In May, a small item appeared in the Deseret News of Utah under the headline "Monument in Green River Has People Scratching Their Heads." It showed pictures of the monument, a pyramid of white concrete blocks climbing up into blue sky, a golden block at the very top.
"The man who sculpted it is Andrew Rogers, an Australian," the News reported, with the air of tracking down a mystery—nobody knew what that gleaming thing was out there, just sitting in the middle of the desert along Interstate 70.
"Rogers tells the Australian newspaper the Age that a retired math teacher living in Washington State commissioned the project on land he owned. Green River officials have identified him as Herbert Steiner."
Two months later, on the blog Modern Art Notes, the name Herbert Steiner came up again in the context of a mystery.
"The previously unknown third bidder for the Spiral Jetty–site lease is retired Seattle schoolteacher and arts-funder Herbert Steiner," MAN reported.
Spiral Jetty is a world-famous work of earth art, a 1,500-foot-long, 15-foot-wide, salt-encrusted spiraling path of rocks at the edge of the Great Salt Lake in Rozel Point, Utah.
"Who is Herbert Steiner?" I wrote on Slog, The Stranger's blog. Nobody responded. Not museums. Not artists or gallery owners. Not his friends or family. Online, I found a June article in the Salt Lake Tribune about the mysterious monument—called Ratio—and I contacted the reporter, who put me in touch with Steiner's attorney, who finally gave me Steiner's number.
Herbert Steiner spent $145,292 to commission Ratio. He also, indeed, submitted a bid to lease the land under the 1970 earthwork by Robert Smithson, Spiral Jetty.
Oh, and Herbert Steiner can't see. Herbert Steiner is blind.
When you call Steiner, there is no answering machine. You either get him or you don't, and mostly you don't. He sleeps a lot. His "helpers"—a group of women; he insists that they be painters and writers—come twice a day. Steiner will be 90 next year. He lost his sight, from glaucoma, about eight years ago, so the corners of the walls in his modest University District apartment are padded over. He has a trampoline with a hand bar in one corner for exercise. Modern Art Notes described him as "a philanthropist and collector." That's a stretch. His story is nothing like Guy Becomes Rich, Guy Becomes Art World Player.
Steiner, whose eyes are gray, prefers to stand when you talk to him. He wants things to come out right. So on a recent afternoon, he asks one of his helpers, Jane, to read from notes he dictated to her that morning.
"A big thing happened to me late in my life," she begins.
"Not 'thing,'" he interrupts. "Event. Event."
"A big event happened to me late in my life."
The event is Ratio—finding a legacy, after a lifetime of searching for one in vain.
Steiner has lived in Seattle since he was 8, always near the University of Washington. He is a quiet person, "an independent soul," as his lawyer describes him. He never married and has no children. His strong-headed father was head of the sociology department for a time at the University of Washington. His mother was an eccentric who gave him a second birthday because she didn't like his original astrological sign.
Above all, Steiner wanted to be a writer and artist—he recently, with his helpers' aid, put out a journal of his writings during a boyhood summer spent in Japan—and in his 20s, he made an important connection: He took a workshop at Stanford with the noted writer Katherine Anne Porter. They exchanged letters for years. But Steiner's father urged him back to Seattle, and into teaching, and so Steiner taught third grade in Seattle until the moment he could retire. He was 55.
That moment, he became himself. He started writing all the time, attending the Port Townsend Writers' Conference every summer. Riding the rails, he'd draw landscapes on paper, turning sunsets into crayon impressions. He loved trains. Until he lost his sight and could not ride anymore, everything revolved around trains.
That's how Steiner's epic affair with Utah began. He writes:
On the train going to Santa Barbara, a young man sitting next to me in the coach told me he rode a motorcycle and had been to every state. He had spent a year in Utah in a cabin. He told me that Utah was the most beautiful state of all. I wanted to ride the train to Utah and wondered if there was a motel in Thompson Springs, Utah, I could stay in. So I called Amtrak. Amtrak gave me a telephone number of a motel in Thompson that I could call. So I called and Sadie told me she had a room for me in the Thompson Motel and that I could get something to eat at the Silver Grill, within a short walk. So I got off the train at Thompson, a flag stop on Amtrak, and I saw the train leave me and saw the motel nearby and Sadie was waiting for me there. I was 62 years old at the time.
After that, Steiner, in love with Utah and having a little money in his pocket after selling his family home on UW's fraternity row, bought all the property he could afford in Thompson Springs. He intended to create a little township.
He put in a road, electricity, water, 63 lots, and a private railroad crossing close to the station at Thompson Springs. Then he waited. Nobody bought. He waited years, but nobody ever did. Thompson Springs was dying, not growing. It became a ghost town.
His next move was, again, defined by the railroad.
"When the motel and Silver Grill restaurant closed, Amtrak no longer stopped at Thompson," Steiner wrote, "so I had to get off the train at Green River instead."
In Green River, he bought more land, with views of something called the Book Cliffs. What he didn't know was that the land was poisoned with uranium from a mill across the river. He had to clean it up. Green River bought back some of his land, but there was one piece, 100 acres, that nobody wanted. He tried to give it to the city for a park. No. An arboretum? No again. The land had a hill on it.
Steiner's lawyer, Scott Jenkins, came up with the idea to put up Ratio. Jenkins has been handling Steiner's dealings in the desert since 1990, when Steiner cold-called Jenkins's firm looking for an attorney. He's only met Steiner in person once, but he knows Steiner loves land, writing, and art—so Steiner searched for land artists on the internet, and came up with the Australian Andrew Rogers.
Rogers immediately agreed to do a piece at Green River because, coincidentally, he happens to own a fossil from there. He went to the site and visited Steiner's hill, but never met Steiner. When Steiner found out Rogers had agreed (and Rogers worked without pay; all Steiner's funds went to pay contractors), Steiner was so excited that his lawyer was worried he would have a heart attack. For weeks, Steiner got no word. Then, a phone call: Ratio was complete. Steiner would never see it, so he asked Rogers about it on the phone, especially the gold block at the top, which Rogers told him changes with the sunlight.
"Is it all the colors of the rainbow?" Steiner asked Rogers.
Steiner's attorney also had the idea to bid on the lease for Spiral Jetty. In a newspaper, Jenkins read that the owners of the sculpture, a foundation called Dia, had failed to renew the lease on the land. "We've got to try this!" he said on the phone to Steiner.
Steiner has never seen Spiral Jetty. Most people haven't. At this moment, the Jetty has mostly disappeared again under the rising water of the Great Salt Lake. In 1970, when Smithson made the Jetty three years before his death in a plane crash, he knew it would disappear from time to time, maybe even permanently if the water level got high enough. Smithson liked the contradiction that however famous the Jetty became—and it has been photographed from space—by placing it in such changing conditions and in such a remote location, very few people would actually get to see it with their own eyes. Smithson would have appreciated the idea that a blind man would bid to manage its land one day.
The State of Utah has announced that it will probably recontract with Dia for the lease, meaning Steiner's flirtation with the Jetty is most likely over. "I would still go to bat for him," Jenkins says, smitten with the idea. (Jenkins drove to the Jetty; it is exactly 100 miles from his office, he says.)
But Steiner has his legacy, both in Ratio and in the freewheeling story of his late life. He tells his helpers never to stop painting and writing. In one of his own short stories, he tells the simple tale of playing a song on the jukebox in a diner near a railroad station in the desert.
When the song ended, I was stunned. I had selected the record. Everyone there had heard it, too. I felt like a hero, a special person, as I knew I would have to go. I could not stay and hear anything else after that. Walking out, I thought I timed [it] perfectly—a stillness, a hush seemed to permeate over talking. I felt I might be noticed.