Spiral Jetty

In 1970, two discrete events helped define what would become known as “land art.” Michael Heizer, who had fled the East Coast for the ascetic rigor of the Nevada desert, had a New York gallery show featuring images of “Double Negative,” a pair of 50-foot-deep, dynamited and bulldozed trenches on a remote mesa near Las Vegas. Later that year, Artforum featured another monumental work, Robert Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty,” an “immobile cyclone” of boulders jutting out from a desolate coast of Utah’s Great Salt Lake.

As Suzaan Boettger writes in her definitive history, “Earthworks,” the art presented a curious dynamic. Built far from the white boxes of the New York art world, it could only be easily experienced (and validated as art) through the galleries themselves and the mediated form of photography. This could be powerful in itself: Gianfranco Gorgoni’s famous photographs of the “Spiral Jetty” in Artforum essentially were the “Spiral Jetty” for most people.

But there was another option: See the work. And a new genre of art criticism appeared — the site visit. This brought its own kind of ecstatic rituals: “Adventure and trepidation,” as Boettger described it, when “the relief of locating this massive sculpture mixes with awe at the immensity of both its dimensions and the evidence of the laborious effort that produced it.”

More than three decades later, the draw — part spiritualist, part survivalist — hasn’t ebbed. Erin Hogan, the director of public affairs at the Art Institute of Chicago, was one of many who felt the pull — perhaps even the same impulses that motivated the works’ creators. Quoting Smithson quoting G. K. Chesterton, she writes of wanting “that most joyful and dreadful thing in the physical universe … the fiercest note … the highest light.” A prototypical urbanite, surrounded by friends and noise, Hogan says she was beset by an “early midlife crisis,” wondering if there wasn’t more to life than meetings and e-mail. “I wanted to learn to enjoy being alone,” she writes. And as a “recovering art historian,” she longed to experience works she had only known refracted through art criticism and seminar slide shows.

So Hogan packed up her Volkswagen Jetta and headed west…

When Hogan actually gets to the artworks, she faces other kinds of crises, including a persistent “gap between imagination and reality.” The Jetty is “much smaller” than she had expected. She wonders if the Roden Crater, James Turrell’s unfinished, vastly expensive chamber meant to “re-see” the sky, would “offer a radically different experience than one could have, say, attentively camping?” She compares, heretically, the Hole N” the Rock, a 5,000-square-foot home carved into a rock near Moab, Utah, by a man named Albert Christansen, to Heizer’s own displacement of earth. “The question of why one is art and the other a touching oddity might have been definitively answered by Marcel Duchamp in the early 20th century: ‘Because I said so.’”

Such thoughts coalesce around Walter De Maria’s “Lightning Field,” rows of stainless-steel rods in rural New Mexico: “I wanted to discuss whether the problem was with the art or with me.”

I was never quite sure what Hogan was looking for when she set out — self-fulfillment or some new insights into what art is, or what it is for — or indeed whether she found it. But I loved the ride. In “Spiral Jetta,” an unashamedly honest, slyly uproarious, ever-probing book, art doesn’t magically have the power to change lives, but it can, perhaps no less powerfully, change ways of seeing. As one guide tells Hogan while they look at art in Marfa, Tex., “You’re supposed to draw your own conclusions.”

Tom Vanderbilt
New York Times

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