PRINT April 1974

Robert Smithson, the “Amarillo Ramp”

A song of the rolling earth, and of words accordingly,
Were you thinking that those were the words, those upright lines?
those curves, angles, dots?
No, those are not the words, the substantial words are in the
ground and sea,
They are in the air, they are in you.

—Walt Whitman, A Song of the Rolling Earth

ROBERT SMITHSON WAS A PROBLEM from the beginning. When first exhibited in The Jewish Museum’s “Primary Structure” exhibition in 1966, his sculpture looked eccentric compared to the prevalent notion of the Minimalist style. Smithson’s adoption of the spiral motif contrasted strongly with the inert and self-contained icons of Minimalism—the circle, triangle, rectangle, or square. His spiraled Mirror Prototype for Aerial Art Project, 1967, for example, and even bulkier Gyrostasis of 1968 apparently relate to 19th-century systems of logarithmic expansion, or to organic and crystalline growth, or perhaps even to the spiral as a biophysical symbol of life itself. Not until the building of Spiral Jetty in 1970 did Smithson’s usage become clearer; the spiral is related to his notions of entropy and irreversibility. A spiral vectors outward and simultaneously shrinks inward—a shape that circuitously defines itself by entwining space without sealing it off. One enters the Spiral Jetty backward in time, bearing to the left, counterclockwise, and comes out forward in time, bearing right, clockwise. In 1967 Smithson wrote:

I should now like to prove the irreversibility of eternity by using a jejeune experiment for proving entropy. Picture in your mind’s eye the sand box divided in half with black sand on one side and white sand on the other. We take a child and have him run hundreds of times clockwise in the box until the sand gets mixed and begins to turn grey; after that we have him run anti-clockwise, but the result will not be the restoration of the original division but a greater degree of greyness and an increase of entropy.

Of course, if we filmed such an experiment we could prove the reversibility of eternity by showing the film backwards, but then sooner or later the film itself would crumble or get lost and enter the state of irreversibility ("The Monuments of Passaic,” Artforum, December, 1967).

Smithson used the spiral as an entity outside the logic of current art. He took giddy pleasure that the viewer coming to the end of the Spiral Jetty finds nothing there. This alone gives his work a different kind of vitality.

It may be difficult for those who live outside New York, especially in Europe, and who have a different sensibility, to appreciate or understand the special kind of force Smithson represented. After 1966, Smithson felt a unique sense of mission, and his personal presence on the New York art scene as writer, filmmaker, theoretician, maker of exhibitions, and finally as a powerful conscience was by no means easy to ignore: he delighted in pushing people to their intellectual limits by verbal and esthetic challenges.

Beyond this there is the problem of Smithson’s Earthworks. However widely known as an image, Spiral Jetty is nevertheless extremely inaccessible to firsthand viewing. The same is true of Amarillo Ramp, which is sited on a private ranch closed to the public. Despite the hundreds of drawings for incompleted projects, Smithson’s body of work is small. His premature death meant the end of his developing range of ideas as well as of the realization of many projects. This raises the problem of how an artist becomes part of the culture through his residue—Smithson left enough work for us to assess him, but not enough to canonize him. So Smithson proved to be a problem at the beginning, and remains one at the end.

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After completion of the Spiral Jetty in 1970 (funded by Virginia Dwan), patronage became a thorny issue for Smithson, who constantly sought ways and means to continue his work. Texas Overflow, conceived in the same year for an abandoned quarry between Fort Worth and Dallas, was to consist of a large circle of white limestone rocks with liquid asphalt poured into the center and overflowing the sides. Though negotiations extended over several years with the Fort Worth Art Center Museum, the money to build the work never materialized. Another project that fell through was Ring of Sulphur and Asphalt, to have been constructed near Houston, Texas, of local materials—sulphur and asphalt. The Dutch government financed Spiral Hill and Broken Circle, built in 1971 in Emmen, Holland, in a nearly exhausted sand-mining quarry slated to become a recreational center. (The local citizenry was so taken with Smithson’s Earthwork that it voted to allocate funds to permanently maintain it, a reaction that affirmed to Smithson the democratic goals of his art.)

Smithson explored several abandoned quarries in Maine, but found them too mellowed by time, too picturesque. He bought a small island off the coast of Maine, but abandoned any idea of using it for the same reasons. He explored the Florida Keys and the Salton Sea in California for sites.

Smithson’s overriding concern, especially in the last two years of his life, was to propagate his art as “a resource that mediates between ecology and industry.” He visited several strip mines, and negotiated for Earthworks which he argued would be ways of reclaiming the land in terms of art. He wrote to numerous mining companies, especially those engaged in strip mining, reminding them that “the miner who cuts into the land can either cultivate or devastate it.” Through a Wall Street friend, Timothy Collins, he finally contacted a receptive mining company, the Minerals Engineering Company of Denver. They were enthusiastic about his proposal for a “tailings” Earthwork at a mine in Creede, Colorado. At this mine, vast quantities of rock are broken up, subjected to a chemical process to extract the ore, and the residue washed into tailings Ponds—a hydraulic system for flushing waste. Since the company required a new pond anyway, and since Smithson’s Earthwork would cost very little more, his ideas aroused their interest. In his proposal for Tailings Pond, Smithson envisaged a work that would continuously progress over 25 years or so. Some nine million tons of tailings would complete the Earthwork, to have been approximately 2,000 feet in diameter. Smithson allowed for an overflow if the projected quantity of tailings exceeded expectations by extending the design to accommodate the excess tailings into another half section. Though sketches for Tailings Pond might suggest some similarity in design to the Amarillo Ramp, the concept is entirely different. The basic shape of Tailings Pond, which also consists of a partial circle, is entirely tiered into the surrounding hills, and the remaining half of the circle is held in reserve for the extension. The rocky terrain strongly contrasts to the desert prairie surrounding the Amarillo Ramp; moreover, the shape of Tailings Pond is scooped and dished, rather than built up on a flat surface.

After two years of site selections, fund raising, and inevitable cancellations, his proposal for the construction of Tailings Pond realized at last Smithson’s vision of an art that mediated between the industrial/technological processes at work within the landscape. It confirmed his idea that the artist could become a functional worker within society, changing the socio-economic basis of art by restoring to it an everyday function within society, and making an art that restored to the common man his sense of place in the world.

The Amarillo Ramp, however, came into existence by chance. Smithson and his wife, Nancy Holt, visited Creede to work out the final design for Tailings Pond, but actual work on the project was delayed for a few more months. All the abortive attempts over the preceding two years to make a piece had left Smithson with a sense of repressed and contained energy that needed unleashing. While passing time in New Mexico, they met a friend, Tony Shafrazi, who told of a ranch with desert lakes he was about to visit in the Texas Panhandle. The thought of desert lakes teased Smithson’s imagination to such an extent that he and Holt decided to go along.

The Marsh ranch is about 15 miles northwest of Amarillo township, situated near the rim of the Bush Dome, a giant underground cavern deep in the earth, used to store the Western world’s readily available supply of helium gas. The rich helium source, found in the Texas gas fields near Amarillo after World War I, was first mined locally, then as other fields were opened in the Texas Panhandle, Oklahoma, and Kansas, helium gas was piped to the Bush Dome, processed and stored there. Helium is a “noble” gas, one that will not react chemically with other gases or burn, and one crucial to the space program since it is used to maintain pressure in rocket fuel tanks. Other than a small, heavily fenced, and quite anonymous industrial processing unit nearby, there is little visual evidence of its presence near the ranch. It is typical of the area that until one has probed around, it is hard to grasp the extraordinary evolutionary process the surrounding land has undergone, especially in recent times—a quality that fascinated Smithson.

This part of Texas, east of a line drawn from Amarillo to New Mexico, appears on early maps as the Great American Desert, and the Panhandle (which, in fact, is the northern part of Texas) is still called West Texas, a reminder that geographically it was considered within the arid Western frontier. The Indians have inhabited the area for thousands of years, beginning with the archaic Plains Indians. Until the last quarter of the 19th century, when they were cleared out by the U.S. Cavalry in one of the last actions against Indians, the nomadic Comanches lived there. It is rich in flint, much prized by the Indians, who sought, worked, and traded it widely. The remains of a pre-Columbian trading kiva exist 12 miles south of the Amarillo Ramp on the bank of the Canadian River, and I picked up chips of worked flint all around the bluffs overlooking the Amarillo Ramp, as well as on the rims of the canyon below the Tecovas Lake dam site. The area was considered unsuitable for white settlement until the 1880s, when the railway line was built. The opening of the area for ranching immediately attracted speculative international capital, principally English and Scottish, and settlement of the area by whites began in earnest.

I’m told that when the first ranchers came, the buffalo grass supported a greater number of cattle. It is a natural species of the dry plains east of the Rocky Mountains, a tender protein-rich grass, the food of the great herds of buffalo wandering the prairies, and requires no artificial fertilization. Unlike other ranching operations which must grow feed, the Amarillo ranchers were blessed with a natural food source for their cattle. Continual overgrazing systematically depleted the grass. Now the grass is cropped short and laced with mesquite, yucca, and other noxious weeds which got a toehold from seeds in the droppings of the first cattle driven into the area.

Although at first it appears impossibly desolate, the Amarillo area is a dynamic center of agribusiness, a central geographic location where cattle, grain, and rail transportation come together. Now, only 90 years after the opening of the Fort Worth and Denver City Railway, what was formerly considered unusable desert has become one of the beef lockers of the world.

The Marsh Ranch straddles a prim eval watershed (probably a lake or sea bottom at one time) covered by a red rock of compressed clay. Nowadays, water flows down through this watershed into Tecovas Creek, which feeds into the Canadian River about 12 miles north of the ranch, and then into the Mississippi. At the flood point of the Tecovas Creek, just beyond Tecovas Lake, which is a man-made dam, the action of the water has gouged a deep, twisted rocky canyon.

The dam which forms Tecovas Lake was built in the early ’60s. Since then it has silted some 30 to 40% with fine red clay. Before the dam was emptied for the building of Amarillo Ramp, the water level was roughly eight feet. The dam is part of a unique irrigation system called the Keyline, the first of its kind built in the Western hemisphere. Pioneered by a visionary Australian, P. A. Yeomans, the system is based upon the local control and development of land and water resources. Large dams can cost enormous sums of money, and the feeder canals and pumping systems necessary to distribute the water can be equally expensive. By contrast, the Keyline system uses every drop of water where it falls. Rain water usually runs off the land faster than the soil can absorb it, and is consequently wasted. Yeoman’s plan doctors the land in such a way that the water is used as close to its source as possible. At the Marsh Ranch the water running down the watershed is dammed, pumped to a ridge 80 feet above, fed through five miles of ditch to a lake, then conducted by gravity downhill, point by point over the surface of the land. The land is plowed to get even coverage from the water. The sparse rainfall of 20 inches a year is utilized to the maximum. I think what interested Smithson was the wonderful simplicity of the system, the manner in which it so economically employs smaller and smaller systems to overcome the aridity of the area.

After Smithson saw Tecovas Lake, he was able to convince Stanley Marsh to let him build an Earthwork. Marsh hired a plane so Smithson could take aerial photographs to chart its position and size. Smithson went up in the plane, photographed the lake, and made some drawings. Later, he and Holt waded into the lake and staked out a piece, but Smithson rejected this plan and began again. A second proposal, for a work about 250 feet in diameter, was dismissed because he felt it displaced too much of the area of the lake. He reduced it to 150 feet. After this third proposal was staked out, Marsh hired the same aircraft to view the staked-out piece from the air. On July 20, 1973, the plane was flying low over the site when it stalled and dived into the ground, killing everyone on board.

Soon after Smithson’s death Holt thought that the piece should be built. Shortly after her return to New York, she saw Richard Serra, who had witnessed part of the construction of Spiral Jetty. He brought up the subject of finishing Amarillo Ramp and volunteered his help. After the funeral, he reminded Holt of his offer, and she made the decision to return immediately and finish the Earthwork with Serra and Tony Shafrazi.

It took about three weeks for the Amarillo Ramp to be built. I know objections will be voiced as to whether it really is a piece by Smithson, and whether during the process of building, Smithson would not have altered his plan. But Holt attended all the initial planning. She worked with him on many of his projects, and Smithson discussed with her the final shape of the Amarillo Ramp in great detail, including the use and piling of the rock from the nearby quarry, from which he had decided to draw material. Smithson left specific drawings giving the size, gradation of the slope, and the staked-out shape of the piece in the water. It must be remembered, too, that Smithson never visualized the final design of any work as completely predetermined. The workers who built the Spiral Jetty were not just hired hands; they offered their own suggestions as to how the machines and materials could be employed to realize Smithson’s plan. This mode of approach is vital to the anticlassical side of Smithson’s temperament.

When Holt, Serra, and Shafrazi arrived in Texas, they found that the water level of Tecovas Lake had risen, and the stakes were almost covered. Their first problem was how to begin to work. They could not find the drain to the dam which they knew existed, even though they searched for hours in the muddy water. To pump the lake dry would have taken three weeks, so they cut the dike and emptied the lake, according to Serra’s report, completely changing the place. The mud lay several feet deep, like a quagmire. The lake bed quickly became covered with crabs, crayfish, and sandabs dying in the sun.

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You come across the Amarillo Ramp suddenly. You drive across the ranch following a track that meanders according to slight changes in the topography of the landscape, which is rolling, yucca-studded prairie. You don’t realize that you are on a plateau, about 90 or so vertical feet above the lowest level of the land, until you hit the edge of the bluff that slopes first sharply, and then gently down to Tecovas Lake. There below, beached like something that has drifted in, is the Earthwork. The curve of the shape repeats the rhythm of the edges of the lake and the surrounding low valley. Walking down the slope toward it, there is a point—about three quarters of the way down—when the higher part of the ramp slices across the horizon, after which the sides loom up vertically to block the horizon. From the top of the bluff (an upper sighting platform) the Earthwork is planar; it gradually becomes elevational on approach, but you don’t really sense or grasp the verticality of the piece until you are close, at the very bottom of the incline and about to climb the ramp.

Seen from above, it is a circle; when climbing, it becomes an inclined roadway. Walking up the slope of the ramp you look up valley, far off toward low, flat hills; as you negotiate the curve and reach the topmost part, you look down valley, across the dike, to the land below that gathers into the canyon beyond. The top is also a sighting platform from which to view the whole landscape 360°. Returning down the Earthwork, you retrace your footsteps, going past your own past, and at the same time you see the makings of the Earthwork, the construction of the construction: the quarry in the nearby hillside from which the rocks were excavated; the roadway to the Earthwork along which they were transported; the tracks of the earth-moving equipment; the tops of wooden stakes with orange-painted tips that delineated the shape still sticking out here and there; and the slope of the ramp shaped by the piled red shale and white caliche rock. An acute sense of temporality, a chronometric experience of movement and time, pervades one’s experience of the interior of the Earthwork. And something else, too: in walking back and looking down toward the inside, you are intensely aware of the concentric shape that holds its form by compression, heavy rock densely piled and impacted. Stepping off the Earthwork, one has a sense of relief from pressure, stepping back into the normal world’s time and space, and even a sense of loss. The piece, then, is not just about centering the viewer in a specific place, but also about elevating and sharpening perception through locomotion. The Amarillo Ramp is mute until entered. And it is only later, when you return to the top of the bluff, and look back, that you realize how carefully it has been sited, how on first seeing the Earthwork from above, in plan, everything is revealed so to speak by predestination. Once on the bluff again, you are reminded that even if you think you know the pattern of the world, you still have to move through it to experience life. Thus, to think of the Amarillo Ramp in traditional terms, as an object or sculpture dislocated from its surroundings, is to view it abstractly, to strip it of the existential qualities with which it is endowed.

The Spiral Jetty also concerns locomotion, but there are marked differences between the Jetty and the Ramp in this respect. In the Spiral Jetty, I think one of Smithson’s interests lay in the stumbling aspect of walking, forcing one to pay attention to where one is going. I’m told that when he finished the Spiral Jetty Smithson ripped up the boulders so that the pathway couldn’t be negotiated smoothly. Evidently Smithson wanted to make the locomotion discontinuous—to disrupt it—perhaps because the view across the water is so flat and continuous, and so sublime. With the Amarillo Ramp you stop a lot, especially when going up the ramp, to watch how your relationship to the surroundings changes. But in both pieces you become unusually aware of the physicality of your body in relationship to its surroundings, of temperature, the movement of wind, of the sounds of nature, and of how isolated you have been from nature until this moment.

An observation of one of Smithson’s heroes, Frederick Law Olmsted, comes to mind:

Beauty, grandeur, impressiveness in anyway, from scenery, is not often to be found in a few prominent, distinguishable features, but in the manner and the unobserved materials with which these are connected and combined. Clouds, lights, states of the atmosphere, and circumstances that we cannot always detect, affect all landscape, and especially landscape in which the vicinity of a body of water is an element.

Smithson never chose sites according to what might be described as norms of beauty. The Salt Lake is a somber, moody, dead lake that supports no life within its waters. I think I saw the Spiral Jetty under the very best of circumstances, under romantically sublime conditions. On the day I was there the vast, horizontal stretch of lake water that filled the horizon for 180°, was shot through with the widest range of coloration, from bright pink through blue to gray and black. On the left, near the abandoned drilling wharf, and for some ten or twelve miles out, a storm was raging, with black clouds massed high into the sky, claps of thunder and flashes of lightning, and the surface of the lake in turmoil. Toward the center the storm eased off, but with lower clouds and sheets of rain scudding across the lake surface, almost obliterating from view some islands lying offshore. To the right, a blue sky almost clear of clouds with a high moon and stars, and on the extreme right, the sun going down in a mass of almost blinding orange. Where I stood, in the center of the spiral, a warm wind blew offshore, carrying the smell of the flora, the sound of the wind rustling through it and the cries of birds. The scrubby, low hills behind began to flatten and darken against the twilight. The site is a terribly lonely place, cut off and remote, conveying the feeling of being completely shunned by man.

Though equally strong, the feeling of the land around the Amarillo Ramp is different. The climate is hot, with little daily variation in temperature, which hovers between 96° and 100° in the summer. But there is a marked dissimilarity in what the land looks like at different times of the day. The color changes constantly. Between seven and eight o’clock in the morning the shadows are heavy and purple, the reflection of the sun off surfaces bright, giving a high contrast to form. At midday the land is flattened by the haze of heat and sun. In the afternoon, as the sunlight softens, the whole land becomes rust covered. Once you are used to the differences in light it is possible to tell the time by the color of the land at a given moment. The land blazes with heat. Local people say that when the Indian hunters traveled, they ran across the land by following the shadows of clouds. It is a very repressed landscape, very primordial, not at all generous, though there is evidence that in prehistoric times the land was lush—the area around the site and further down in the canyon is littered with pieces of fossilized trees. The fact that the land has not been worked until recently, and then only for grazing cattle, and that the Indians who inhabited the land were nomadic hunters, has a tendency to obliterate all human effort. The Amarillo Ramp seems to be almost engulfed at times by the landscape and the blazing light. I never saw Tecovas Lake filled with water; the dike is now repaired, and when the lake is refilled, the Amarillo Ramp will look very different—hold its own even more in the vastness of the Texas landscape.

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Robert Smithson had a heroically romantic attitude toward nature and the industrial processes. He had the ability to accept anything, including ugliness and the pathology of decay, and to make a virtue of these qualities. Impurity, degeneration, and collapse were central to his view of the dialectics of entropic change. He understood the process of evolution: improvement is always at the expense of some other quality—it always involves loss of energy. We speak of improvement or evolution when the results appear to benefit man, but one species advances by destroying another; one thing replaces another by progressive default; improvement involves a gradual reordering of the landscape; progress is by degeneration and decay; and man consumes his world with man-centered shapes and processes. This is not to imply that Smithson was unaware of the evils underlying these processes: they may mirror man but man is not the measure of everything. Smithson was a highly cultivated thinker and artist, a visionary, yet an optimistic and practical man, fully aware of the Fall. He was not obsessive in the sense of producing things—an endless series of objects; his art obsession was with the mutual dependency of the parts of our world in maintaining their vital processes.

Smithson had a generous sense of the irony of egotism: by unashamedly being yourself, and by being proud of your uniqueness you are merely another grain of sand—a part of the general whole. It is a very American trait, wholly consistent with the Abstract Expressionists and their style. There is no moment in Abstract Expressionism, as there is in Cubism with the early painting of Braque and Picasso, when the artists can be confused. The Abstract Expressionist painters are like a roomful of extreme individualists who resemble each other only in their extremism. Their art is all about “me,” but this me includes all of us, and by thoroughly investigating the self one can best understand others. One must appreciate one’s weaknesses. This is in extreme contrast, say, to the English attitude, where the culture aims at suppressing differences—educated men speak with a cultivated accent, and to have manners as well as to be cultivated is important. Smithson’s attitude was the very opposite: how to open oneself up to the world—cultivation is useful provided it doesn’t preclude awareness or action.

Smithson’s art is not founded on analytical operations. It does not derive from a closed system clogged by its own fixations and systems of criticism. His art does not satisfy fixed constructs deduced from theoretical implications structured to a historical notion of a mainstream. His art is open, about the breadth and scale of this country, about being an American. His exemplars were Melville, Whitman, and Pollock, as well as William Carlos Williams, his childhood doctor. Smithson felt that many of his colleagues were too civilized and European, and their art too citified, inbred, and incestuous.

In seeking a less elitist art, more republican in essence, without the over refinement and the overtones of luxury common to much current art, he was forced into situations outside the then current structure of art itself. He was not against the artist making money, but against his accommodation to production, marketing, and sales, which troubled him because it inevitably reeks of compromise and contamination. Art seemed too far from the everyday life of ordinary people, and without a culturally socialized character. Smithson wanted an art free from traditional patronage; he wanted an economically innocent art; and in attempting to move from private to public and industrial patronage, he fully realized he might be exchanging one prison for another.

It’s not that Smithson was different from anybody else—more righteous or fastidious. His attitude was formulated out of sheer frustration. Smithson realized that the options were stacked against him, and if an artist has brains, energy, and imagination, then it’s necessary to force issues. Nor did he wake up one day with a neatly packaged set of solutions to his problems. As a man boxed in continuously by circumstances the only resource open to him was to take the offensive, and step by step to challenge his peers and the support system, which he did with relish and abrasive humor.

There was much of the transcendentalist to Smithson. I think it finally never really mattered to him who owned his art. Why? Because finally he realized that art, like knowledge, is never owned. It was important to him that the process of getting money to make or in payment for a work of art should not determine what the art should be. It was freedom enough to be able to go down to a ranch, to hire machines to make art out of the easily available material, and to believe that the art he made will be there after any economic and social revolution of the future. He was a pragmatist who realized the necessity to take risks and took them into account—things falling apart, or going through natural changes, the Spiral Jetty being inundated by water or landlocked by evaporation. Embracing the positive as weH as the destructive potential of nature, Smithson understood that finally it doesn’t matter—chance and planning turn out to be the same.

John Coplans