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Bob Phillips, contractor on Spiral Jetty, dies at 75

First Published      Last Updated Dec 28 2016 09:56 pm


He was concerned about building at lake site chosen by artist Robert Smithson, said, “There’s lots of backhoes buried out there.”

In his long career as a contractor, Bob Phillips' best-known construction job was, in his words, "the only thing I ever built that ... was to look at and had no purpose."

Robert "Bob" Phillips, the Utah contractor hired by artist Robert Smithson to construct one of the world's most famous works of art, the Spiral Jetty in the Great Salt Lake, has died.

Phillips died April 11, from cancer. He was 75.

Phillips worked for 40 years in construction, including stints as a bid estimator for Parson Construction and Whitaker Construction. He was known as an expert at construction materials and techniques, and being able to size up how much a job would cost and which company could provide the best source materials.



In 1970, the burly Utah contractor, then 30, met the 31-year-old Smithson, a New York-based artist and one of the founders of the "land art" movement, which took the ideas of artists out of galleries and into the wild.

"He and Robert Smithson were about the same age, but they really did come from very different worlds," said Gretchen Dietrich, executive director of the Utah Museum of Fine Arts. "The magic of that collaboration is that Bob said yes in the first place."

Smithson approached Phillips to hire him to build something in the Great Salt Lake, after other contractors had turned him down.

"I didn't understand what he was trying to do," Phillips told The Salt Lake Tribune in 2011. "I kept trying to convince him that he had to follow contracting rules with engineers and surveying and all that kind of stuff. … He just kept saying he knew what he was doing."

Phillips was uneasy about using earth-moving equipment in the muck around Rozel Point, where Smithson wanted to create the jetty. "It's tricky working out on that lake," Phillips said. "There's lots of backhoes buried out there."

Smithson, in hip-wader boots, was in full command on the site, though. "When we got out there, he just took over," Phillips said. "I don't think he had done any geology work or anything on it. He just had in his mind what it should look like. … He just had the eye for it. I assume it was the artist in him."

Smithson actually had Phillips' crew build the jetty twice. The first took six days of work, using heavy equipment, but two days later, Smithson had Phillips' team redo it — moving 7,000 tons of basalt rock in three days to create the spiral shape that remains today.

Phillips said Smithson liked to use words like "entropy" to describe the interaction of the basalt and the lake. "I never had the vocabulary to talk to him," Phillips said. "I thought if I could understand what that word meant, I could get into his head and understand what he was trying to do."

Phillips was born Aug. 5, 1939, in Spanish Fork, grew up in Cache Valley and graduated from Logan High School. He married Judy Crocket, his high-school sweetheart, in January 1961, and their marriage was later solemnized in the Logan LDS Temple. Phillips served a stint in the U.S. Air Force, while Judy took care of their two oldest children, Kelly and Rick. Phillips later attended Utah State University, earning a degree in entomology.

Phillips is survived by his wife, Judy; their four children, Kelly (Diana), Rick (Jany), Mike and Jenni (Rex); siblings David, Michael and Annalee; 15 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. A son-in-law, Christopher Tanner, and one grandson, Ryan, died previously.

Funeral services are set for Tuesday, 11 a.m., at the Pleasant Valley Stake Center, 5640 S. 850 East, South Ogden. A viewing is set for Tuesday, 9:30 to 10:30 a.m., at Lindquist's Ogden Mortuary, 3408 Washington Blvd., Ogden. Internment will take place at the Logan City Cemetery.

spmeans@sltrib.com

Twitter: @moviecricket

 

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