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Robert Smithson’s Iconic ‘Spiral Jetty’ Celebrates 50th Anniversary

Robert Smithson’s Iconic ‘Spiral Jetty’ Celebrates 50th Anniversary


On the northeastern edge of Utah’s Great Salt Lake, a 1,500-foot spiral of black basalt rock coils counterclockwise off the shoreline. This monumental, 6,000-ton earth work by the late artist Robert Smithson marks its 50th anniversary in 2020.

At the start of the pandemic, Spiral Jetty saw an increasing number of visitors as people arrived to take in one of the nation’s most iconic works of land art and ponder the mysteries of our changing world.

Victoria Sambunaris
Victoria Sambunaris

“You do reflect personally on your own position within the world and about centuries that have passed before us,” says Kelly Kivland, curator at Dia Art Foundation, which has owned and managed Spiral Jetty since 1999.

Smithson completed the work in 1970, drawn to the otherworldliness of the lake’s North Arm, with its salt crystal deposits, black basalt rocks, and rosy red water colored by microorganisms.

The artwork was concealed for roughly three decades until 1999, when the water began to recede and retract. Today, because of a decade-long super drought, Spiral Jetty remains exposed and the lakebed around it is dry, with the exception of a few pools.

Victoria Sambunaris

Bonnie Baxter is the director of The Great Salt Lake Institute at Westminster College, which partners with Dia on Spiral Jetty’s stewardship. Over the years, she has witnessed the saline lake’s cycle of shrinking and swelling. On a research trip in 1998, Baxter and her students canoed over the artwork, though they were unable to see it due to the depth of the water. Today, she has to walk past the jetty, three quarters of a mile to the lake’s edge, in order to collect her samples.

“I feel like Spiral Jetty has been such a flagship site for Great Salt Lake, calling people to the shores, helping people understand the lake’s plight,” she says continuing, “In a way it is a voice for climate change.”

Last year, landscape photographer Victoria Sambunaris camped at Spiral Jetty for two nights to capture images for the 50th anniversary. “Any day you go you will experience it differently,” she says. “You might see the lake is a different color. Sometimes you see this magenta color or sometimes it’s a vivid blue…everything changes with the light.”

Victoria Sambunaris



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