Inside the Spiral: The Passions of Robert Smithson | Leonardo/ISASTwith Arizona State University

Inside the Spiral: The Passions of Robert Smithson

Inside the Spiral: The Passions of Robert Smithson
by Suzaan Boettger

University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, MN, 2023
440 pp., illus. 90 b/w, 30 col. Trade, $140.00; paper, $34.95
ISBN: 1517913543; ISBN: 9781517913540.

Reviewed by: 
Amy Ione
June 2023

Suzaan Boettger notes at the end of her book Inside the Spiral: The Passions of Robert Smithson that her bond with Robert Smithson (1938-1973) had always included a series of “coincidences” that benefited her career long research project. As I began reading the monograph, it seemed coincidental that an article on the environmental challenges at the location of his renowned Spiral Jetty, the Great Salt Lake, landed on my desk. In reference to the perils threatening the lake’s survival, this piece offered a nice parallel to Boettger’s study, mentioning that Smithson’s work has a physicality that goes far beyond what is seen on museum and gallery walls, and summarizing the Spiral Jetty as “a place of pilgrimage, a path to walk in a landscape of mirages.” [1]

Inside the Spiral explains how this place of pilgrimage was born and uses the project as a metaphor to probe how Smithson approached his oeuvre. In the book, Boettger, an art historian and an expert on both land art and Smithson, meticulously presents insights into the physicality of the mystical jetty. She excavates the man behind it as well and, at the end, it is clear that Smithson was a much more complicated artist than is often presented.

The Spiral Jetty is a piece of land art that Smithson completed in three weeks in 1970 at Rozel Point in the north arm of Great Salt Lake. Or more accurately, although the artist’s project was completed in 1970, the location’s natural evolution continues. Made of black basalt rocks and earth gathered from the site, the artwork is a 15-foot-wide coil that stretches more than 1,500 feet into the lake. Submerged in the 1980s, it resurfaced encrusted with salt crystals in 2002. Now, the sculpture is sometimes visible and sometimes submerged, depending on the water level of the Great Salt Lake.

Less explored in earlier Smithson studies is the degree to which the spiral is among the many symbols that are repeated components of Smithson’s iconography. His use of these symbols in his artwork pre-dates the earthworks that most associate with his career. The author’s extensive documentation of his iconography is fully intertwined with a psychological profile that effectively captures the ups and downs of this enigmatic artist’s life. The result helps us better comprehend the legendary Smithson and the demons he wrestled with as his career unfolded. In presenting the analysis, Boettger also reveals his long-suppressed history, including his affiliation with Christianity, astrology, and alchemy as well as his sexual fluidity.

Obviously, a short review can barely touch upon all aspects of a multi-layered book like Inside the Spiral. One key theme is his parents’ decision to have Robert after his brother Harold died of leukemia. Boettger argues that the ghost of Harold survived, leaving Robert feeling as if he was a “replacement” child. This haunted Robert his entire life. The early chapters integrate this history with how the artist’s early imagery showing tremendous influences from Carl Jung’s writings, Christianity, science fiction, and the occult. During this period, it also becomes clear that Smithson saw his artwork as destined for greatness, although he presents a largely internal vision at this point, one that, in my opinion, does not communicate easily with others.

Between 1962-1965 Smithson developed a new persona and transformed his style. He emerged from this period—one in which he had no gallery representation—as a sculptor. According to Boettger: “In switching his artistic identify from painter to sculptor, Smithson was in effect shifting to a less developed realm where he could find a better entrance” into the art world. In other words, she argues, he turned to sculpture because by the 1960s sculpture had achieved a dominance that it never previously had in the modern period. It may well be that his transformation was a professional move based on art world fashions. Still, his radical shift also brings to mind that many artists alter their focus as their careers develop. John Baldessari's cremation of his paintings in 1970 is perhaps the most obvious example.

The minimalist sculptures that follow Smithson’s dense and symbol-laden works are tantalizing and innovative. Boettger describes them as cerebral, but I must admit that I find their aesthetic appealing. She also points out how many retained symbolic connections with the earlier paintings. The Alogon pieces are a good example.

The term Alogon is a Pythagorean term meaning without logic. Smithson claimed it referred to the unnameable, or an irrational number. In Russian Suprematist Malevich’s work, this concept is associated with something pure and not conveyed through an intermediary like a figure or intermediary image. The image of Alogon #1, 1966 in the book shows a geometric wall piece consisting of seven stainless steel black modules. Boettger notes it resembles an illustration of “a stack of tiny rhombohedral units” found in a book on crystals that Smithson owned. By erecting a form that partially comes off the wall Smithson was vividly moving from his internalized emphasis into more external expressions.

Another piece that creates a bridge between Smithson’s internal and external perspectives is Gyrostasis, 1968. The name, gyrostasis, refers to a branch of physics that deals with rotating bodies and their tendency to maintain their equilibrium. The curve of this painted stainless-steel piece is formed by a series of volumetric triangles stacked at angles to evoke the spiral shape when one looks head-on at the curved shape. Boettger characterizes it as a study of crystallography. The Inside the Spiral image emphasizes its evocative spiral-like curve, but in the book the image flattens how its 3-dimensionality creates a variety of angles and contrasts. Other images I’ve seen of this piece better communicate its angled three-dimensionality, construction nuances, and spatial presence. When seen in a situation where the light would move—for example, outside in moving sunlight where the light/shadow contrast would continually reconfigure the shadow shapes, it would evoke viewer contemplation. It is unclear if Smithson thought about this when creating the design.

Sculpture served as a step toward earthworks like the Spiral Jetty. What is most alluring is how his style and the orientation for viewer engagement was continually changing. The conceptually strikingly sculpted works are quite unlike the earlier, flat paintings. They engage the viewer 3-dimensionally and one can partially (and sometimes fully) walk around them. Viewing the Jetty offers an even deeper experience. From the ground the Jetty experience somewhat matches with the 3-dimensional space of the indoor sculptures. Aerially, however, the Jetty’s spatial sense is expansive, quite unlike walking atop the rocks on the ground. Moreover, the Jetty’s outside layout becomes a multi-dimensional, experiential space that expands beyond the kind of participation that accompanies a gallery viewer’s engagement with a work.

The Site/Non-Site works that followed the minimalist sculptures are similarly original and equally captivating, although more difficult to explain. Neither painting nor sculpture, they create a bridge between formal elements and geological references/materials.  A “non-site” is not vacant but, in a physical way, contains the disruption of a site. These spatial, environmental pieces further articulate the artist’s movement toward the earth. Here, too, we find perceptual elements used in novel ways. For example, the Yucatán Mirror Displacements places nine twelve-inch square mirrors in various environmental settings. Boettger tells us that Smithson characterized his nine displacement sites in terms of the nine circles of Dante’s Inferno, although it is difficult to perceive how they are analogous.

How Smithson began to think about earthwork is one of the most compelling parts of the book. He met an architect with Tippetts-Abbett-McCarthy-Stratton (TAMS) while the company was designing an airport. TAMS was attracted to his study of geology and overall interests. On the job, Smithson was stimulated by the aerial photographs, maps, large-scale systems, and other material. Although the project was never built, it was this experience that led the artist to perceive the multiplicity of ways we can know the forms of the earth and components like meandering rivers. With Virginia Dwan’s financial largess, he was able to expand in this direction. The book effectively conveys this re-visioned perspective. The complexity of the non-portable works is interpersonally stronger due to how their resonance evokes concepts like scale and awe and even fosters pilgrimage.

A second thread within the book is the commentary weaving the women in Robert Smithson’s life into figures who fostered his success. He married his high school classmate, Nancy Holt. She supported him early on and after his death molded his reputation, even withholding some of his works from the public. According to Boettger:

“Her partnership was absolutely crucial to his success. After his death she collected, edited (expurgated), and published his writings; her management of his papers, works of art, and copyrights was fundamental to how his fame was represented by scholars, curators, gallerists, and journalists.” (p. 155)

As noted, the gallerist Virginia Dwan also provided support. She represented Smithson and was his patron for many years, underwriting expenses for works like the Spiral Jetty, which ended up costing less than expected, leading Smithson and Holt to repay her with sculptures. Their value increased over the years, and Dwan eventually resold them. I couldn’t help wondering if Dwan, like Holt, had a hand in molding a reputation that would increase the value of his work.

A third theme that will entice Smithson enthusiasts is how Christianity, astrology, and alchemy manifest in his work, particularly later in his life since he had commented that he was uninterested in mysticism. The extensive information to the contrary that Boettger brings to the fore offers some insight into Smithson’s many contradictions. These contradictions are among the reasons Boettger suggests that his relationship with the Spiral Jetty should not only be looked at in terms of the scientific aspects evident in Smithson’s sources but must also be situated in terms of his larger psychological persona. So, on the one hand, he was attracted to the organic nature of the project and how closely it linked with crystals and natural processes like entropy. On the other hand, it is possibly also connected to his interest in astrology—for crystals are associated with Smithson’s astrological sign Capricorn.

Readers will no doubt find another theme, the analyses incorporating his extensive reading, insightful. The author artfully supplements her readings of his books with commentary from letters, his writings, and excerpts from interviews. Because Smithson died in 1973 at 35, many people who knew him personally are still around. Comments from his colleagues add authenticity to the interpretations.

As a reader myself, I was initially excited to read the quotations from books in his library. Unfortunately, the selective bibliography of Smithson’s library appended to this volume is misleading. The abridged version excluded many relevant categories (e.g., anthropology, science, art and art criticism, fiction, history, and so forth), making it too selective to broadly aid a reader. Boettger does include a note saying that a full catalog compiled by Alexander Alberro is available in Eugenie Tsai’s book Robert Smithson. I would urge anyone who is interested in this material to look at that catalog instead [2].

Another theme re-iterated throughout the volume is Smithson’s use of blood as a symbol and his repeated use of its red color. Frequently evoked through the blood of a crucified Christ in the early works, the red color is also a key element of the Spiral Jetty site. As Boettger points out, Smithson associated the Jetty with three colors that link all stages of his work: red, black, and white. At Rozel Point, he was drawn to the dark rose color of the water (which derives from the bacteria and algae living in the Great Salt Lake). The red aesthetic is enhanced by the seeps of black tar near Rozel Point. White was initially represented in the saltwater lapping at the edges of the path that produced a white fringe. While the overall Jetty design is intended to allow people to be able to walk on top of the rocks as if on a pier, the aerial views benefit from the color contrasts as well. They also add magnificence and mystery to the form. In other words, the colors were nature’s choice serendipitously adopted by the artist.

The dissection of symbolic puzzles is another strong point in the study. It is difficult to decode Smithson’s cryptic iconography, particularly in the early part of his career, and Boettger does a thorough job. Additionally, cogent details abound. One involved Richard Serra’s unacknowledged participation in the Spiral Jetty project. He did not reveal it until both Smithson and Nancy Holt had passed away. Serra suggested alternatives to the design, which may explain why Smithson appears to have destroyed all the drawings showing the first design.

To my surprise, as I read I kept finding myself thinking of the way that Paul Cézanne fundamentally changed his style at the age of forty, much as Smithson changed his early style. Cézanne put aside his heavily painted mythological narrative works and largely replaced his earlier themes with studies of the external world, many painted outside of his studio. He would paint locations over and over again (e.g., the Sainte-Victoire Mountain in Aix). Although the density of the early works of Smithson and Cézanne seemed connected in this way, as did their decisions to try something else and to go outside, their stated goals seemed to differ. Cézanne was “optically” seeking to define something eternal behind the forms he saw, a prevalent interest in his era. By contrast, Smithson’s defining trope was the more abstract concept of entropy. If there is any logic within this juxtaposition it comes more to the fore at the conclusion of the book, where Boettger noted that in a letter to Hans Sedlmayer, Smithson wrote: “Art is, of course, only incidentally the expression of the time, in its essence it is extra-temporal, it is the manifestation of the timeless, of the eternal” (p. 335). Perhaps an acknowledgment of their mutual success is that their work capture something indescribable that compels admirers of both artists to pilgrimage to their working sites.

Robert Smithson died in a 1973 plane crash while surveying the site of Amarillo Ramp site, completed on his behalf by Tony Shafrazi, Nancy Holt, and Richard Serra. Inside the Jetty is a robust example of the degree to which his art continues to stimulate us today. I highly recommend the volume to those interested in ecological art, the creative process, environmental concerns, and inter-disciplinary studies. It will no doubt become the definitive volume on this artist for a long time. It is enhanced with an extraordinary collection of images (photographs, posters, artwork, etc.), including a section of plates, and is divided into six-parts: Prologue and Background; Prehistory and Early paintings; Clandestine Fantasies, 1962-1964; Mutation of Artistic Persona, 1965-1968; Professional Consummation, 1969-1970; and Expansion and Returns, 1971-1973. Following the study itself, Boettger includes 50 pages of notes and a condensed list of books in Smithson’s library.

Finally, it is noteworthy that the way in which Smithson reached outside of the traditional gallery is increasingly common today. Despite his abbreviated career, he was a pioneer in this respect. His trajectory left me wondering how his art would have grown had he lived another thirty or forty years. With Smithson, I find the question of what might have come later particularly compelling given how radically artmaking, technology, and our interest in the environment have evolved in recent decades. How environmental change is so evident today is particularly thought-provoking in relation to Smithson’s legacy because his earthwork work is alive and has become a part of our larger narrative as a result.


Williams TT, Sheikh F. “I Am Haunted by What I Have Seen at Great Salt Lake.” The New York Times. 2023; Sect. SR-8,

Alberro A. “The Catalog of Robert Smithson’s Library.” In Tsai E, editor. Robert Smithson. Berkeley: University of California Press; 2004. p. 245-63.