American Sculptor and Writer
Passaic, New Jersey
Summary of Robert Smithson
Although Robert Smithson died at the age of only 35, his short career has inspired more young artists than most among the generation that emerged in the 1960s. A formidable writer and critic as well as an artist, his interests ranged from Catholicism to mineralogy to science fiction. His earliest pieces were paintings and collages, but he soon came to focus on sculpture; he responded to the Minimalism and Conceptualism of the early 1960s and he started to expand his work out of galleries and into the landscape. In 1970, he produced the Earthwork, or Land art, for which he is best known, Spiral Jetty, a remarkable coil of rock composed in the colored waters of the shore of the Great Salt Lake in Utah. In 1973, he died in an aircraft accident when he was surveying the site for another Earthwork in Texas.
- Smithson is one of the most influential artists of the diverse generation that emerged in the wake of Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism, known as the Post-Minimalists. Although inspired by Minimalism's use of industrial materials and interest in the viewer's experience of the space around the art object (as much as the object itself), the Post-Minimalists sought to abandon even more aspects of traditional sculpture. Smithson's approaches are typical of this group; he constructed sculptures from scattered materials, he found ways to confuse the viewer's understanding of sculpture (often by using mirrors or confusing scales), and his work sometimes referred to sites and objects outside of the gallery, leading the viewer to question where the art object really resided.
- Much of Smithson's output was shaped by his interest in the concept of entropy, the second law of thermodynamics that predicts the eventual exhaustion and collapse of any given system. His interest in geology and mineralogy confirmed this law to him, since in rocks and rubble he saw evidence of how the earth slows and cools. But the idea also informed his outlook on culture and civilization more generally; his famous essay Entropy and the New Monuments (1969) draws analogies between the quarries and the strip malls and tract housing of New Jersey, suggesting that ultimately the later will also perish and return to rubble.
- Smithson's concepts of Site and Nonsite - the former being a location outside the gallery, the latter being a body of objects and documentation inside the gallery - were important contributions to the body of ideas surrounding Land art in the 1960s. His discussion of monuments and ruins in his writing also helped many to think about the purpose art might have in the landscape, after the demise of the tradition of commemorative public sculpture.
Biography of Robert Smithson
Robert Smithson expressed a profound interest in the arts from an early age. While still attending high school in Clifton, New Jersey, during the mid 1950s, he attended art classes on the side in New York City. For two years, he was enrolled at The Art Students League in New York and, for a briefer period, at The Brooklyn Museum School.
Important Art by Robert Smithson
Blind in the Valley of the Suicides depicts a human transforming into a tree and may have been inspired by Dante's Divine Comedy. It is one of a series of early drawings from 1960 to 1962 that explores the themes of vision and blindness. Smithson would continue to explore the theme of vision throughout his later work - particularly in pieces involving mirrors - but he soon abandoned figurative drawing. Works such as this belong to a part of his career in which he was preoccupied with imagery drawn from the repertoire of science fiction and Catholicism (his mother's religion).
Constructed when Smithson was still mostly confining himself to the studio, Plunge is in keeping with Minimalism's preoccupation with geometry, repetition, and industrial materials. And many critics who saw this work in Smithson's first solo show at the Dwan Gallery in 1966 identified him as a leading Minimalist. However, there is much in Plunge that departs from the aesthetic of mainstream Minimalists such as Donald Judd. In particular, the work is made of a series of stepped units that are positioned such that they slowly increase (or decrease) in size; this sense of progression is quite different from the kind of straightforward repetition employed by Judd's sculpture. While Judd's work is often quite frank about its scale and dimensions, the changing scale in Smithson's Plunge makes it strangely difficult to gauge the scale of its individual components, and this attempt to befuddle the viewer is typical of the latter's work.
Smithson began making the Mirror Displacement series shortly after his Site/Non-Site works. While the Site pieces generally used material from outside the gallery - rocks, rubble - which was piled in low containers, the Mirror Displacements saw the materials simply dumped in heaps on the floor and divided up by mirrors. And while the Site pieces always contained a component situated in the gallery, the Mirror Displacement pieces were sometimes situated outside - as was this example, which was set up in Oxted Quarry in England. Smithson described the difference between the two kinds of work: "In other Non-sites, the container was rigid, the material amorphous. In this case, the container is amorphous, the mirror is the rigid thing." As in the Site series, Smithson was preoccupied with the way material, or another site, might be represented; might the materials in the Displacement be thought to "mirror" their presence elsewhere?
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Robert Smithson
- Robert Smithson: Learning from New Jersey and ElsewhereBy Ann Reynolds
- Earthwards: Robert Smithson and Art after BabelOur PickBy Gary Shapiro
- Robert Smithson and the American LandscapeBy Ron Graziani
- Robert Smithson: The Collected WritingsOur PickBy Robert Smithson, Jack Flam
- Robert SmithsonOur PickBy Alexander Alberro, Suzaan Boettger, Cornelia Butler, Thomas Crow, Eugenie Tsai
- Robert Smithson: Spiral JettyBy George Baker, Bob Phillips, Ann Reynolds, Lytle Shaw, Robert Smithson, Diana Thater, Lynne Cooke, Karen Kelly
- Mirror-Travels: Robert Smithson and HistoryBy Jennifer L. Roberts
- A Short Description of Two Mirrored Crystal StructuresFrom Unpublished Writings in Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings
- Excerpt from "Some Void Thoughts On Museums"From The Writings of Robert Smithson
- A Provisional Theory of Non-SitesOur PickFrom Unpublished Writings in Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings
- Cultural ConfinementFrom The Writings of Robert Smithson
- How to Conserve Art That Lives in a Lake?By Randy Kennedy / The New York Times / November 17, 2009
- Plans to Mix Oil Drilling and Art Clash in UtahBy Kirk Johnson / The New York Times / March 27, 2008
- The MaximalistBy Mark Stevens / New York Magazine / June 26, 2005
- Sculpture From the Earth, But Never Limited by itOur PickBy Michael Kimmelman / The New York Times / June 24, 2005
- Robert Smithson and Floating IslandBy John Haber / Haberarts.com / 2005
- The Salt of the Earth Sculpture; Debating Intervention as Nature does its WorkBy Melissa Sanford / The New York Times / January 13, 2004
- Writer's Blocks: Robert Smithson's Drawings, 1962By Carter Ratcliff / Art on Paper / 2000
- A Tree Dies in BrooklynBy Frances Richard / Artforum / February 1998
- Entropy Made VisibleInterview with Alison Sky / 1973
- Interview with Robert Smithson for the Archives of American Art/Smithsonian InstitutionOur PickInterview with Paul Cummings / July 14 and July 19, 1972