I never thought fate played into book reviews. But something had a hand in sending me Erin Hogan's "Spiral Jetta: A Road Trip Through the Land Art of the American West" the same week my daughter announced that she planned to head to Marfa, Texas, to seek her fortune as an intern at the late Donald Judd's minimalist art mecca. Marfa, Texas? That's no place for a city girl, I said. But Marfa was one of the sites that lured Erin Hogan out of Chicago and off on her auto pilgrimage to the big art of the West. It seems to draw folks (like Hogan and my daughter) worn down by city life. I had to read the book.
"Spiral Jetta" is a slight book, as much notes from a travel blog as lessons in the history of late-20th Century art. It is a useful primer on site-specific land art, or earthworks, and an amusing account of Hogan's adventures out west.
We learn about Hogan. She has been working in Chicago too long. She needs to get out of town. She needs to learn to be alone. She heads west in her trusty Volkswagen Jetta, crosses the plains and lands in Utah. She spends the next week looking for art there and in Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. She stops at Robert Smithson's "Spiral Jetty," slides down the sides of Michael Heizer's "Double Negative" and spends a wonderful morning watching the sunrise spread through Walter De Maria's "The Lighning Field." She looks for Jim Turrell's "Roden Crater" and Nancy Holt's "Sun Tunnels" but never finds them.
She talks to men in a bar, loses her wallet under a chair in a hotel lobby, pitches a tent in a windstorm, visits a roadside attraction, drinks beer with some guys and drives her Jetta on rutty dirt roads. Hogan is an anxious traveler. She gets out of cell-phone range, almost chokes on a glass of water and panics in a tunnel. She pictures her own lonely corpse, moldering in a motel room, rotting in the desert, gnawed on by a curious breed of body-scavenging cattle. It's a dangerous world out there beyond Chicago's city limits. But nothing bad really happens.
I wanted to tell Hogan to relax and have a good time. To stop worrying so much about punctured fuel tanks, disease-carrying mosquitoes, meth-crazed rapists, hotel guards out to catch Internet poachers, gun-toting ranchers looking for trespassers, and mad killers waiting for innocent art pilgrims. The West is actually full of interesting people. It's not all slow-talking ranchers who sniff the air and tell you that snow's a-comin'.
I'd tell Hogan that when she thinks about this trip, she should remember the positive aspects; maybe they're as close as she got to transcendence. She floats with brine flies in the Great Salt Lake and comes out of the water caked in salt (her favorite mineral). She visits Arches National Park and remembers high school lessons on geology. She never gets lost; cows don't maul her corpse; her hot car doesn't set the scrub brush on fire; and nothing bad happens when she walks the streets of Juarez, Mexico, during a short sidetrip. She doesn't get murdered or raped, and she never gets busted for wireless poaching. Her fellow art pilgrims are nice people, like Hogan, who share food and wine.
Other writers have gone west to look at art. Hogan's book will never measure up to one chapter in New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman's "The Accidental Masterpiece." But she doesn't pretend it should. Kimmelman can call the artists and see them with their works. Turrell takes Kimmelman out to the crater. Heizer leads him around his still-unfinished "City." Kimmelman doesn't even have to imagine danger: He almost drowns on Utah's flooded salt flats.
Hogan's trip is more like what would happen to most of us if we drove around the West to look at art. Motels would be ordinary. Bar food would be lousy. But nothing awful would happen. We, too, would be nice to a waitress who messed up an order and choke down our vodka and Diet Sprite so the waitress wouldn't feel bad. We might stay up late drinking beer with other campers. We might take some notes and write them up. Someone like me might read them and reassure a daughter heading to Marfa that Donald Judd's polished aluminum boxes do not disappoint.
Spiral Jetta: A Road Trip Through the Land Art of the American WestBy Erin Hogan University of Chicago Press, 180 pages, $20Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun