The Plan to Bring a Robert Smithson Spiral Earthwork to Los Angeles

(Editor’s note 2-16-21: To the best of my knowledge, this story ran in 2004 for a weekly arts newspaper, Los Angeles CityBeat. The artwork comes from a related opinion piece I wrote for Los Angeles Times when Norman Lear Center at the University of Southern California was seeking ideas for L.A.’s then-planned Grand Avenue Park — that story is on the site of the Norman Lear Center at University of Southern California and is attributed to Adele Yellin. At some point, I went into my copy after the story ran to change the spelling of Douglas Chrismas’ name — I originally had just assumed it was the same as the holiday. I have not otherwise updated it.)

By Steven Rosen

This was the Year of Robert Smithson in the Los Angeles art world – Museum of Contemporary Art at Grand Avenue’s just-ending retrospective was hailed as one of the city’s most important shows in years.

And there may be some exciting developments on the horizon in 2005 and afterward – such as completion of a Los Angeles earthwork that Smithson was planning when he died in a 1973 plane crash.

Organized by guest curator Eugenie Tsai with the museum’s Connie Butler, MOCA’s extensive “Robert Smithson” traced his development as a Minimalism-inspired conceptualist and sculptor, from smaller, gallery pieces involving soil, dirt, crushed shells and mirrors to his plans for his now-famous earthworks, especially 1970’s “Spiral Jetty” on the Great Salt Lake in a remote part of Utah. The museum also sponsored at tour to that site.

Two other widely praised Los Angeles museum shows also featured Smithson’s work – MOCA’s survey of Minimalism’s roots, “A Minimal Future? Art as Object 1958-1968” exhibition, and UCLA Hammer Museum’s “The Last Picture Show: Artists Using Photographs, 1960-1982.”

Indeed, this spotlight on Smithson was part of keen, renewed interest in Minimalism and its offshoots, in general, in Los Angeles and elsewhere. A fourth show, Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s “Beyond Geometry: Experiments in Form, 1940s-70s,” included Minimalism and acknowledged the importance of Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty” in its look at the impact of simplied forms and conceptual freethinking in international art. It shared a first-place award with Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts for best thematic show from the International Association of Art Critics/USA

For a long time after its introduction into art circles in the 1960s and 1970s, Minimalism was thought too severe and reductive a movement to gain a popular following.

Its visibility paled next to the ironic detachment and hip, swinging, colorful colorful subject matter of Pop Art and the heroically forceful, eruptive brushwork of the Abstract Expressionist painters like Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline.

But with time, and as splashy art trends have come and gone, the subtlety of Minimalism has caught on. Rather than dull, it seems pure in an almost-spiritual, meditative way – people find something beatific about its refusal to be decorative. It prompts a searching quality among viewers trying to connect.

And for those reasons, there has been a great overlap in the appeal of Minimalism and earthworks, which uses natural materials to try to create a transcendent connection between viewer and object. And that’s especially true of the spiral form, with its associations with both DNA and the shapes of distant galaxies.

Smithson created “Spiral Jetty” with a grant from Virginia Dwan’s New York gallery and Douglas Chrismas’s Ace galleries in Westwood and Vancouver. (His first plan was to build an island of broken glass off the British Columbia coast, but Canada wouldn’t let the tons of old beer bottles and other rubble collected in Compton into that country.)

In 1973, when Chrismas wanted to do another Smithson show, the artist came up with another “spiral” project – “Spiral Palms” or “Palm Spiral.” “He said, ‘I want to do a large spiral on land,’” said Chrismas, whose Los Angeles gallery now is in mid-Wilshire. “That was on his brain and he liked the idea of working with large entities.”

After giving the idea much thought and making drawings, Smithson settled on 72 large, indigenous palm trees that one could walk amongst or relax underneath. Chrismas secured property at UCLA and was planning for the show when Smithson died in a plane crash while working on “Amarillo Ramp” in Texas.

In 2003, when planning a show looking back at Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty,” Chrismas remembered the “Palms” project and wondered whether he could build it posthumously on a permanent site. He contacted Smithson’s widow, sculptor Nancy Holt. She agreed.

“After Bob died, I wasn’t too interested in having things done posthumously, but now quite a few things are going to happen,” Holt said. “They’re trying to get a floating island done in Manhattan, and ‘Spiral Ponds’ is probably going to be done.”

Chrismas refused to reveal the backers of the project, but a source at MOCA said several collectors and an institution were involved. Chrismas said money wasn’t a factor so much as was securing a proper site. The artwork would be roughly 150 feet in diameter – comparable, he says, to “Spiral Jetty.”

“You would walk through it, sit down under the shade of the fronds and have lunch, it would be accessible.”

Chrismas thought he had the perfect site in downtown L.A., when an LA Civic Park was under consideration for the block bounded by First, Second, Main and Spring streets. It was even included in plans drawn by landscape architects Campbell and Campbell. But the city opted to put its police headquarters there, instead.

“Right now I’m looking for locations and there are some definited targets. We’re in the process of making it happen. It will happen,” Chrismas said.

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