Land art - Robert Smithson

Robert Smithson Land Art and Central Park New York

July 28th, 2013 by Karen Elzinga

How the Land Art of Robert Smithson and Central Park New York succeeded in ameliorating their context.

Land art brings to our attention the visual splendor of our surroundings, it equips us with something that is interesting and appealing to the eye, yet is interactive in the most profound ways. It is not often that an art form can be touched let alone stood on, or jumped on or even be mowed by a lawn mower. Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty in the Utah dessert, and Central Park located in Manhattan New York; both lend themselves directly to varying levels of that analogy. Both designing artists visualized beauty but chose to build in the toughest terrains possible,The great Salt Lake, filled with extreme salinity levels that fish cannot reside in the water and Manhattan Central, a location filled with rocky outcrops and swamps. Yet through the locations ugliness, the finished works aesthetic appeal was the resounding aspect, together with a peaceful and tranquil juxtaposition, that brought about people flocking to them. Smithson a trained artist refined his skill set from formal art training before heralding advancements in Land Art, whilst it was competition winners who provided the designs for Central Park, Fredrick Law Olmsted the parks superintendent and an architect named Calvert Vaux. Both sets of designers succeeded in ameliorating their hostile environments with art that was intriguing, interesting, bold, and courageous but most of all were designed for people from all walks of life to enjoy and embrace.

Robert Smithson was born on January 2nd, 1938 in Passaic in New Jersey. After winning an art scholarship while attending high school, he studied at the Art Students League in the evenings before going on to study in Brooklyn at the Museum School in 1956. He had a keen interest through this time in collecting reptiles, artifacts and fossilized specimens, whilst enjoying frequent trips to the Museum to feed his enthusiasm for dinosaurs (Gale Encyclopedia of Biography, 2006).

In 1957 he moved to New York where his first ever canvas was painted in the styling of Abstract Expressionism. Smithson continued to paint until he discovered an appreciation for biology after an encounter with Nancy Holt, a fellow artist in 1959, and whom he later married in 1963. With her encouragement he started to collect and artistically expand his creative talent, by displaying various sponges and chemical matters into organized relationships, that yielded substance both artistically and biologically (Gale Encyclopedia of Biography, 2006).

With Smithson's interest in sculpture on the rise, frequented trips to industrial and urbanized quarries in and around New Jersey became high on his agenda in 1966. Whilst there he captured in notes his concerns for the degradation and decaying of land in favour of urban sprawl. These essays documenting his activity and visits were published in notable art magazines (Gale Encyclopedia of Biography, 2006).

1970 saw Smithson's most famous work come to fruition, The Spiral Jetty, a land art sculpture that undoubtedly went on to become one of the most poignant land art sculptures of the modern era. (Brown, 2005). Derived in Utah on top of the Great Salt Lake near an historical site on the North Eastern shore (Vandever 2010), it combined beautifully art, the environment and natural elements. The sculpture was built in the form of a spiral, 1,500 feet in length by 1,500 feet wide. Smithson expressed that he chose the site because of the reddened colour of the water due to algae growth, and that it provided uniqueness to the look of the water (Brown, 2005).

The Spiral Jetty was made from black basalt rocks and dirt, all of which were taken from the site area, it was fully complete in six days by utilizing earth moving equipment. Smithson did not lay witness to the momentum his work gained over the coming years, after his life was cut short by a fatal plane crash in 1973 at age 35 (Vandever 2010).

Three years after completion of The Spiral Jetty, an unforeseeable event occurred, the lake's water began to rise, it rose so much that it completely submerged The Spiral Jetty under water. For thirty years it lay dormant covered by the Great Salt Lake until years of harsh weather saw a drought expose once again the uniqueness of the sculpture in 2004. With the unveiling came a fresh new look to The Spiral Jetty, gone was the conventional look of the black rocks, in its place was a thick layer of salt crystals that had grown on the rocks achieving a look of a snow field to the virgin eye (Brown, 2005).

Whilst Smithson's had a courageous approach to Land Art in a hostile location, Central Park, New York was also built in such terrain.
The idea of Central Park came from a desire by Americans to be seen by Europeans as culturally established and refined, holding a high civic duty for the good of the people. A thought not held by the Europeans at the time, the Americans set out to change this outlook.
The ideas process was a difficult one taking years of meetings and discussion to herald a start date in 1857. Talks included were how rich society could showcase their carriages, thus displaying their wealth and notoriety in a social and upscale environment. Although a place for the elite to mingle and be seen, the poorer class were not forgotten with the thought that the abundance of fresh clean air, and space for recreational activities, only beneficial for health and well being. The design for the park was based on a competition called the Greenward Plan, the winning design came from the parks superintendent Frederick Law Olmsted and an architect named Calvert Vaux (Waxman, n.d.).
Calvert Vaux was the son of a Doctor; he went to a private school until age nine where he trained as an apprentice architect in London, before being recruited by a landscape gardening firm in 1850 (Central Park History, n.d).

Fredrick Law Olmsted was a lost soul spending twenty years as an adult deciding on his calling in life, whilst refusing to relinquish his financial dependency on his father, a wealthy merchant. He floated from job to job, never settling down for long periods, he tried his hand at sailing, farming and journalism, before taking a post as the Park Superintendent at Central Park (Central Park History, n.d).

Central Park's construction began after the acquisition of 840 acres of land covering Manhattans center, and encompassed the eviction of sixteen hundred legitimate housing renters, that included schools, convents, industrial plants and an African-American village that housed 270 residents, as well as peasant squatters. Although compensated by receiving $700 per land plot, the legitimate residents believed this to be below that of which their land and livelihood was worth.
Although seen as undesirable real estate previously because of the swampy yet rocky surrounds, it was deemed very suitable for park land, given the delivery of the varied terrain. What was seen as swamp land could easily be turned into grand lakes with enhanced appeal, tapered by the already present rocky outcrops. The theme was based on European influence, and extended to uninterrupted countryside views. Limited buildings, four in all were registered in the parks original plans, whilst bridges were designed for maximum integration to the landscaped surrounds, by utilizing specific materials in construction (Waxman, n.d.).

The park was built by a team of laborers that included German, Irish, and New Englanders. In 1858 on a winter's day the first section of the park was opened, and by the month of December people were using the twenty acre lake as an ice staking rink. The park's final stages began construction in 1863, and under new financial management and increased budget restraints, the last area was finalized with a discrete and more relaxed design then afforded to the rest of the park, divulging a more untamed and less manicured appearance (Waxman, n.d.).

Indeed Central park is a very unique place, as are the works of Robert Smithson; the differences without a doubt abundantly clear, when they are viewed as a whole. But under the surface they have both evolved from a similar sense of disdain. The individual beauty of both Central park and the desert land art of Smithson such as the famous Spiral Jetty, were both built in environments lavished by the cruelest of environmental conditions, resulting in minimal usage or habitation at the time of construction. Both visionary and extreme in scale, the artistic designers had to see beyond the harshness of the land and endure the difficulties associated with it, in order to develop it in a way that worked with the environment. For example Central Park designers created lakes where once swamps stood; they understood that the perfect way to exile the ugliness of a swamp was to turn it into a large lake of exhilarating beauty and finesse.

The fact that one was built into the land and one was made to be land, certainly impacts their differences especially in terms of visual appeal; however this is what lends itself to the appreciation of their individual context. Smithson's Spiral Jetty conquered the bareness of a space, he was not afraid to embody something that may have made no sense to the ordinary person. Bob Phillips was employed by Smithson to move rocks to build the foundations of the Spiral Jetty, he was recalled by interviewer Jeffery Brown an art correspondent from PBS News hour, as saying that Smithson had a definite purpose, if he didn't approve of where a rock had landed he would have it moved, he said it was like he had a picture in his head where he knew exactly where each rock should reside. The same could be said of Central Park philosophy, why didn't the designers just fill in the swamps and plant grass over them? Why didn't they have the rocks moved to provide a flat surface? Because they may have seen the bigger picture and realized that working with the land rather than against it was more beneficial to the overall scheme.

There is an inherent beauty about places so powerful that people are drawn to them, whether it is seen as a sacred sight, the embodiment of spirits, the sense of the extra terrestrial, a place of worship, of peace and tranquility. Both the Spiral Jetty and Central Park hold to many the essence of something very special.

An interesting comparison could be made between the Spiral Jetty and why people are so inherent on believing that crop circles that appear in farmers crops, are alien and not machine based design principles of artists around the world. Is it from a desire to believe in something higher and more profound then them? Maybe this is why Smithson's work is so intriguing to many, it has that sense of the crop circles about it, both in the design symbolism, and in the obscure location, that it lends itself to almost alien in nature because of its difficult geological location, not only in the desert but also in water, and not just any lake, a salt filled lake reddened in colour.

The pure fact that parallels can even be drawn to the crop circle phenomena allows the imagination to capture that alien sense of feeling by viewers, because the location screams unattainable, and out of reach, to have a form almost appearing to float on the water top, that can disappear for decades then reappear, as if by magic covered in white salt crystals. An intriguing argument for debate, would see this sculpture ameliorating its environment in such a way that even its designer could never have imagined its unlimited potential, and ability to draw people to it in such a sacred yet possibly intriguing way.

Maybe there was method to the madness, why was Smithson so intent on building The Spiral Jetty in Utah's Great Salt Lake, given the uninhabitable nature of the water. Little aquatic life lives in the water due to the high instance of salinity, the only commercial interest in the Lake lies in Brine Shrimp fishing which is sold as prawn food and with developers interested in foreshore development but extensively hindered by the ever fluctuating water levels, the Great Salt Lake is certainly challenged in its ability to support and expand its own tourism culture (Utah, 2012).
Smithson's choice of site for this work was certainly an interesting and bold gamble which to his
credit has worked well in appeasing those willing to take the trip just to see it.

Central park is quite different in the sense of its location is surrounded by tall buildings so densely packed, that to see images of the park from above seems quite surreal to visualize that amount of free land, right in the heart of a city. But that's what makes it such an illuminating place, because it is surrounded by such chaos, noise and the fast pace of city life, that to have this peaceful oasis right in the heart of it lends itself to such serenity, reflection and tranquility, that has the power to transform thought, that like the Spiral Jetty even though comparatively a very different surrounding, they both capture the essence to draw inner calm for people who are encapsulated by them.

The sheer size of the park is a credit to the designers, and with its frequent representation in motion pictures heralding over 200 movie titles to its credit such as Stuart little, Home alone, Crocodile Dundee, Wall Street, Kramer vs. Kramer and Maid in Manhattan to list but a selection. Is it any wonder the park has such an astounding reputation, and harnesses such appeal for local visitors and as an international tourist destination for many (Cross, 2012).

In conclusion the Spiral Jetty dessert work by Robert Smithson and the diverting nature of New York's Central Park have both ameliorated their context successfully by challenging the very location of their existence. Both have managed to use their environment in such a way that they have become legendary in their own right. The designer's ability to visualize beauty among st desperate surroundings showed amazing insight considering the terrain was previously thought untenable or livable in the case of Central Park. Undesirable in nature for commercial fishing due to the salinity of the water, and with the fluctuating water levels the Great Salt Lake's foreshore development also saw the location as sub standard for habitation. One thing remains clear, both yield an immeasurable level of peace and serenity for those who allow the essence of the sites to engulf their sense of being, either through the media's representation, through motion pictures, through imagination in finding higher purposes for its existence, or by personally visiting the sites and just visually exploring the setting based on its visual appeal and no more. The designers saw past the isolation of the locations and chose to bring something beautiful, interesting and iconic to the art world and something to be enjoyed for many years to come.


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Gale Encyclopaedia of Biography. 2006. Robert Smithson.
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Waxman S. n.d .History of Central Park. http://www.ny.com/articles/centralpark.html
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Image from James Cohan Gallery


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