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The Dia Art Foundation is positioned to re-claim the lease for the 10 acres of state land on which Robert Smithson’s masterwork Spiral Jetty sits as early as this week, MAN has learned. Dia will meet with officials from the Utah Department of Natural Resources Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands in Utah on Thursday, at which point DNR and Dia will hold what could be the final negotiation to determine terms for a new lease.

Spiral Jetty, located just off Rozel Point in the north of the Great Salt Lake, is one of the most influential artworks of the 20th century and is widely regarded as the world’s greatest earthwork.


Tyler Green
Art Info


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

Robert Smithson

Today, as oil costs rise, even difficult extraction missions become potentially lucrative projects. Unconventional sources — be they shale oil in Canada or crude tar under a briny lake in Utah — previously considered too inhospitable, expensive, or politically untenable are being given a second look. In a development that has alarmed art followers around the world, oil developers are returning to the Great Salt Lake, mere miles from Jetty. Even in a remote corner of Utah, the commercial world caught up with Smithson.

This is all sadly ironic, given that Spiral Jetty is arguably the world’s foremost example of land art (also known as earth art or earthworks), a genre that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s as a fierce critique of the commercialization of art and nature. Defying the commodification of art objects, earth artists intervened in the landscape itself, trading brushes for excavators. At a time when gallery and museum spaces were facing unprecedented scrutiny as structures that shaped the way viewers understood art as well as the course of art’s development, earth artists like Smithson transformed natural spaces into the work itself. Land art married site-specific installation, minimalist aesthetics, and institutional critique with a nascent environmentalist movement.

The group blog of The American Prospect

Welcome to the story, NYT; what are you talking about?

I’m delighted that the NYT has (finally) discovered the Spiral Jetty story. I’m amused by its headline: “Artists Rally for Spiral Jetty in Utah.” I’m further amused that the NYT mini-story has no mention of any artists doing any rallying. But best of all: This has been on blogs for a week, and the NYT, with all its resources, managed to add nothing new.

Also: Today Dia finally came out in opposition to drilling near the Jetty. Dia boss Jeffrey Weiss in a statement: “The expansive natural setting is integral to Smithson’s artwork, providing an essential frame for experiencing the Spiral Jetty. Any incursion on the open landscape, including the proposed drilling, would significantly compromise this important work of art.”

Tyler Green
Modern Art Notes

Recap of news coverage on the fate of the Spiral Jetty:

New York Times

Miami Herald

Art Info

Media Bistro
To express your support of preserving the site, please contact Jonathan Jemming at 801-537-9023 pr by email,


Say you’re sitting on a story that requires an immediate, international response, otherwise known as a fast rally of the art troops. If something isn’t done today, terrible results may ensue.

Who do you call?

Not The New York Times. Not Artforum, Frieze, Flash or Art in America. Not museum directors, heavy-hitting curators, deep-pocketed and politically connected collectors or artists who have the world at their feet.

You call, text or e-mail Tyler Green at Modern Art Notes, the best-known art blogger in the business.

Case in point: On Wednesday, he posted that an oil company planned to drill in the Salt Lake near Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty. The public comments period was under the radar and insanely short. It closed the same day at 5 p.m. Utah time.
Before the Modern Art Notes alert, almost nobody knew about this. Even Leslie Peterson, acting director of the Salt Lake City Art Center, was in the dark. She had heard not a word, she said, before Wednesday.

E-mails had gone out to a small circle a day or two earlier, from Smithson’s widow Nancy Holt and from Lynn DeFreitas, director of Friends of the Great Salt Lake. But MAN put the issue on speed dial. Other art bloggers responded, and the news leapfrogged around the world.

Peterson said that Jonathan Jemming in the governor’s office was inunduated with responses: more than 1,000 messages in a couple of hours. He hastily extended the comments period to Feb. 13.

(His phone number is 801-537-9023; e-mail, – and it’s still a good idea to let him know what Smithson’s signature piece means to the world.)

If the Jetty had to wait for print journalists, the comments period would have closed before they got to it.

While the state is very familiar with the ecological issues of the lake, Peterson said, it was less familiar with the art consequences of drilling for oil, until Green’s chain reaction. “I think they were impressed to be taking calls from Europe and Japan about an artwork in Utah,” she said.

I know bloggers who would have praised themselves for motivating such an important stay of execution. Green simply noted the extended deadline in an update. Classy guy.

Regina Hackett
Seattle PI