PRINT December 2002

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To the Editor:
Nico Israel’s enjoyable piece on Smithson’s iconic artwork [“Non-Site Unseen,” September 2002] coincided with my recent trip to the site of Spiral Jetty.

Severe drought in the year since Israel’s visit has lowered the lake level appreciably; it is now within about two feet of the level it was at when Smithson constructed the piece. This was my second visit to Rozel Point. Last time, in 1998, the Jetty was submerged under about six feet of water and was completely invisible. This time, however, conditions were nearly ideal.

Here is an image I made that day; there has been no manipulation or enhancement of the digital original.

—Jan Boles
Caldwell, ID

To the Editor:
Timing is everything. If Mr. Israel had traveled to see Spiral Jetty this summer, instead of last, he would have found it emerged, fully walkable to the very center, and astonishingly beautiful. The only good thing to come of Utah’s current drought is the Jetty’s encore performance, echoing its past appearances in 1993 and 1994.

Besides this point, I would like to offer information on Spiral Jetty beyond that which Mr. Israel presents. This response is based on seven years of research, one master’s thesis (“Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty,” Hunter College, 1996), and many lectures I have given around the country.

It was disheartening to see a major work of twentieth-century art so easily dismissed in your magazine. Mr. Israel’s mythology of his journey to the Jetty intrudes upon specific realities of the piece. Initially, he misrepresents the massive amount of work and research that Smithson accomplished to build Spiral Jetty by claiming, “We were well aware that the point of Smithson’s project had been the ’event’ of its being recorded on film and of its being written up into the quasi-documentary essay.” This statement does a great disservice. The film and essay went hand in hand with the formation of the massive Earthwork. Nowhere in writing did Smithson even allude to having built a 1,500-foot-long Earthwork just so he could create a film and a “hazy” essay.

In researching Spiral Jetty, I have worked with Rick Wilson at Golden Spike National Historic Site and talked with several of his staff. Contrary to Mr. Israel’s report, they have all shown interest in the Jetty. A group of us were there earlier this month, in fact, and found the rangers informative and hospitable.

If Mr. Israel was versed enough to write about the red algae and brine shrimp located at the northern end of the Great Salt Lake, how could he not know of the oil rigs near Spiral Jetty? In fact, they were one reason Smithson picked Rozel Point—his entropic landscape becoming complete amid the area’s desolation and destruction. Regarding Mr. Israel’s mention of me in his article: I would like to clarify that I did not provide him with information, including any on the oil jetty, due only to an issue of timing.

In contradistinction to Mr. Israel’s description of how Spiral Jetty became submerged (upon the puncturing of the Lucin Cutoff railroad trestle), the work was fully underwater by 1973 and has remained so for so long primarily due to unusual weather patterns of increased precipitation. Smithson built the Jetty when the Great Salt Lake was at a low point; he knew that the result of completing his work at this time would be a submerged Spiral Jetty, due to natural causes.

Who knows if Smithson read Gravity’s Rainbow, by Thomas Pynchon? And who knows, from Mr. Israel’s article, if this question is related in any way to the 1976–77 essay by Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe and John Johnston titled “Gravity’s Rainbow and the Spiral Jetty,” published in October? It is difficult to discern from these oblique references whether we are meant to be impressed or left hanging as to how an article can be both representative and misleading. Fantasy, indeed.

As many before him have done and will continue to do, Mr. Israel may have wanted to create his own mythology of Spiral Jetty, framed within his own experiences. Smithson certainly built mythologies around this work; so did Philip Leider (whose Artforum essay was much better than Mr. Israel’s); so have I and dozens of others who continually seek out the Jetty, visible or not. I prefer reading other Jetty experiences and mythologies, though: those that are a little more accurate and much less condescending.

—Hikmet Sidney Loe
Salt Lake City

Nico Israel responds:
An early scene in the film Spiral Jetty shows a dapper Robert Smithson dropping stakes into the red water of Rozel Point in preparation for the dump trucks to come and deposit their loads of earth. In reading Hikmet Sidney Loe’s letter, I get the distinct sense of someone who has dropped stakes—in this case on Smithson and Utah, her territory—and doesn’t want them traversed by anyone else. This defensive posture leaves her deaf to any humor or nuance in my piece, which was intended as not a scholarly essay but a travelogue.

Far from having “dismissed” Spiral Jetty, the crux of the piece was that filmmaker Andrew Leitch and I did not ever actually see Smithson’s then invisible Jetty. We imagined that the nearby oil jetty was the “real” jetty, and that mistake—a delusion created precisely out of our own desire to see “a major work of twentieth-century art”—is the center around which my article swirled.

Loe asks how I could not know of the oil rigs in the vicinity of Spiral Jetty. In fact, I learned of the oil rigs when I was at Rozel Point and through my subsequent reading of Smithson’s collected writings. My claim wasn’t that the oil rigs in themselves were new or surprising, only that in paving the road out to the oil rigs in 1980, the oil explorer Kenneth Pixley had (apparently inadvertently) both mirrored the nearby Earthwork and encroached upon it, in what I thought were interesting ways.

As I became increasingly fascinated with the relationship between the two jetties (one partially visible, one invisible) and learned more than I ever thought I would care to about water levels and oil exploration in the area, I contacted several sources, including park rangers, Utah state officials, workmen involved in the building of Spiral Jetty, historians of Salt Lake, and indeed, Loe herself. Without exception, everyone was helpful or tried to be, including Loe (notwithstanding her impending departure for a vacation), whose master’s thesis I read and learned from. I don’t think my piece implied that anyone wasn’t informative or hospitable, though I did sense that some of the staff at Golden Spike wondered (with reason) why two right-minded people would want to head, on a day that promised thunderstorms, in a crappy little car, out on a bad road to an entropic zone whose chief feature of interest was invisible. Perhaps my description of Loe as “a former New Yorker who now works as a librarian in Salt Lake City and is something of a local expert on the work” struck her as condescending. It was not meant to be.

My information on the relation between the water level on the north part of the Salt Lake and the work on the Lucin Cutoff was provided to me by two Utah state government officials. I would be surprised if Smithson could have predicted the weather (especially weather after his death) but won’t dispute Loe’s assertion about his knowledge that Spiral Jetty would go under. I probably should have been more careful in saying what the “point” of Smithson’s project was; making such a claim is always dangerous. Still, a closer reading of the offending sentence would indicate that my aim was not dismissal of Spiral Jetty but problematization of precisely the “pilgrimage” that we were about to make.

I am glad that Spiral Jetty is now not only visible, but, as Loe puts it, “fully walkable.” I hope to visit the site again someday. But my record of not seeing Spiral Jetty, of seeing the things that surround it that aren’t often mentioned in accounts of the Earthwork—the oil jetty, Golden Spike, the Thiokol propulsion plant, and the Tooele biochemical weapons depot—was not “mythology,” or at least not in the limited (and decidedly un-Smithsonian) sense in which Loe intends the term.


To the Editor:
I cannot let stand without comment the assertion that Joan Mitchell dismissed her own works on paper as “lady paintings,” which is cited in the first line of Brenda Richardson’s review of Mitchell’s retrospective at the Whitney Museum [Focus, September 2002]. The phrase is also quoted in curator Jane Livingston’s catalogue essay. While it may be true that Mitchell used that phrase (the source of the quote is not noted), it is misleading out of context and not at all an accurate indicator of the artist’s judgment of her drawings and prints.

Mitchell occasionally did describe herself as a “lady painter” or as “A.E.O.H.” (Abstract Expressionist Old Hat), characterizations that are memorialized in a 1986 interview with Linda Nochlin for the Archives of American Art. But it was a kind of shorthand clearly intended to convey multiple meanings about certain derogatory labels applied to painters of her gender and generation. She aimed those barbs at herself to preempt others from using them against her, and with the expectation that her irony would be understood. When standing in front of a new painting, she might remark with a nudge to one’s ribs, “Not bad for a lady painter.” Her friends always knew what she meant.

Mitchell held her works on paper to the same high standards as her paintings, and a more inclusive exhibition than the Whitney’s would have revealed the vital role they played in her development (and might have also revealed the “intelligence” Richardson finds absent from Mitchell’s paintings). Without the passionately renewed engagement with drawing and printmaking that followed the poem and pastel drawings of 1975, Mitchell’s extraordinary paintings of the latter half of her career might have followed a far different course. Her paintings and pastels enact a pas de deux in which the paintings indeed perform the star turn, but the role played by the pastels is not insignificant. Mitchell knew that perfectly well and would not have wanted us to think otherwise.

—Jill Weinberg Adams
Lennon, Weinberg
New York

To the Editor:
Yeah! Not only did Brenda Richardson’s review of the Joan Mitchell show at the Whitney bring new vigor to looking at the work, Mitchell’s personality wasn’t exploited as a hook in talking about her paintings. As someone who loves the work but didn’t know Mitchell, I’m sick of the out-of-context anecdotes.

I was also relieved that finally the work on paper was mentioned. In my amateur opinion, the large pastels done at the end of Mitchell’s life are wild, astonishing expressions. Kafka wrote, “A book must be the ax for the frozen sea inside us.” Isn’t Joan Mitchell’s visual work analogous?

—Karen Fish


To the Editor:
Daniel Birnbaum’s astute overview of Matthew Barney’s CREMASTER cycle [“Master of Ceremony,” September 2002] contained one glaring—or should I say blaring?—omission: What happened to the sound? Throughout the films, but especially in episodes 2 and 3, Jonathan Bepler’s sound tracks are as intricately bound up with the imagery as CREMASTER 3’s Maypole ribbons winding around the spire of the Chrysler Building.

Birnbaum regards the extended sound clash between “two rock groups” in the final film as merely “long and loud.” Murphy’s Law and Agnostic Front are two icons of New York City hardcore punk. Their representation in the film delves deep into highly ritualized codes of contemporary pop culture, from the stylized mosh pits to macho war-gaming to Bepler’s deconstruction of the “intro”—that bass-and-drums cadenza that is one of the most formulaic features of punk. As jarring as the sound is, it echoes the references to speed-metal band Slayer in CREMASTER 2 and fits snugly into the film’s symbolic framework. More than mere pop-culture props, the bands and their fans mimic other systems of ritualized violence, even as Bepler’s arrangements enact a kind of violence on the body of punk rock itself.

Sonic properties lurk in even the most sculptural elements of CREMASTER 3—the theremin towel racks, the musical elevator shaft. If, as Birnbaum suggests, Barney’s sculptures fail because they are reduced to the level of props, perhaps sound is the missing element. It’s certainly the missing figure in the vast majority of CREMASTER criticism.

—Philip Sherburne
San Francisco

Daniel Birnbaum responds:
In my article I talk of “Barney’s wordless cosmos of music and ritual,” the “operatic atmosphere,” and I even mention that the “work is full of references to musicians.” Also, the allusion to Bayreuth and the Wagnerian notion of the Gesamtkunstwerk that runs through the piece should make it clear that I don’t find the presence of sound in the CREMASTER cycle irrelevant. Sherburne has a point, though. I know nothing about contemporary American hardcore punk (forgive me, I grew up in Vienna), and my dismissal of the two bands probably makes this embarrassingly clear.

My intention was not to underestimate aspects of the work but rather to emphasize their “baroque” interaction. No doubt the composer Jonathan Bepler has played a key role here. Someone qualified should write about it. Maybe Philip Sherburne?

The editors respond:
In fact Sherburne has written on Bepler’s sound track, for the music magazine The Wire, September 2002.


To the Editor:
Odd and perhaps disingenuous that Jeffrey Weiss, in his article on Robert Ryman’s Philadelphia Prototype, 2002 [“Radiant Dispersion,” September 2002], did not mention either Joseph Marioni or John Zurier, particularly since the show at Larry Becker Contemporary Art in which the work was included was titled “Zurier, Ryman, Marioni: Painting.”

While the article was interesting, the point of this exhibition was to show that the same issues can be dealt with in a variety of ways with a variety of outcomes. It was a superbly balanced three-person show about painting. Did Mr. Weiss, in his haste to associate himself with the famous, namely, Ryman and Barnett Newman, miss the point?

Bonnie Leal
Housatonic, MA

Oh, to have the sycophantic word-love of the curatoriate (à la Jeffrey Weiss) and willing accomplices in the art press.

Matthew Ballou
Evanston, IL

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