KCAC Forum Volume 2 Number 10, October 1976
THE AMARILLO RAMP — ART WITHOUT A MUSEUM
More than one article has appeared informing ARTFORUM magazine readers of the earth works of Robert Smithson. Smithson’s own statements regarding these works make it most evident that no museum or gallery can profit from them. I became acquainted with this art form and the purpose behind it, when I assigned some of my design students at Kansas State University to build earthworks. This summer when I had a few spare days I decided to take a trip to the Amarillo Ramp in Texas.
Earthworks must be approached, viewed, and experienced in an entirely different way than art works housed in a museum. In advance, I wrote to the chamber of commerce in Amarillo requesting information on the location and what arrangements must be made in order to view the ramp. Within a week a letter arrived from them saying that the most they could tell me was that it was on the Stanley Marsh ranch and I could contact him through the American National Bank Building in Amarillo. In response to my letter to Mr. Marsh, I received a reply from Mr. John Rhinehart for Mr. Marsh III saying that the only arrangements I needed to make concerning viewing the Smithson was to tell him I would be in Amarillo. It all seemed so simple and at the same time intriguing, mysterious, and game-like.
My husband, a photographer, and I left Manhattan, Kansas, one day last summer, traveled for two days and arrived in Amarillo on the second in mid-afternoon. We stopped on Highway 40 just inside of town, at the first Howard Johnson to make a call to Rhinehart. In a very friendly non-Texan accent he said that there were two families expected at the ranch that evening, but that there should be plenty of time for someone to show us the ramp. He got my number and I waited as he called the house. Within seconds the pay phone rang. he gave me directions to the Marsh house, and said to be there at 3:00. It was 2:35.
the house was located on the northwestern part of town. It was a low ranch style house, set back from the road in trees, with only an American flag flying high above. We turned off the road passed through an electric gate, passed a sign that said “Toad House” (from the book, WIND AND THE WILLOW), and up a winding paved road. We parked in front of the house. As we walked to the house, a peacock strutted away from his spot near the sidewalk. The house was not aggressively wealthy, but a simple and solidly built structure that revealed nothing of what one might expect inside. Once inside we were shown to the servants’ quarters by two women who seemed to be in charge of caring for the Marsh children. Passing down a long hallway over a large sleeping dog, past a large glassed-in aviary containing birds donning the colors of the Texas plains, then through a large door covered with illustrations from children’s stories, we were introduced to a young man in jeans and plaid workshirt and a button that said “Impeach Ford” who was to drive us to the ramp. Following him, we got into an air-conditioned jeep standing outside, and headed to the Marsh ranch.
It was a 17 mile trip over a rugged, muddy, single lane road. Many times we had to leave the road and cut across the grass to avoid the potholes of mud. The recent rains had been more than usual for this part of Texas, an area that expects 320 days of dry weather a year. The rocky terrain shook the jeep and the Mesquite trees hit against the sides and windows. The land of prickly pear, yuccas, Jimson weeds, and staring cows, stretched unending for miles.
The ride allowed time to talk with the driver, who obviously enjoyed his work, about Smithson and Marsh. Both men had been friends for a long time before Smithson approached Marsh regarding the ramp. Marsh has in his collection a soft sculpture by Claes Oldenberg and a sculpture by Chamberlain. However at the moment he is not in the process of purchasing any particular art work. The three Marsh brothers own a vast territory of oil and helium, as well as three TV stations. Smithson was described as a quiet man, who stayed to himself.
With the photographic image drawn clearly in my mind it was interesting to try to identify the work in advance. All of a sudden as we moved up a gentle incline, there it was – no question about it – the ramp’s perfect circular shape outlined by a man-made lake. Another visit in the dry season might have proven interesting to measure the separateness of ramp from its lake bottom. It lay quiet and unobtrusive among its surroundings, gladly beneath the Texas blue sky. Straight across the lake from which we stood was the spot where Smithson’s plane went down, and where he was killed. it had been one of the many aerial trips he had taken to check the location.
The ramp was a perfect circle with a slow, steady incline composed of the dark red soil of the area. It was shaped by a man of thirty years experience operating a dump truck. The ridge is the exact width of a dump truck. There are no signs of labeling or fences walling it off as an art piece. The whole area of gentle hot winds, occasional small planes, staccato sounds of insects and birds, invade the sense requiring a close investigation to look and look again, not just at the ramp, but experience the ambience of the place.
There are a few changes that have occurred since I first saw a photograph of the ramp, in the 1974 April issue of ARTFORUM. A few weeds have grown around the edge of the ramp and small eroded undercuts have resulted when it has rained, but no great decomposition has occurred as has taken place to the Smithson Utah Jetty. since there are few visitors to the ramp, practically no one in Amarillo has seen it and much less know about it. It is primarily artists who have heard about it and are out traveling around and stop. On average, four to five people a month may come. The day before we got there an artist from Chicago had come to do a video tape near the ramp. Since the place is very secluded and a guide is needed to find it, no vandalism takes place.
In comparison to a museum which is concerned in protecting the original state of its holdings, and where nothing is done to prevent natural changes from taking place, our driver did not impress us not to touch anything. Within what seemed a short time we were ready to leave. We loaded up the camera equipment and made a quiet trip back to the house where the driver left us at our car. The experience was so important that we wished we could have done more than send a card of appreciation to Marsh.