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Cultured Pearl
Great Salt Lake falls; Spiral Jetty rises.
By Brenda J. Brown

© 2003 George Steinmetz

The work of artist Robert Smithson (1938–1973) includes writings, films, drawings, photographs, sculptures inside galleries, sculptures outside in expansive landscapes, and various fusions of the above. But the most famous is Spiral Jetty. Extending out into Great Salt Lake like an enlarged 3-D negative of a finger-drawing in sand, the sculpture has come to signify the first generation of earthworks as well as the Smithson oeuvre and ethos. Yet this influential artwork, whose scale and remoteness compressed Smithson’s ideas into a minimalist distillation, is also a changing construction in a unique landscape.

The jetty, which was covered by lake waters a few years after it was built, reemerged last summer and autumn due to drought. Heralded in October 2002 by Michael Kimmelman in The New York Times Magazine (“After spending 30 years submerged in murky water, ‘Spiral Jetty,’ Robert Smithson’s great earthwork, has reappeared” read the subhead), this event, however temporary, prompts observations on Spiral Jetty as newly experienced as well as reflections on its history and effects, here especially as pertaining to landscape architecture.

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