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New exhibit celebrates ‘Spiral Jetty’ artist

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GREAT SALT LAKE — Utah has many amazing natural wonders. But it also has one man-made wonder in the Great Salt Lake that's famous among art lovers around the world — Robert Smithson's "The Spiral Jetty."

A recently opened museum exhibition is expected to bring renewed attention to Smithson's masterpiece.

"I think an argument can be made for it being the single-most important single sculpture in American art history," said artist Adam Bateman. He's one of 23 contemporary artists heavily influenced by Smithson.

Smithson's work, as well as work by artists influenced by his work, will be shown in an exhibit called "The Smithson Effect." It runs through July 3 at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts on the University of Utah campus.

"I think he is probably the single-most influential artist of the late 20th century," said exhibition curator Jill Dawsey. "That's the argument that this exhibition makes."

Smithson's "Spiral Jetty" is in one of the most remote, barren and strangest landscapes in Utah — not the sort of place you'd expect someone to shake up the art world. It's at the extreme north end of the Great Salt Lake, in an uninhabited region west of the Promontory peninsula. It's a place almost no one would go, if not for the presence of a sculpture that appears in virtually every recent book about art history.

The jetty is a huge outdoor sculpture composed entirely of boulders and crushed rock. It has the general appearance of a causeway running from the shoreline into the Great Salt Lake. Its linear dimension would be 1,500 feet, except that it swirls in a counter-clockwise fashion, ending at a point in the middle of the spiral a few hundred feet from shore.

Although many people who have seen it might wonder about its purpose or meaning, it's unquestionably a work of art. But it's one that could never fit into a museum, and that's part of the reason Smithson's sculpture has had such a big impact on the art world.

"I think it was a new idea for what sculpture could be," Dawsey said. "Instead of a sculpture being an object that sits on a pedestal in a museum, it was a sculpture in the landscape. It was a much more expansive idea of what sculpture could be."

Dawsey chose 23 contemporary artists whose work reflects Smithson's influence. The exhibit celebrates the impact he had on the art world more than 40 years ago.

"The landscape itself and the remoteness was something that appealed to Smithson," Dawsey said. "I think the very idea of using land in this way was brand new and something that a lot of artists have taken and run with."

Smithson died in a plane crash shortly after building the Spiral Jetty in 1970. The rising Great Salt Lake quickly swallowed his sculpture, and it was largely forgotten, at least in Utah.

In 1993, the lake level had started a long-term downward trend, reviving interest in the sculpture. The receding lake at that time uncovered the top few inches of the jetty and left Smithson's masterpiece wrapped in a blanket of salt crystals.

The sculpture's peek-a-boo relationship with the lake gives it many moods. Today, with the lake at historic lows, the jetty's rocks have a salt-and-pepper appearance. The sculpture is mostly separated from the lake water by grayish mudflats and whitish salt deposits.

"The idea that it would interact with the lake was intentional," Bateman said. "But I wonder if he (Smithson) knew how well it would interact with the lake. Because I don't believe it could be any better."

Smithson left behind writings about his work, but that hasn't stopped art lovers and the general public from discussing and puzzling over the meaning of his most famous work.

"There are a lot meanings there," Dawsey said. "One of them is about the changing landscape and the way that the work will change over time and has changed over time."

Bateman has a video in the exhibit that he describes as a parody of Smithson, with toy trucks and tractors building a miniature "Spiral Jetty." Bateman grew up in Utah but never heard of the jetty until he went to graduate school in New York. "It's way better known on the East Coast than in Utah, I think," Bateman said. "The 'Spiral Jetty' is absolutely famous, one of the most famous sculptures in American art history."

Bateman is amused by the fact that Smithson built an enormous sculpture that still seems to be dwarfed by the vastness of the desert and by the lake surrounding it.

"I don't find myself asking the question 'What does it mean' very often because I understand a lot of the things Smithson was trying to do just by looking at it," Bateman said. "He was engaged in sculpting the Earth … not just making a sculpture that is on top of the land, but a sculpture that is actually engaging with the land as his palette."

The UMFA exhibit features artists influenced by all of Smithson's work, not just his most famous one. "But we hope after this exhibition," Dawsey said, "that awareness will be increased that one of the most important works of art in the world, and certainly of 20th century art history, is right here in Utah."

e-mail: hollenhorst@desnews.com