In describing the surrounding landscape of Spiral Jetty in a 1972 essay, Robert Smithson gives us ample descriptions of color, from the “deposits of black basalt” to “shallow pinkish water” to his sublime view of “a flaming chromosphere.” It’s particularly fitting, then, that for a new site-specific commission for the newly reopened Utah Museum of Fine Arts (UMFA), color enthusiast Spencer Finch chose to study the infinite hues that envelope visitors at Rozel Point on the Great Salt Lake’s northeastern shore, where Smithson’s earthwork curls across the land like a giant, stony fiddlehead fern.
Over three days, Finch circumnavigated the Great Salt Lake by foot, boat, and car to log precise colors in his surroundings, which he then matched to Pantone swatches. The 1,132 chips he selected now decorate the museum’s monumental great hall in a rainbowed line for his installation “Great Salt Lake and Vicinity” (2017), which was unveiled in August and will likely remain up for two years. The museum, too, is celebrating its opening after 19 months of closure for construction and remodeling.
Curator Whitney Tassie had approached Finch in 2015 to create an installation that would consider UFMA’s collection, building, community, and regional landscape.
“His interest in light, landscape, and history make him a perfect fit for Utah, where the desert light is so unique and our geological and cultural history is written so visibly in our landscape,” Tassie told Hyperallergic. “His Pantone installation brings a specific landscape into the museum by using color and language to engage memory and imagination in the recreation of a journey.” Spiral Jetty, notably, is also Utah’s official state work of art.
The sequence for the earthwork is but a portion of Finch’s installation, which creates a 159-foot-long color profile of the entire salt lake. The layout in the towering hall reflects how the colors circumnavigate the massive pool, so to survey the line is like an abstract experience of touring the lake — from its mineral extraction ponds to its mudflats.
Finch also hand-labeled each chip in pencil to mark its original source; the results dissect the landscape into its subtleties. A soft, celestial periwinkle represents “lake,” but so do many shades of blue, and even bright pinks. The range of hues labelled “mountain” range from browns to grays; from an olive green to a peach. Museum staff had surmised that Finch would return from his journey with many shades of brown, but the resulting vibrant range of color, as Tassie said, “can be shocking,” and may alter common perceptions that the lake and desert are dead.
“The line of color reads like field notes,” she added. “a data-driven abstraction of close observation.” And like field notes, this portrait of sorts will be a record of the past, as the lake — and Spiral Jetty — increasingly transform with a drying climate.