Robert Smithson - Biography and Legacy
American Sculptor and Writer
Passaic, New Jersey
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.
Through his studies and training, Smithson became fascinated with the Abstract Expressionists, in particular with David Smith, Tony Smith, Jackson Pollock, and Morris Louis. Later in his career, Smithson said that he found David Smith's sculpture particularly captivating for its use of unnatural materials (i.e. steel) that were altered by time and natural elements (i.e. rust, decay, and discoloring). Several years before Smithson expressed any interest in Minimalism, Conceptual art, and working with the natural environment, the young artist was drawing, painting, and making collages.
In the late 1950s, Smithson was noticed by art dealer Virginia Dwan and granted his first solo show at the Artists' Gallery in 1959. At this time, Smithson's paintings, drawings, and collages (he had yet to begin sculpting) drew in part on Abstract Expressionism; his works were multimedia, but were still two-dimensional artworks made using gouache, crayon, pencil, and photography.
Through his connection with Dwan, Smithson was introduced to several key artists and sculptors who were pioneering the Minimalist art movement of the early-1960s, including Carl Andre, Donald Judd, Robert Morris, Claes Oldenburg, and Smithson's soon-to-be wife, Nancy Holt. Holt and Smithson married in 1963. The formation of these friendships would mark a significant turning point in Smithson's career.
The collages he produced in the early-1960s, including Untitled (Tear) (1961-63), Untitled (Conch Shell, Spaceship and World Land Mass) (1961-63), and Algae (c. 1962), were still very much in keeping with an abstract and expressionist aesthetic, but they clearly suggest the artist's growing fascination with the earth as an inspirational resource and his concern with themes of permanence, natural and unnatural materials, and site-specific art.
By 1964, Smithson had taken up sculpture, inspired in large part by the Minimalism that was coming into vogue. It was clear from the beginning, however, that Smithson was not entirely comfortable confining himself and his work to the studio. Throughout the mid-1960s, he made several trips to New Jersey to visit quarries and industrial wastelands. He also paid several visits to the American West and Southwest, sparking in him an interest in deserts and sprawling tracts of land that appear unblemished by human intervention.
Smithson's sculptures of the mid 1960s maintain a strong resemblance to the Minimalist installations of Donald Judd, Carl Andre, Sol LeWitt, and Robert Morris. Painted steel works such as Plunge (1966), Alogon #2 (1966), and Terminal (1966), employed industrial materials, geometric forms, and a restricted palette. They were built indoors and intended for indoor display.
By 1967, Smithson was focused on two peculiar forms of sculpture, Sites and Non-sites, using mirrors and natural materials to create a new form of three-dimensional work. For his Sites projects, Smithson made several trips to New Jersey, Mexico, England, and West Germany, among other places, often accompanied by his wife Nancy Holt and dealer Virginia Dwan. While at these chosen sites (barren wastelands, salt flats, and wooded areas), Smithson placed a series of mirrors in natural settings and photographed the newly altered landscapes. The results created an effect of beauty and unease at having inserted such blatantly unnatural materials into an untouched setting.
For his Non-sites, Smithson situated mirrored surfaces into the corner or center of a room, in effect creating virtual doorways. Contrasting with these mirrors were the natural materials Smithson had scavenged from his trips, including mica, essen soil, red sandstone, limestone, sand, gravel, and other materials. Many of these Non-site projects would directly mirror his Sites, as in the case of Chalk Mirror Displacement (1969), a single work located in two different locales: its original quarry site in Oxted, England (Site), and later in the gallery space (Non-site). What made the Sites/Non-sites such a unique artistic endeavor was that Smithson was first altering the landscape, and then bringing the exhibition materials from the site in the gallery.
Simultaneous with Smithson's production of Sites/Non-sites, the artist was also creating a series of works called Photo-Markers (1968), which were in many ways the direct opposite of Sites/Non-sites. Photo-Markers also explored the effects of human intervention into the natural landscape, but applied a very different methodology. Smithson would photograph specific sites, enlarge the images, and place these enlargements into the physical landscapes they depicted. He then re-photographed the landscapes, creating an odd juxtaposition of the natural and the reproduced in the same shot - as if nature were referencing itself.
Smithson's first fully-fledged Earthworks were little more than preliminary sketches: site-specific proposals that existed only on paper. Throughout 1969 and 1970, he created a large number of drawings depicting projects that would soon come to fruition - and a few that would not. Early Earthworks, such as Asphalt Rundown (1969) and Glue Pour (1969), were inspired in part by his interest in entropy and abstraction, since the dumped and cooled materials created hardened abstract forms that resulted from their loss of heat. They were also demonstrations of Smithson's growing fascination with industrial areas and human neglect of wastelands.
His grandest achievement and most famous work was Spiral Jetty (1970). After much searching, Smithson purchased a plot of land on the northern shore of the Great Salt Lake, Utah, and inserted into the violet-red water a massive spiral constructed of some 6650 tons of earth. The Jetty, unlike previous Earthworks, maintained a harmony with its natural environment; it is an unnatural extension of the natural landscape, albeit one that, according to Smithson "[had been] disrupted by industry, reckless urbanization, or nature's own devastation." In subsequent years, Smithson embarked on other Earthworks projects that were in keeping with this artistic philosophy. In 1971, he completed Broken Circle/Spiral Hill, located in a quarry near Emmen, Holland, after which he returned to the United States to undertake what would be his last project, one Smithson himself would never realize.
Late Years and Death
In the summer of 1973 Smithson was traveling in a small airplane to survey the site for his newest project, called Amarillo Ramp. The plane crashed, killing him, the pilot, and the photographer who was accompanying them. Even though Smithson was robbed of the opportunity to build Amarillo Ramp, the project was completed shortly after his death by his widow Nancy Holt, Richard Serra, and others.
In addition to being an artist, Smithson was also an accomplished critic, essayist, and theoretician. Writing for the publications Artforum and Arts Magazine, mostly between the years 1967 and 1970, he developed intriguing theories involving the convergence of earth, language, and art. In a September 1968 Artforum piece entitled A Sedimentation of the Mind: Earth Projects he wrote, "Embedded in the sediment is a text that contains limits and boundaries which evade the rational order, and social structures which confine art. In order to read the rocks we must become conscious of geologic time, and of the layers of prehistorical material that is entombed in the Earth's crust."
The above text is indicative of a constant theme in Smithson's writings and art: time. Throughout his career, he became increasingly fascinated with the element of time and with humankind's repeated attempts to control it. These attempts, according to Smithson, were foolish. He viewed any attempt to control time as tantamount to devaluing it altogether and defrauding the earth of its essential right to exist. He also presented this theme in his 1970 Earthwork Partially Buried Woodshed, located in Kent, Ohio, which consisted of a woodshed partially buried under 20 truckloads of earth. This piece was "built" to illustrate the effects of geologic time and its eventual consumption of all man-made endeavors. Incidentally, other major works, such as Spiral Jetty, would eventually be consumed (temporarily) by the waters that surrounded them.
The Legacy of Robert Smithson
Robert Smithson not only coined the term "Land art," he gave birth to the movement itself. Interestingly, Smithson's death could be said to have accelerated the Land art movement. Inspiring a new generation of artists to leave the studio altogether and create art out in the open, the movement represented a unique convergence of installation, Conceptual art, and environmental awareness. Adding a strange twist to the world of popular art, most of Smithson's works were designed to be consumed by time and nature; thus they were constructed to have a finite life span. Predating Smithson's arrival into the art world, artists hoped to immortalize themselves by creating works that would easily outlast the span of human life. Smithson, in a sense, sought the opposite. His incursions into wastelands and no-man's lands were dialectical attempts to show nature's fragility in the industrial world and its powerful ability to defend itself against such incursions.