When Hikmet Sidney Loe told her adviser that she wanted to write her master’s thesis in art history on Spiral Jetty, the adviser was dubious.
“He said, ‘You’re not going to write a dead work of art. Spiral Jetty is dead, it’s gone, you can’t write about it,’” Loe recalled in a recent interview.
This was 1993, and Robert Smithson’s earthwork, built in 1970 off Rozel Point into the northern part of the Great Salt Lake, had been submerged under several feet of water for 20 years.
“I showed him pictures and said, ‘It’s just been underwater. It’s not gone. The lake level went down, and it’s still here,’” Loe said.
The adviser, William C. Agee at Hunter College at the City University of New York, replied, “Oh, that’s different. Now you can write about it.”
Thus began Loe’s nearly quarter-century fascination with the land-art masterwork, the result of which is a new book, “The Spiral Jetty Encyclo” (University of Utah Press; softcover, 384 pages, illustrated; $34.95). Loe will read passages from the book and screen Smithson’s documentary about its making, Wednesday, Oct. 4, at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts in Salt Lake City.
In the book, Loe captures and comments on the varied influences on Smithson’s work — arranged alphabetically, from “aerial art” (his belief that his large land-art works should be seen from an airplane) to the poet William Carlos Williams (his pediatrician during the artist’s youth in Paterson, N.J.).
Spiral Jetty is perhaps the best-known work in the land-art movement of the 1960s and 1970s, when artists left the gallery to create large, immobile works in remote places. Smithson and his wife, Nancy Holt (who later created Sun Tunnels, in Box Elder County near the Nevada border), were among the champions of the movement.
Smithson’s gift for public relations within the art world helped make Spiral Jetty, and land art, famous. “Robert Smithson made sure it was everywhere, immediately,” Loe said. “In 1970, boom, if people hadn’t heard about the land-art movement before, they heard about it then.”
Her book opens with the supporting documents that curators and art experts say are as much part of Spiral Jetty as the rocks. One is Smithson’s 1972 essay, in which he recounts how it was built and explains some of his intentions. The other is the film “Spiral Jetty” (1970), which juxtaposes images of rippling pink water, earthmovers relocating rocks into formation, and the dirt roads leading to the remote site in Box Elder County. (The book includes a transcript of the film, with images.)
“Land art is about being at the site, and being with the work, but it’s equally about the journey,” Loe said.
For Smithson, she said, part of the journey was a failed project he, Holt and artist Michael Heizer worked on in California’s Mono Lake. The project held some of the themes — an inland sea, an alkaline lake — that Smithson developed further in Spiral Jetty. The book features words and images from a film about Mono Lake, shot in 1968 and completed by Holt in 2004.
Loe’s breakthrough in research was getting one of the first extensive interviews with Bob Phillips, the Utah contractor Smithson hired to dig the dirt and move the rocks that make up Spiral Jetty. Phillips showed Loe the papers he had saved, including Smithson’s drawings, photos and planning documents.
“He kept everything, had his own archive at home, and was very generous with me and others who were interested in Robert Smithson,” Loe said. She dedicated her book to Phillips, who died in April 2016.
Phillips, she said, particularly remembered when Smithson and Holt visited him and his wife, Judy, in 1972. The Smithsons wanted to go out to the jetty, but the Phillipses begged off the trip.
“Bob Phillips always was very regretful of that, because that was the last time he ever saw Robert Smithson,” Loe said. Smithson died in 1973, at age 35, in a small-plane crash while surveying a site for an earthwork near Amarillo, Texas.
The waters of the Great Salt Lake rose soon after Spiral Jetty was completed. The work disappeared in 1972, reappeared briefly in 1980 and wasn’t seen again until 1993. It was visible for a few years, was swallowed up again in 1997 and has been visible ever since. At its highest, in 1987, the water rose 16 feet above where Smithson built the jetty.
While the jetty was underwater, interest in the art world faded. “There were scholarly papers and the like, but they were at a remove,” Loe said. “Once it came back, people locally saw it first.”
The evolving nature of Spiral Jetty was in keeping with Smithson’s philosophy of land art.
“Smithson said that every time you go to the Spiral Jetty, you’re going to have a different experience. He relished the changeable nature of the environment,” Loe said. “Time becomes this pretty potent medium that is embedded in the Spiral Jetty.”
‘The Spiral Jetty Encyclo’
Art historian Hikmet Sidney Loe will read from her new book, “The Spiral Jetty Encyclo,” and screen Robert Smithson’s 1970 documentary “Spiral Jetty.”
Where • Utah Museum of Fine Arts, 410 Campus Center Drive, Salt Lake City
When • Wednesday, Oct. 4, 7 p.m.
Admission • Free