Earthwork and Land Alterations: The Creation of the Spiral Jetty



As global environmental issues gained more attention in the 20th century, and fields such as ecology and environmental science grew, new genres of contemporary and postmodern art started to reflect these emerging concerns. Under this broad genre of environmental art, are individuals who are using art to call attention to certain issues and those who are making functional art.  Some artists have taken the route of changing infrastructures, such as working directly on system designs such as water purification and habitat creation (Moyer & Harper, 2012, 11). Other directions art started to take were less about addressing environmental concerns and more about moving away from traditional mediums and locations. Art outside the confines of a gallery setting and with materials found on-site and outdoors started to take form.  All of this art has been categorized as environmental art, which is an expansive genre of art that often takes the form of sculpture or performance art and uses natural phenomena. This separates it from nature art, which depicts natural phenomena instead of utilizing them (Glazebrook, 2009). This is a strange categorization of art to make, as the term environmental is very vague and does not have a very specific meaning. It appears that all it takes for works of art to be considered environmental, is that they are outside, using materials found outside, or representing the outdoors, regardless of the intention or process of the art.

A new genre of art emerged in the 60’s and 70’s called “Earthworks, that were large-scale sculptures built into the landscape, that required significant land transformation (Smith , 2005, 14).  These works of art were tightly bound to the sight in which they were made, integrating key aspects of the landscape into their work, and necessitate engagement with viewers, preferably through visitation (Beardsley, 1998,  7). The key intention of “Earthworks,” was to highlight and work with the aesthetics of the landscape (Carlson, 1986). Earthworks have largely been considered the birth of the environmental art movement, however, usually there is no clear relation to ecology or activism in the artist’s concepts (Smith, 2005, 14). Even though these works of art are widely called “environmental, these pieces require dramatic transformations of the land, which often involves large machines, bulldozing, and dynamiting the land.  These processes could cause major ecological alterations. (Kastner and Wallis, 1998, 58).


Framing Question: What does it mean to call art environmental, and can art fall under this category if it dramatically alters the land and reduces the productivity of ecological activity?


Situated Context:

Some of the most famous Earthwork artists are Michael Heizer, Robert Morris and Robert Smithson (Beardsley, 1998, 7).  Earthwork artists collaborated quite a bit. Nancy Holt and Robert Smithson met up with Michael Heizer, for instance, while he was creating the Nine Depressions. Many Earthwork artists, including Robert Smithson and Michael Heizer, met for the Earth art Exhibition or 1969 (Beardsley, 1998, 19).

Out of all of the Earthworks I have learned about, I would say Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty is not only the most famous Earthwork, but most discussed environmental art piece in history.  I am not positive why this is the case, but I think it is in part because it is so massive and was such a big undertaking as a work of art.  Smithson made this piece in 1970, using the surrounding earth at the Great Salt Lake in Utah to create a massive spiral jetting out into the water (Kastner and Wallis, 1998, 58).  This piece definitely fits under the art genre of site specificity. Smithson wrote extensively about his art, and in an essay he published about his work he said that the Great Salt Lake, “resembled  an impassive faint violet sheet held captive in a stoney matric, upon which the sun poured down its crushing light,” (Beardsley, 1998). Not only did the topography inspire Smithson, but the spiral shapes that the salt crystals created on the shallow rocks (Beardsley, 1998).  

Fig. 1: Google Maps Images of the Spiral Jetty


Most of Smithson’s writings and the work itself seem mostly aesthetic, and not driven by any sort of environmental message.  Furthermore, it is unclear how ecologically friendly this project was. While more research would have to be done to know whether this art had any significant environmental consequences, it is known that large amounts of rocks and land were moved by bulldozers for this project (Kastner and Wallis, 1998, 58).  Yet, despite these two questions I’ve just raised, – is this piece environmentally damaging and does it have an explicit environmental message or intention- whose answers are unclear, this work has become the mascot of environmental art.

Some of Smithson’s contemporaries were met with criticism, and people seem to be in disagreement over the role of earthworks.  Michael Heizer’s Double Negative was criticized for not only not benefiting the landscape, but destroying the environment (Beardsley, 1998, 16).  On the other hand, Beardsley (1998, 16), defends the piece, saying that “If these criticisms are justified, they are also incomplete.”  Beardsley claims that this work does not take up space, the way human construction often does, but is an absence of space in which you enter (Beadsley, 1998, 16).  However, this still does not entirely answer the question of whether or not their was tangible ecosystem, which there is little writing on. While there is plenty of literature defending Earthworks, or criticizing it for harming the surrounding outdoors, little is actually said about specific consequences that have occurred.

Fig. 2: Situated Context ANT Map

Focus Question: Did Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty cause any dramatic changes to the surrounding ecosystem that could be potentially harmful, such as endangering keystone species, destruction of nesting grounds or water contamination?



The first step of this process will be to find as many resources on the Spiral Jetty and its production as possible.  One advantage of looking at Robert Smithson is that he was a prolific art writer, and much of his literature is easily accessible.  I will be reading what he personally wrote, interviews, as well as secondary sources to understand his process.

This will involve comparing before and after photos to visually analyze differences, visiting the the monument in person, finding and reading any environmental reports that were written and any documentation on public hearings or court hearings that took place during the approval process, and finding land data.  I will then use GIS to do a visual analysis on any changes that took place before and after the Spiral Jetty was created.  This will include data on topics such as water chemistry, biodiversity, and vegetation.  There are multiple potential resources I could use for my research. One resrource that could be useful is the USGS Utah Water Science Center website page, at which has many scientific publications and surveys on topics such as on salinity, general hydrology, and biology (Great Salt Lake USGS-Authorized Publications, 2017).

After doing research and data analysis on the Spiral Jetty, I will have to do thorough research on other potential factors that could have caused ecosystem alterations.  If any changes are evident before and after the creation of the Spiral Jetty, I will then have to test for errors to discover if there were other factors that could have caused this change.


Broader Implications:

This topic relates to a larger concern with the dangers of categorization.  Labels we assign to different objects and people have negative and positive connotations, and can be a driving force in how we perceive and interact with the labeled object/person.  Earthworks can have environmental and ecological consequences (Carlson, 1986). From the research I’ve done, it still does not appear to be known how significant this damage can be in comparison to other human activities, such as urban development.  Whether or not the word “environmental” should define this type of art is an important question to address, and part of how we can answer this question, aside from reconsidering the word “environmental” and what it means, is by investigating the potential effects these works of art have on the land and surrounding habitats.

Critics have argued that people are accepting large effects on the land for the sake of art when they wouldn’t for other land altering activities such as mining, which are more functional (Humphrey, 1985).  This is an important claim to consider, and one I do not yet have an answer to. As an example, the artist Christo had to file a lengthy environmental report and work with environmental authorities to make his project Running Fence (Carlson, 1986).  This work, made in 1976, was 24 and a half miles long in hills of Sonoma and Marin counties.  This piece consisted of 2,050 panels of white nylon fabric that were 18 feet high and 68 feet long hung by cables and poles (Beardsley, 1998, 31). This project took 42 months, required 18 public hearings, 3 visitations in Superior courts of California, permission granted to cross 59 ranches and a 450 page environmental statement (Beardsley, 1998, 34).  Running Fence was criticized for how expensive it was and lack of function and because it ran through part of protected coast.  Christo received a permit, but commission appealed the decision while his work was in process. The lack of attention to this policy was considered hypocritical, considering that the art was “avowedly to reveal and not circumvent the economic, social, and political structures governing the landscape.” (Beardsley, 1998, 34).

Land transformation has sociological consequences as well, such as with the recent pipeline protests. In my concentration I looked at Crazy Horse, which was made as a monument honoring a Native American war leader from the Western frontier.  However, this was sacred land to the native tribe in the area, and they were not asked whether or not they wanted this sacred site bulldozed and dynamited (Humphrey, 1985).

Earthworks caused uproars from environmentalists in the past.  Ecological consequences are not the only way to investigate the term “environmental,” as there is also a line of questioning of another potential type of violence done to the landscape.  Multiple art analysts have criticized Earthworks for doing injustice to the aesthetics of the landscape by imposing on it (Carlson, 1986). Both of these critiques are largely debated and still unanswered, but are essential in how we look at art.  From my years of art education, it is very apparent that the Spiral Jetty may be the most discussed work of “environmental art” in history.  Therefore this work is essential place to look at the question of what environmental art actually is.


Next Steps/Further Research:

One study that I think would be especially important in conjunction with this study is an assessment of the environmental management around Earthworks.  What are the regulations and policy processes that are put in place for Earthwork artists to abide by? This study could be done with an analysis of government documents and land regulation laws. Another question is, are policy makers even considering art when they make land regulations in these very rural areas?

The same research question that I am proposing could also be asked of other works of art with about the same methodology to help form a broader picture of whether we are looking at a single incident that is an outlier, or a common theme?  How does my research question apply to Michael Heizer’s Double Negative? How could it apply to Christo’s work, of which there is also much documentation of?  Other famous Earthwork artists whose art could be studied in this light include Nancy Holt, Agnes Denes, or Robert Morison.  Looking at other artists work helps draw connections and see themes, or a lack thereof.




Beardsley, J. 1998. “Earthworks and beyond : Contemporary art in the landscape,” 3rd ed. Abbeville modern art movements. New York: Abbeville Press.


Carlson, A. 1986. Is Environmental Art an Aesthetic Affront to Nature? Canadian Journal of Philosophy, 16(4), 635-650.


Glazebrook, Trish. 2009. “Environmental Art.” Encyclopedia of Environmental Ethics and Philosophy, edited by J. Baird Callicott and Robert Frodeman, vol. 1, Macmillan Reference USA, pp. 321-323. Gale Virtual Reference Library, Accessed 2 Apr. 2018.


“Great Salt Lake USGS-Authorized Publications.” Last modified March 9, 2017. USGS: Science for a changing World.


Humphrey, P. 1985. “The Ethics of Earthworks.” Environmental Ethics 7 (1), 5-22.


Kastner, Jeffrey., and Wallis, Brian. 1998. Land and Environmental Art. Themes and Movements. London: Phaidon Press.


Moyer, T., & Harper, Glenn. 2011. “The new earthwork : Art, action, agency,” 1st ed. Perspectives on contemporary sculpture 4. Hamilton, NJ : Seattle, WA: ISC Press ; Distributed by University of Washington Press.


Smith, Stephanie, David and Alfred Smart Museum of Art, and Independent Curators International. 2005. Beyond Green: Toward a Sustainable Art. Chicago ; Smart Museum of Art, University of Chicago ; New York: Independent Curators International.

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