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Literature

Road to nowhere

Spiral Jetta fails to drive us closer to Southwest land-art sculptures

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William L. Fox

Erin Hogan, who studied art history and ended up in administration at the Art Institute of Chicago, apparently needed a break from the office and her urban lifestyle. She joined the increasing ranks of cognoscenti making the fashionable driving tour of the greatest hits in the earthworks movement, and produced a slender tale from her undertaking. The result is a book that, if you know anything about the contemporary monumental sculptures of the American Southwest, you don’t need to read. And if you don’t know anything about land art, you won’t be much enlightened.

People from across the country, as well as from Asia and Europe, now regularly visit the iconic sculptures, earthworks such as Michael Heizer’s Double Negative, cut into the side of Nevada’s Mormon Mesa outside Overton, and Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, bulldozed out from the shores of the Great Salt Lake. These were constructed in 1971 and became the first notable works in the genre. James Turrell’s ongoing work on a volcanic cinder cone in Arizona and Walter de Maria’s Lightning Field in New Mexico are the other two primary examples. Nancy Holt’s Sun Tunnels on the Northern Nevada-Utah border and Donald Judd’s serial installation of aluminum boxes in Marfa, Texas, are often included on the tour, as they were by the author.

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Spiral Jetta: A Road Trip Through the Land Art of the American West
Two stars
Erin Hogan
University of Chicago Press, $20
Beyond the Weekly
Amazon: Spiral Jetta

To be fair, Hogan is a pleasant writer and offers observations into how earthworks manifest time as much as space—how salt builds up on the rocks of Spiral Jetty, how the immense cuts of Double Negative are crumbling and, most eloquently, the passage of sunset and sunrise through the 400 stainless-steel poles of Lightning Field. But she suffers from a plethora of clichés about the region, not least of which is that the desert is “literal nothingness” and the sculptures are located “in the middle of nowhere” or on the edge of it. If nothing else, these are serious lapses of perception in environments rich in both natural resources and history.

Hogan’s writing, which is heavily reliant upon that of art critic Michael Kimmelman in The New York Times, views the works through the twin lenses of late-20th-century formalism and her own inchoate notion of self-discovery. Hogan admits that much of her research before visiting the sites was done at the last minute and often online, and her bibliography shows how thin a gloss her subsequent reading was. As a result, we learn less about the significance of the artworks and more about her fear of motels and rape by strangers driving pickup trucks, dust in the air vents of her Volkswagen and her inability to read a map. She never locates the Sun Tunnels or Turrell’s Roden Crater, and mistakes the latter as being located in a national park.

Spiral Jetta is a slim volume in more ways than one, and we can only hope that future books by others making the earthworks circuit will bring us deeper insights into why these artworks have such an outsized place in our imaginations.

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