Robert Smithson. Spiral Jetty. 1969-70
black rock, salt crystal, and earth spiral,
length 1,500' Great Salt Lake, Utah


Robert Smithson (1938B1973) 
draft writing about his earthwork Spiral Jetty, ca. 1970, 
describing the evolution of the piece. 
Robert Smithson and Nancy Holt Papers. 
Donated by Nancy Holt, 1986-1995.

In the late 1960s probably all the way through the 1980s there were a group of artists who changed the way landscape and environment were thought about at, at least by people in the art world.

Probably the most identifiable, and the one that is the most iconic in terms of art history, is Robert Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty.”


Robert Smithson referred to his work as an earthwork. Basically, it is a spiral of earth, soil, black rock, salt crystal and other natural elements found near a lake in Utah. The spiral is created by piling these materials in a rough spiral pattern when the lake was at a pretty low level which allowed the workers to use less material and less effort.

It is a massive, almost primitive in its technology, 1500 feet long and 15 feet wide spiral of dirt that initially could be walked out on.

It’s in a fairly inaccessible location, where nature lovers and hikers might like to go and the color of the lake and the materials is fairly interesting since the lake is a slightly murky red and the materials used are basically black which creates a striking appearance.

At times, the jetty is covered by water as the lake rises and other times it is revealed.


Artists spend a lot of time and justifying creating works like this and what they mean through pretty complex language and jargon. In essence, if you strip away all of jargon and art speak, with Smithson created was a kind of tourist attraction, in a fairly unpopulated natural environment, that became a destination for people want to see something unusual and man-made in a landscape.

The spiral shape, the fact that it is a mound, and its location, are elements that allow art historians and art critics to describe it as referencing prehistoric art like the serpent mound in Ohio, as well as burial mounds throughout the world, and the spiral shape, refers to various uses of spirals throughout different cultures especially in reference to the serpent mound in Ohio.

Robert Smithson, like other landscape artists and landscape designers were more traditional, are reshaping the landscape and also making us see or think about the landscape in a slightly different way.   One way the artist influences the audience is making connections with other works of art and other ideas.

For example, the fact that this work is in a remote location means that the viewer is also a “pilgrim” in much the same way a pilgrim in the Renaissance travelled or went on a “pilgrimage” to visit a cathedral or sacred city, such as Mecca or Jerusalem.  The effort that it takes to visit the site increases the value of the experience for the visitor.


The context surrounding this work, includes an intricate social network, that includes Smithson’s work as a kind of fund raiser for this project as well as a kind of artistic ambassador at a lecture about it.

According to the Press release provided by Dia Galleries,
'In 1970 gallerist and art patron Virginia Dwan provided Smithson with the funds needed to construct Spiral Jetty. Using black basalt rocks and earth from the site, the artist created a coil 1500 feet long and 15 feet wide that stretches out counterclockwise into the translucent red water. In 1972 Smithson explained his fascination with this rugged context: "I like landscapes that suggest prehistory. As an artist it is interesting to take on the persona of a geological agent and actually become part of that process rather than overcome it." Today Spiral Jetty is submerged as it has been for most of its existence. Realizing, after its completion, that he had built it at a time when the level of the lake was unnaturally low, Smithson considered adding further material to ensure that his artwork would be visible more often. As yet this has not been done.'

Probably one of the more important ideas surrounding artists like Robert Smithson, Holt and Christo, are that all of these artists are basically landscape designers were using less traditional design methods and materials to make their work.

The other thing that separates them from traditional landscape designers is the idea that they are kind of orchestrating or creating a kind of performance art in how they get people to accept this work as a work of art rather than just a unique landscape design. Most important to getting people to accept this as a work of art, rather than just a landscape design project is their affiliation and identification as being artists.


Nancy Holt. Sun Tunnels, 1973-76 Lucin, Utah 
Photograph by Laurence Belingard, 1999
Form: "Nancy Holt completed Sun Tunnels in 1976, in the Utah desert. Sun Tunnels is a composition of 4 concrete tubes, each 18 feet long and about 9 feet in diameter. the concrete tubes are oriented to the rising and setting sun of the summer solstice and the winter solstice. Holes in the tubes cast light during the day as an expression of star constellations. The Sun Tunnels offer some practical advantage - orientation within the landscape to the cardinal directions, and shelter from the sun of the desert." (

Iconography: The Sun Tunnels are not strictly an earthwork, per se, as they are created with concrete and built to withstand the desert heat and corrosive winds. However, this work does connect with the earth in a celestial way, as it is positioned to reflect the summer and winter solstice as well as constellations. 

Context: By using the idea of tunnels, Nancy Holt has created an environment wherein the viewer steps into 'another world'. Inside this concrete tube, the viewer is protected from the desert, and in the harsh light of day is able to gaze at the constellations shining on the interior of the tube, a melding of the day and evening skies.

Christo and Jean-Claude. Running Fence. 1972-76
nylon fence, height 18' length 24.5 miles
Sonoma and Marin Counties
Form: Miles and miles of nylon erected into a fence, running along the hills of Sonoma and Marin. "The fabric for the fence was originally woven to be used for automobile safety air-bags. But the Nixon Whitehouse allowed the car-makers to delay implementation of the air-bag laws for more than 10 years. That decision meant there was lots of air-bag fabric available at a reasonable price. " (

Iconography: According to the website, "Walking the length of the fence was an other-worldly experience. Like chanting a mantra, each panel was the same. But as one passed onto the next panel, it changed slightly. It was, after all, a new panel. 
Time and space were altered by the rhythm of passing panels. In the blink an eye, one could walk 5 or 6 miles. Or so it seemed. Christo said the Running Fence was a landscape with "an obstructive membrana" in place to block and alter the view, which transforms the ways people perceive it." (also said about the fence on " An essential part of Christo's work is process. His Running Fence consisted of 2050 panels of white nylon fabric each 18 ft high and 6 ft wide held by cables and hooks strung between steel poles. Twenty four miles long it stood for two weeks in mid September 1976 meandering its way across the rolling countryside of north California revealing and emphasizing the contours of the land before finally dipping down and disappearing into the sea. Connecting the borders of the landscape, the sky to the sea, the finished product was a piece of pure theatre: dazzling, dramatic, monumental: a modern and transient version of the Great Wall of China.  

The work reflected on a number of issues: the nature of borders while ignoring all borders; the character of the land: dividing yet uniting, softening yet breaking up the contours, the rippling fabric creating a static yet mobile running line, a mobile boundary for viewing the land in a new light and changing dramatically according to the angle from which it was viewed. To see all the fence, apart from in the air, required movement through the land. The spectator could no longer contemplate it in a static and distanciated manner. The realisation of this work was the outcome of 42 months of negotiation and legal struggles. Permission was required to cross 59 different ranches. There were eighteen public hearings, three sessions in the Superior Courts of California, 450 pages of environmental impact statements, innumerable media debates, disputes between different lobby groups etc. It required hundreds of people from engineers to students to physically erect the fence, an equally important part of the process."

Context: It can be difficult for a viewer to discern precisely what an artist is trying to say when a work is of this magnitude, mainly because the idea, as well as the work itself, can be overwhelmingly enormous. Though this work is not made from the earth, it does subtly reflect the movement of the earth it is placed on. The rolling of the hills, the sunlight reflecting through the nylon, and the breeze moving it softly. It would be easy to imagine that this piece actually belonged in the landscape it occupied, because while it may have been huge, it was also unobtrusive and complementary to it.

Form: Documentary photographs of the creation of the Running Wall.

Iconography: Like the notes for Robert Smithsons' Spiral Jetty, the documentation of this work helps the viewer to understand the amount of manpower needed to create a work of monumental proportions. It also shows process in the work, how the creation of the work itself is just a s important as the end result.

Context: The creation of this work was laborious and frustration. An Environmental Impact Report had to be secured, permission granted to place the work on private land, and 3 million dollars had to be spent in order to make this work a reality. It seems like a lot of work for a piece that lasted only two weeks, and now exists only on film and in photographs, but it illustrates eloquently the drive and desire of a creative individual to make their ideas a reality.


Christo and Jean Claude, The Umbrellas, Japan and US 1984-1991
19'8" Tall Umbrellas two inland
Two valleys, one 19 kilometers (12 miles) long in Japan,
and the other 29 kilometers (18 miles) long in the USA.
more facts


Form: 3,100 Umbrellas, placed in Japan and in California.There were 1340 in Japan and 1760 in California. The blue umbrellas were in Japan, and the yellow were in California.

Iconography: "The umbrellas, free standing dynamic modules, reflected the availability of the land in each valley, creating an invitational inner space, as houses without walls, or temporary settlements and related to the ephemeral character of the work of art. In the precious and limited space of Japan, the umbrellas were positioned intimately, close together and sometimes following the geometry of the rice fields. In the luxuriant vegetation enriched by water year round, the umbrellas were blue. In the California vastness of uncultivated grazing land, the configuration of the umbrellas was whimsical and spreading in every direction.The brown hills are covered by blond grass, and in that dry landscape, The Umbrellas were yellow. From October 9th, 1991 for a period of eighteen days, The Umbrellas were seen, approached, and enjoyed by the public, either by car from a distance and closer as they bordered the roads, or by walking under The umbrellas in their luminous shadows."

Context: The umbrellas are not meant to be seen as analogous or complementary to the landscapes they're in, they are supposed to represent an idea of the space available to people in each landscape. Christos' work seems to be representative of how man and environment can work together, and how culture is shaped by the landscape it resides in.

Form: Notes and sketches for the planning and execution of the Umbrella project. On top is a map detailing where each umbrella is to be placed, and below is eh artists' conception of what the umbrella will look like when it is opened.

Iconography:Here again, as with all of the earthworks we've seen on this page, is an example of he planning and forethought required to tackle a project of this scope.One can see that not only did the artist have to undertake the idea of the umbrellas themselves, but also that of correct placement and securing the land for the project.

Context: It must be remembered that what is unique about Christos' work is he additional problems he takes on while attempting to construct them. There is not only the initial idea, but the reality that he wants his work to cover many different areas of land, and in this case, on two separate continents and cultures. It is not only a statement on the similarity of mankind, but an example of how it is possible to bring two diverse cultures together and show them how much they reflect one another, though they are thousands of miles apart.