired family doctor, he had shown his paintings in New York galleries but was about to take a profound new direction with his art, one that would take him out of the studio, and out of the gallery and the museum itself. His break from painting would eventually lead him to construct—with the help of bulldozers and pilots and his wife and collaborator, the late Nancy Holt—“Spiral Jetty,” his best-known project, completed in 1970. It’sa fifteen-hundred-foot-long, fifteen-foot-wide spiral of stone that extends out into the Great Salt Lake, in Utah. According to the catalogue for an exhibition at the Montclair Art Museum, entitled “Robert Smithson’s New Jersey,” it was Smithson’s visit to his pediatrician that helped steer him toward that new work, and began a new chapter for American landscape art. His pediatrician was William Carlos Williams.

The ailing poet’s home was on Ridge Road, in Rutherford, only a few blocks from the house where Smithson grew up before moving to nearby Clifton, and both places are on the edge of a bowl-like swamp, known then as the Hackensack Meadows and now as the Meadowlands. If Smithson had driven to see Williams in Rutherford, or had taken the bus from the Port Authority Bus Terminal, he would have travelled beneath the Hudson River and up onto the Lincoln Tunnel’s sky-climbing elevated ramp—a trip that Smithson details in “The Monuments of Passaic,” an essay that ran in Artforum in December of 1967.

The essay was illustrated with Smithson’s black-and-white snapshots of the industrial Passaic River, and the piece reads like Smithson’s version of Thomas Cole’s “The Course of Empire,” written and illustrated rather than painted, and infused with a vague sense of futuristic dystopia set in construction rubble. “Across the river, in Rutherford, one could hear the faint voice of a P.A. system and the weak cheers of a crowd at a football game,” he observes. Smithson asks, “Has Passaic replaced Rome as the Eternal City?”

When Smithson arrived at Williams’s home, the older poet had recently suffered several strokes but had just published the final volume of “Paterson,” his epic set in and around the Great Falls of the Passaic, the raging seventy-seven-foot-high cataract in Paterson. In an essay written by the exhibition’s guest curator, Phyllis Tuchman, we learn that Smithson looked at paintings by Marsden Hartley, Charles Demuth, and Ben Shahn in Williams’s home, and that, according to Smithson’s friends, the artist took to heart Williams’s axiom “No ideas, but in things.” In 1972, shortly before Smithson died, he would describe “The Monuments of Passaic” in terms of “Paterson.” “In a way, this article that I wrote on Passaic could be conceived of as a kind of appendix to William Carlos William’s poem Paterson,” he said.

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The far-ranging influence of “Spiral Jetty”and “The Monuments of Passaic” is easy to follow, not just in terms of landscape art but in the fields of architecture and urban planning. Maya Lin’s “Storm King Wavefield,” on the Hudson River at the Storm King Art Center, has “Spiral Jetty” in its genetics. James Corner and Field Operations’s design for the High Line, the reclamation of the old elevated train line on Manhattan’s West Side, could also be an appendix of the tour offered in “The Monuments of Passaic,” although nowadays, given what might be called a fetishization of ruins, industrial artifacts are less likely to be disused spaces; they are increasingly likely to be private and expensive.

Of course, Smithson wasn’t the only person taking art out the studio in 1968. The artist Richard Long took one of his first walks that year, and Long was a student of Anthony Caro, the sculptor who worked with industrial ruins and was an influence on Smithson, too. Claes Oldenburg dug a grave-shaped ditch in Central Park, and Sol LeWitt buried a cube in Holland. All of these artists were featured in the Dwan Gallery’s fall 1968 show, entitled “Earthworks.”

But Smithson was the driving philosophical voice in large part because of the strength and inventiveness of his writing: essays that almost seemed to parody art writing but came in the shape of the experimentation that he promoted. Often they were travel narratives about art in the landscape. In 1966, when Sol LeWitt wrote a letter to Virginia Dwan, who had organized “Earthworks,” LeWitt praised Smithson’s essays: “I think it is the first good explanation of the sort of art I’m involved with, even though I don’t buy everything he says.” The explanation is maybe more praised today, or at least more people are buying. In 2012, the Center for Land Use Interpretation, a Los Angeles-based research and education group that operates along the lines of a university of Robert Smithson, offered a tour of the Meadowlands, entitled “Eulogy to Robert Smithson.” Last fall, the artist Tacita Dean showed a film entitled “JG” at the Firth Gallery, in London, inspired by her correspondence with British author J.G. Ballard, regarding connections between Ballard’s work and “Spiral Jetty.”

Where the spiral in “Spiral Jetty” came from—what things inspired it—has always been a kind of riddle for students of Smithson’s work. Smithson the list-maker left lots of hints—Constantin Brancusi’s spiral-ish portrait of James Joyce, a line from Vladimir Nabokov’s “Speak, Memory” (“The spiral is a spiritualized circle”)—but this exhibit offers a new and constructive insight. Tuchman makes the point that Smithson’s intense exploration of his home landscape between 1967 and 1968, involving actual excavations on more than one occasion, brought Smithson to the productive last seven years of his life.

This might seem like just more hopeful boosterism by a Garden State that exists in the shadow of a Big Apple, except that it’s true.

Above all, Smithson was a mapmaker; his uncle worked for Hagstrom Maps**,** and the young Smithson was in charge of navigation when his parents took him on natural-history adventures across the country in the family car (Smithson’s older brother died of leukemia at the age of nine). In retrospect, the first New Jersey-centered pieces in 1967 map out his plans with startling clarity. Like his Passaic essay, they are manifestos. “Untitled [Map on Mirror-Passaic, New Jersey]” is seven successively smaller copies of a U.S. Geologic Survey map of the Passaic River, stacked like a small tabletop pyramid. Through each map, the Passaic is represented by a mirror twisting through its eponymous city and neighboring towns—a shining silver sliver that manages to reorient the viewer to the (in life) forgotten waterway, to represent it anew in its own exact factness.

“New Jersey, New York” is a Marsden Hartley-like collage built around the two black-and-white photos that center it: a low-angled view of the “War of the Worlds”-esque legs of the swamp-crossing state highway, and another of a road across the garbage lands of Secaucus and East Rutherford. The photos are set inside the crystalline-shaped, cut-out center of a Greater New York road map. What’s cut away on the map is the Meadowlands. The backdrop to it all is a series of pencil-drawn one-inch squares, which, Tuchman argues, are echoes of the Lincoln Tunnel’s square-tiled walls. Smithson described them in “The Crystal Land,” an essay he wrote for Harper’s Bazaar about a trip that he and Holt took with Julie and Donald Judd: “The countless cream colored tiles on the wall sped by, until a sign announcing New York broke the tiles’ order.”

“New York, New Jersey” is the ultimate key to the Utah spiral, in other words. “When he built ‘Spiral Jetty,’ Robert Smithson practically came full circle,” Tuchman writes. The helix built on the side of the Great Salt Lake is a version of the dazzlingly engineered elevated roadway that spun cars out of the tunnel on its Jersey side. Art-history books don’t mention the I-495 tunnel ramp, but it is mentioned in rush-hour traffic reports and Port Authority traffic announcements, and it is referred to as the Helix, a Greek word meaning “twisted” or “spiral.”

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Transit geeks will recognize the Helix as the most western vestige of the now-dead Cross Manhattan Expressway, a highway that, at one point, was planned to run though the Empire State Building: it was to be elevated and would connect the Midtown Tunnel with the Helix. That road died, in the fifties. The idea of the city as a World’s Fair Futurama exhibit died then, too. Smithson’s late work helps the viewer step out of short-term human time, and into the slower time of ecology and geology. Adopting this long view, we can watch as, on either side of the Helix, the city continues to empty during the seventies and then in the nineties slowly refill, like a tide pool with an incoming tide—as wealth and population begin their still-ongoing shift from the suburbs to the city. Meanwhile, Passaic stayed a ruin, as did so many of the small cities of New York and New Jersey and America, a Detroit-like problem that is everywhere. What becomes clear in Smithson Time is that we still don’t have a vision for them.

A place that changed but in many ways stayed the same since Smithson traversed it on his way from Manhattan to William Carlos Williams’s house is the Meadowlands. Despite all that has happened since Smithson died, in a small plane crash scoping out “Amarillo Ranch”—a project later completed by Richard Serra and Nancy Holt, who died this past spring—the Meadowlands is still an edge, partly because of failed projects, partly because of local interest in the vast wetland as something like a non-site. Even today, projects get mired in the still-giant swamp—see American Dream, slated to be the largest mall in the word (“the ultimate location for global retail brands looking to debut their flagship concepts”), and only now on again after being primarily off again since it was announced, in 2011, a reboot of a previous failed giant-mall project.

I went to the press conference announcing American Dream that spring, back when the hope was supposed to open it in time for this past Super Bowl. I remember driving down the old Paterson Plank Road and then heading out to a construction trailer that seemed like it was in the middle of nowhere. I suddenly realized that I was within yards of where Smithson and Holt filmed “Swamp,” the film featured in the last room of the Montclair Art Museum’s exhibit. It’s still a quiet and beautiful showstopper: one person leads another blind through what might be called the mire. There is no end to it, really, and no beginning, really, that being the point.

Top: Robert Smithson in 1969. Photograph by Jack Robinson/Hulton Archive/Getty. Bottom: “New Jersey, New York” (1967). © Estate of Robert Smithson/VAGA, New York, NY. Courtesy Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo.


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