On the way to Spiral Jetty in a rented red Ford Mustang convertible late last month, my father and I stopped at the Golden Spike Historic Site Visitor Center, in Bringham, Utah, heeding the warning on the Dia Art Foundation’s driving directions that it has the last bathrooms and cell reception before reaching Robert Smithson’s work.
Completely by chance, we had picked a superb day to stop. Two huge, immaculately painted 19th-century steam engines were churning away on nearby railroad tracks, and a few dozen people were ambling about in period wear. A re-creation of the ceremony marking the completion of the transcontinental railroad was about to start, and because of my firm rule that men should never wear shorts, I found myself drafted to play Arizona Governor A. P. K. Safford in the festivities.
After various invocations, I walked before the crowd of about 100 tourists and held up a gleaming spike. (Not the Golden Spike, but still a pretty nice one.) “Ribbed with iron, clad in silver and crowned with gold,” I cried, waving the thing for all to see, “Arizona presents her offering to the enterprise that has banded the continent and dictated the pathway to commerce!” The people applauded as a telegrapher at a little desk tapped away, sharing the news across the country.
The whole thing was good, odd fun—a little Matthew Barney, a little There Will Be Blood—until the end of the action, when all of us dignitaries were posing for photos, and I let slip that I was actually in town to see the Jetty, not the Golden Spike.
“Why in the world would you come all the way out here to see that?” asked a portly middle-aged man, breaking his character of, if I’m remembering correctly, F. A. Tritle, the U.S. Railroad Commissioner. He was legitimately appalled. I pretended I couldn’t hear him and went back to smiling for the cameras, but he continued. “It was made by a guy with too much time and too much money. There’s nothing natural about it.”
“No shit—it’s art,” is what I wanted to say, but being a little terrified by him, I went instead with, “Well, different strokes!” and then hurried back to the car.
I was at first baffled by his anger. I am amazed that anyone wouldn’t be thrilled by the sheer audacity of a 6,000-ton rock sculpture (especially someone eager to don a costume to celebrate the anniversary of a train track). But as my bafflement faded, I realized I was actually really pleased: a completely abstract and ostensibly non-threatening sculpture had really gotten him riled up! What could be better news for an art fan?
Forty-five minutes later, after a 15-mile drive on a narrow dirt road, past a rundown old oil jetty in Great Salt Lake—“not Spiral Jetty,” Dia’s directions helpfully cautioned—we were walking along the sculpture, and well out beyond it, since the water level in the lake has receded dramatically in recent years. It was so great a pleasure to see in person that I wasn’t even bothered by the sizable crowd. (It was a Utah holiday and there were about 40 people there.) The two gentlemen who approached me in the center of the spiral to ask me who “the architect” who made it was (there’s no mention of Smithson anywhere) were not a little bit of a downer, but they were more than balanced out by a high school student who laid down on the salt-crusted basalt rocks and shouted to his friends, “I’m going to lick Robert Smithson’s painting! I’m doing it! Ahh!”
On the long drive back to Salt Lake City, I started thinking about New York, and had the uncomfortable feeling that almost everything happening right now is embarrassingly conservative compared to Spiral Jetty, which Smithson delivered in 1970 at the age of just 32. I kept wondering: had I seen anything in a gallery over the past season that had even a fraction of Jetty‘s raw ambition? I didn’t feel so good about my answers.
There’s a great deal of cynicism about the New York art world right now, and I feel it a lot of the time. There’s more art being made and sold than ever before, as it’s often remarked, and most of it is, at best, mediocre, safe, or bland. What’s really bleak is that I think most people involved in the industry know it. Pretty regularly, dealers push sub-par artists, and collectors buy sub-par art. Money is flowing, and people are making very shortsighted decisions.
It is a sincerely weird moment. But as my Jetty-inspired frustrations mellowed, I also began thinking about how it is an insanely exciting one. More art is being made than ever before! The money is flowing! I sure as hell will take that over the reverse.
And as I actually got to thinking back on last season, quite a few intoxicating, melancholic, moving, and frightening works came to mind, by young artists like Darren Bader, Camille Henrot, Anicka Yi, Jordan Wolfson, Maggie Lee, Gina Beavers, Brian Belott, Rachel Mason, and a few others. Is there a Smithson-level, rule-shattering master among that bunch? It’s impossible to say right now. I’m with Leo Steinberg, who wrote 50 years ago, “I have little confidence in people who habitually, when exposed to new works of art, know what is great and what will last.”
This is the first edition of a weekly column called “Art of the City” that I’m going to be writing about new art, focused mostly on New York. My goal is to give a sense of what’s happening here—the feeling in the air, the reasons to be thrilled. I’ll be looking for work that seduces, offends, and beguiles, whether on the scale of Smithson, or just in a small corner of a Brooklyn gallery. I want art that will enrage the guy in the railroad getup, of course, but also art that gets a high school kid so excited that he’ll want to lick it, and use it to show off to his friends. The new season begins next week. I can’t wait.
“Art of the City” is a weekly column by ARTnews co-executive editor Andrew Russeth.