Jill O’Bryan on Robert Smithson

Asphalt Spiral is a completely perfect yet craggy schematic for an imagined earthwork, so I just walk right into it. The line quality encodes signifiers immediately read: crosshatching on the even, solid surfaces of the roads; dots and up and down strokes indicating the earth; squiggly lines indicating the dripping ooze of pure liquid asphalt.

In the drawing are a few notes indicating the desired materials and scale of the earthwork: 15’ notes the width of the road. Then with an arrow pointing to the road: road large enough for truck, and referring to the road’s pavement: asphalt with stones. Another arrow points to the top half of a slope: slopes with pure asphalt. In fact the sketch shows asphalt that has been poured from the road’s edge so that it drips down the tiered slopes–presumably many times, as it is continuous, all along the road’s edge. It is a flow! Or many flows. But it’s not until I watch Bob Flori’s film documenting Smithson’s Asphalt Rundown (1969, Rome) that I fully understand Smithson’s note: road large enough for truck. This road is not only wide enough to pave, but it is also wide enough to back up a truck to the road’s edges so that it can pour liquid asphalt down the slopes.

It seems that Asphalt Spiral is a sort of conflation of two of Smithson’s previous works: Spiral Hill (1971) in Emmen, Holland (completed in the same year that he drew Asphalt Spiral ), and Asphalt Rundown (1969), asphalt poured out of a dump truck down a gravel quarry cliff in Rome. Asphalt Rundown was the first in a series of “flows” that Smithson did in 1969. The others were Concrete Pour, Chicago, and Glue Pour, Vancouver. These were large-scale painterly gestures referring to the Abstract Expressionists, but also turning away from their confinement to the studio. Outdoors, these flows were actions, which artist Nancy Holt (also Smithson’s wife) called “entropy made visible.” The “flows” at Asphalt Spiral, however, would have had to have been quite controlled, with just enough asphalt poured each time so that its longest tendrils stopped before reaching the surface of the road below–or at least this is how they’re drawn in the sketch.

Spiral Hill, built in Emmen, appears to be on a similar scale to that of the intended Asphalt Spiral, about 75 feet at the base. Both are structures made of earth, but Spiral Hill’s roads are covered with white sand and its slopes with black topsoil. Here I imagine walking up on white sand–black slope always to my left, a growing vista to my right–and the disorientation that comes with negotiating a spiral: never seeing the destination that is always just around the bend. So what would it be like to walk up and down Asphalt Spiral? The paradox between so clearly seeing the drawing and only imagining an interaction with the earthwork is halted by yet another paradox. The geometry in this sketch is very peculiar. Quite literally, the drawing—although titled Asphalt Spiral—is not that of a spiral at all. It’s a stack of three perfectly horizontal and unconnected circular roads tiered on top of one another, each decreasing in circumference from the one below, until at the very top sits a round earth mound. In his treatise on the universe, Heraclitus wrote that the road up and the road down were one and the same. But what if the road up and the road down are not going up or down at all?

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