Voices from the Field

Innocence Lindsey Webb

Because it’s beautiful, it’s difficult to look at. Things get pulled away from the main current by an eddy.

I’m here to see some colors. I walk up the structure in a spiral, after entering the ramp at my right. The path curls against the inner wall, slowly rising as it curves so that soon, without noticing it, I’m a level above the entrance. The incline has been so gradual I might have thought I was walking on flat ground were it not for the minor tug at my back, which I compensate for by shifting my gait slightly forward. A pit grows to my left. If I move to the ledge, now several levels up, I can look down into the pit and backwards. I see where I began, where others are beginning—the tops of their heads. Above, the path spirals around a core of light. A building, a mountain, a lakeshore—I’m surrounded by grids. I walk past them on a curve, as if in manufactured disagreement with them.

I first visited on an elementary field trip, though I’d seen its exterior nearly every day at a distance, driving north on the freeway to Salt Lake City. I remember looking out a window into the pit and being overwhelmed with its beauty.Someone said, sweeping their arm over the view, it was all mine.

A spiral for walking. Massive creatures walk it, slowly; up and out—down and in.

I’m here to see Agnes Martin’s paintings, mostly grids. “When I first made a grid,” she wrote, “I happened to be thinking of the innocence of trees and then a grid came into my mind and I thought it represented innocence, and I still do, and so I painted it and then I was satisfied.” Agnes Martin knew what we all suspect: form is a feeling. A whiff of rose rises from her shaky intersections, imperfectly gridded. Looking at her field of rectangles is difficult; my attention floats over the top of it, unsure where to land. I zone out. Walking along the ramp I curl past her grids toward her later paintings, almost relieved to see diamonds and triangles, isolated shapes. And then the final paintings: two huge grids. I feel assaulted by a restrained tenderness.


It is difficult to see. I make friends new to the area, who, when they hear I’m writing about the Bingham Canyon Mine, ask me where it is. I tell them they’ve already seen it. Skeptical, they ask me to describe it. It looks like a mountain, I say, but wrong. Like a formation against the mountains, but completely unlike them, once you know what to look for. They look doubtful. They ask me to point it out to them next time. I realize only much later that the problem is scale. Agnes Martin described her paintings, done on six-by-six-foot canvases, as “a size you can walk into.”2

The Bingham Canyon Mine is an open-pit copper mine. From the valley floor, the mine appears as a series of orange buttes streaked with pink, blue, green, yellow, white, and black. It looks as if someone had transplanted a growth of red sandstone cliffs from hundreds of miles away to the snowy Rocky Mountains. Up close, or as close as you can get to their fences, the surface looks almost claylike. It almost glows in sunlight, changing tone and color with the position of the sun. Behind these massive and beautiful tailings lies the pit itself—a half a mile deep, three miles around, the largest man-made excavation on the planet, the biggest producer of copper in world history. If you travel up into the hills behind it and look down, you will see an immense rainbow spiral staircase. This staircase is traveled by massive, slow-moving trucks, bug-like in the unearthly scale of the pit. These excavators, like pack animals moving at eerily coordinated speeds, carry out ore and waste rock.

On Google, the mine (rated 4.1 stars out of 5) is listed as a “natural feature.” What else could it be, at that scale, but natural? Jonathan R. (5 stars) writes: “It is STUNNING. Just viewing its grandeur is incredible.” Dawn T (5 stars): “I don't care for mines, I think they're a blight on the earth. But this was really a stunning sight to see!” Emilia P (1 star): “too deep”.

The first director of the Guggenheim Museum, Hilla Rebay, wrote to Frank Lloyd Wright about his recent commission to design a permanent home for Solomon Guggenheim’s increasingly large collection of non-objective art. “I want a temple of the spirit,” she wrote, “a monument!” About the art Wright’s design would house, she wrote: “non-objective painting represents no object or subject known to us on earth. It is simply a beautiful organization arranged in rhythmic order of colors and forms to be enjoyed for beauty’s sake.” 3

The deposit of copper ore in Bingham Canyon was so low-grade no one, until the engineer Daniel Jackling came along in the 1890s, seriously believed it could be mined. Unlike traditional mines, whose ore deposits lay in well-defined veins, sheets, or tables, with clear boundaries between the ore and less valuable rock, Bingham Canyon’s ore deposit “had no clear beginning or end.”4 Instead, it’s a porphyry deposit: copper ore is scattered in microscopic crystals evenly throughout the rock, nearly invisible to the naked eye. In the 1890s, rock could only be called “ore” if it contained at least 3-4% concentration of valuable material; most mines contained above 10%. The Bingham Canyon Mine made a profit at under 1%. Jackling would later say, “mines are more often made than discovered.” 5

At the same time, thousands of miles away, Solomon Guggenheim began collecting old masters and other realist artworks. In 1919, he retired from the family business to devote more time to collecting art. He met Wassily Kandinsky and other European avant-garde artists, and began acquiring their work: Piet Mondrian, Marc Chagall, Amadeo Modigliani, Pablo Picasso. He commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright to design and build a permanent museum for his growing collection, with a design worthy of the artwork it housed.

A spiral for walking: a single path which curves toward itself without ever crossing its own line.

The technological historian Timothy LeCaine writes that at Bingham Canyon, “the extent of the [copper ore] deposit was merely a mathematical abstraction. It could contract and expand from day to day, depending on the latest market price for copper or the success or failure of a new mining technology. More than any mine before it, Jackling's Bingham mine was obviously a cultural construction, a product of engineering and technology rather than a natural treasure that had been "discovered.” Because there were “no obvious limits to the ore deposit,” there were “no obvious limits to how big the mine might become.”6 At Bingham Canyon, copper itself is a leaky construct.

The Guggenheim family, who had passed on investing in Bingham Canyon mine when Jackling first approached them, were more amenable in 1905. Giants in the field of mining and smelting, they had just effectively taken control of ASARCO, their only competition. The company had been watching Jackling’s fledgling Utah mine from afar and were impressed by what they saw. Despite widespread doubt such low-grade ore could be profitably mined, the Guggenheims invested, giving Jackling the capital to expand the world’s first open-pit copper mine.

Copper is most useful for its ability to conduct heat and electricity. At night, the Salt Lake Valley glows because of copper. Every time I turn on a light, a faucet: copper. Lucy Lippard, the feminist art critic, writes that a mine is “the reverse image of the cityscape it creates—extraction in aid of erection… mines are metaphorically cities turned upside down, though urban culture is unaware of its origins and rural birthplaces.”7 My world is suspended on a net of copper filaments. I read at night, cook on my electric stove, and drive after dark. I take an image with my phone.

The spiral Frank Lloyd Wright structure, pale and otherworldly against the brown-grey pre-war apartment buildings on the Upper East Side, is a spiral for walking up and out, a spiral staircase to heaven. As if in a reverse rhyme, the Bingham Canyon Mine spirals down and inward, an empty inferno, a slow, meditative walk toward hell.


1 Morris, Frances (ed.), et al. “Agnes Martin: Innocence and Experience.” Agnes Martin, D.A.P./Distributed Art Publishers Inc., New York, NY, 2015, p. 56.
2 Eisler, Benita. “Life Lines.” The New Yorker, 25 Jan. 1993, p. 81.
3 Sharon, Vatsky. The Architecture of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum: A Guide for Teachers and Students, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York City, NY, 2003.
4 LeCain, Timothy J. Mass Destruction the Men and Giant Mines That Wired America and Scarred the Planet. Rutgers University Press, 2009.
5 LeCain, Timothy J. Mass Destruction the Men and Giant Mines That Wired America and Scarred the Planet. Rutgers University Press, 2009.
6 LeCain, Timothy J. Mass Destruction the Men and Giant Mines That Wired America and Scarred the Planet. Rutgers University Press, 2009.
7 Lippard, Lucy R. Undermining: A Wild Ride in Words and Images through Land Use Politics in the Changing West. The New Press, 2014.