Mortal Coil

Resurrecting Robert Smithson

Robert Smithson walking on Spiral Jetty, 1970, Great Salt Lake, Utah. Photo: Gianfranco Gorgoni. © Holt/Smithson Foundation / Artists Rights Society, New York.

Inside the Spiral: The Passions of Robert Smithson. By Suzaan Boettger. University of Minnesota Press, 2023. 440 pages.

ASTONISHINGLY, it has taken fifty years since his death for a “life” of Robert Smithson to emerge. Then again, the endlessly polysemous nature of Smithson’s art, the vertiginous heap of writing on him already out there, and his own profound ambivalence toward the very enterprise of history—collective and personal—make him a rather daunting subject. The prospective Smithson biographer, over the winding course of her inquiry, must advance despite so many taunting aphorisms like signs telling her to turn around: “The self is a fiction which many imagine to be real.” “History is a facsimile of events held together by flimsy biographical information.” “Vanished theories compose the strata of many forgotten books.” Suzaan Boettger’s book is, fittingly, a counterhistory. The cover of Inside the Spiral: The Passions of Robert Smithson features not one of Gianfranco Gorgoni’s iconic photographs of the earthworker dwarfed by his jetty but a noirish close-up of the artist with a cigarette held up to his acne-scarred face, a stigmatist in aviators. Indeed, Smithson’s first biographer drags the sweeping spacetime of his art down to the abject dimensions of a single self.

Who was Robert Smithson? Say the name and he’s there: holding court at the front of Max’s Kansas City, the gangly pioneer of Land art; the evangelist of entropy; the morose cowboy reeking of soil and salt-lake brine, of science-fiction pulp. His legacy has all but ossified as that of heroically untethering the artwork from aesthetic autonomy and human subjectivity, such that Rosalind Krauss could claim that Smithson’s mode of entropic informé enables nothing less than “the disappearance of the first person.” Although Boettger does not mention this quote, her book, while contesting its sentiment, gives it a startlingly literal twist.

The first person was Harold Smithson. Born in 1926 in Passaic, New Jersey, he succumbed to leukemia nine years later. At that time, no treatment was available for the disease, and most children died mere months from a diagnosis, often after violent hemorrhaging. We see him in a circa 1935 photograph, fair-haired and radiant in all white. Harold’s shadow would come to haunt the Smithson household; Robert was that shadow. Born under Saturn in 1938, he absorbed the trauma of his brother’s death, an event never fully mourned by his parents, the author surmises. Harold is not mentioned in the thirty writings Smithson published in his lifetime or the some fifty unpublished ones; Boettger learned of his existence three decades ago during an interview with artist Nancy Holt, his widow. Holt evidently considered this predecessor an important part of Robert’s story, at least enough to append Harold’s death to her husband’s biographical timeline in a 1974 catalogue. Previously overlooked in the universe of Smithson studies, Harold is here put forward as Robert’s raison d’être and thus the secret, “unnamable” impetus behind his catalogue raisonné, from the renowned earthworks of the ’70s, to his quasi-Minimalist crystallizations, to his mirror pieces and nonsites, to his little-seen paintings of the tortured Christ.

Robert Smithson at the site of dinosaur tracks near South Hadley, Massachusetts, ca. 1948. Photographer unknown.© Holt/Smithson Foundation / Artists Rights Society, New York.

Inside the Spiral pays rare attention to (and generously reproduces) Smithson’s early work, an interpretive quicksand of Catholic mysticism, Aztec mythology, and Jungian symbols. As it happens, Quicksand is the title of the 1959 painting that caught the eye of George Lester, a former American vice-consul to Italy who owned a gallery in Rome. Noticing the murky canvas in the window of New York’s Alan Gallery in the fall of 1960, Lester snapped it up, signed the unknown twenty-two-year-old to his roster, and began preparing for a show in the Eternal City. A few months later, Smithson found himself in a “spiritual crisis”—inflamed by the sudden death of a cherished and devoutly Catholic aunt—which yielded “Man of Sorrow,” a 1961 series of brut paintings of the crucifixion and the stigmata. “Don’t be afraid of the word ‘religion.’ The most sophisticated people in Manhattan are very much concerned with it,” the deluded artist wrote in one of many missives to his dealer, enjoining him not only to include “Man of Sorrow” in Rome but to publish an anguished incantation he wrote, “Meditation on the Flayed Angels,” as the sole exhibition text. “I expect this show to be a turning point, toward a new realm of art.” Lester denied his pleas, and neither the “Man of Sorrow” paintings nor the incantation were seen publicly during the artist’s lifetime.

Smithson’s first biographer drags the sweeping spacetime of his art down to the abject dimensions of a single self.

Long trivialized as the juvenilia of a young aspirant to the Western canon (a view he encouraged once he became established), Smithson’s Christ paintings have increasingly been reinterpreted by scholars as channeling what Jennifer Roberts calls the “dialectical conflict between the eternal and historical” that informs his entire practice. Boettger too underlines the interconnectedness of early and late work, but puts quotation marks around his religion, which she sees as a rather literal reflection of a persecution complex. “Feeling himself to be persecuted, the victim of having to serve as a replacement, he could rightly resent what Harold’s death and his parents’ idealized memory of his brother put him through,” she writes. “His ‘religious’ images radiate fury at being his brother’s keeper.” Smithson’s apostasy of 1962 suggests that these works failed as catharsis, and for the next twenty-eight months, he would not show any art at all. Among the book’s surprises is that, during those lost years, Holt secretly converted from Protestantism to Catholicism in preparation for their wedding in the spring of 1963. That the small ceremony was held at one of the two churches in Manhattan administered by the Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament, a congregation devoted to the prodigy of the Eucharist, is a morsel offered to adduce not Smithson’s enduring piety but his lifelong obsession with blood—the same fixation, we are told, that would eventually lure the artist to the rosy algae that ensanguined the waters at Rozel Point.

Robert Smithson, Man of Sorrow (The Passionate), 1960, oil on canvas, 77 1/2 x 47 1/2" © Holt/Smithson Foundation / Artists Rights Society, New York.

A chapter titled “Secret Partner” locates in Smithson’s short-lived fling with Pop—an incredible tranche of early-’60s drawings and collages inspired by his wanderings in Manhattan, from the Natural Museum of History’s dinosaur murals to the softcore amusements of Times Square—a way for Smithson to broach a queerness he feared could never spill over into his toxically heterosexual milieu. Boettger notes an avidity for leather bars, and a mysterious high-school friend whom Holt dubbed his “Genet.” His Roman Catholic marriage becomes both a symptom of and cure for internalized homophobia (Vatican II did nothing to alter homosexuality’s status as crimen pessimum). “This context gives a plausible context to [Dan] Graham’s otherwise incredible assertion that Smithson’s ‘hero was Andy Warhol,’” Boettger writes, hastily (the context gives context?). Actually, these two storied patrons of Max’s, sex and church aside, shared many affinities, such as their use of language as raw material (Warhol called his tape recorder his “wife”) and a subversive irony that cast both artists as anticipators of postmodernism. (“I’m not really discontent,” Smithson remarked. “I’m just interested in exploring the apparatus I’m being threaded through.”) This is not at all to oppugn the possibility of a gay Smithson; in fact, Boettger might have examined how queerness ramifies throughout his entire unruly oeuvre (is there an echo of cruising in the earthworker’s practice of “low-level scanning”?). Instead, she confines it to a single chapter, one more revelation incumbent on the biographer to vent.

Robert Smithson, Untitled, 1962, ink on paper, 18 x 24 1/4". © Holt/Smithson Foundation / Artists Rights Society, New York.

By 1965, Smithson had destroyed what he could of his Christ paintings, wiped his résumé, and rose phoenixlike as a sculptor of cool, crystalline geometries. For Boettger, this rebirth signaled a “transmutation,” the moment when the “replacement child” must fulfill a “desire to perform his own replacement scenario, shedding that position of existential double toward reparative recognition as radically original.” Yet rather than fully exorcise his shadow, he shrouded him in ciphers. “Art is inclined to semblances and masks,” Smithson later wrote. “It flourishes on discrepancy.” Fittingly, his next persona would be that of the art-world iconoclast.

Entering the terra cognita of the artist’s post-1964 output, Boettger proceeds to reconstrue the old monuments of Smithsonland as metaphors for an ungrievable loss. She quarries his vast library and writings, reading his talismanic Artforum essays against the grain of their received status as eccentric rejoinders to modernist myths of progress. She contends that his first published text, “Entropy and the New Monuments” (1966), by connecting the primary structures of Minimalism to the second law of thermodynamics—under which the “whole universe will burn out and be transformed into an all-encompassing sameness”—allowed Smithson to reclaim agency over the chaos of his own origins. As did “The Monuments of Passaic,” the sardonic 1967 photo-essay where he detects in New Jersey’s postindustrial dilapidations “the memory-traces of an abandoned set of futures” and, apothegmatically, “ruins in reverse.” (The final “monument” he encounters in Passaic is a sandbox that “somehow doubled as an open grave—a grave that children cheerfully play in.”) In the hallucinatory 1969 travelogue “Incidents of Mirror-Travel in the Yucatán,” Smithson’s motif of the enantiomorph—a word for a pair of asymmetrical crystals identical to each other—refracts to name his own doubled condition. “A mirror looking for its reflection but never quite finding it,” he wrote (even the sentence is incomplete).

Inside the Spiral resorts often to astrology and numerology, belief systems well represented in Smithson’s library. Occasionally this yields poignant moments, as when Boettger discovers—with the help of a guild of cryptologists—that Smithson had, in an eventful doodle of 1962, recorded Harold’s “astrological progression” inside the wing of a musclebound angel. But one’s patience soon wears. Multiplying the six seafoam-colored hexagons of Cryosphere, 1965—Smithson’s contribution to the watershed “Primary Structures” survey—by their six sides, she comes to thirty-six, “Harold’s death year.” Smithson’s instructions that a backhoe driver dump twenty loads of dirt onto a Kent State storage cabin for his Partially Buried Woodshed, 1970, “must have been symbolic,” she writes, as “numerologically, twenty (two plus zero) sums to two, suggesting the second broken house he experienced.” We are asked to nod along to Boettger’s case for why a mural of a dinosaur (beloved mascot of prehistory) briefly appears at the 12 minute 55 second mark of the artist’s Spiral Jetty film: “The sum of those digits (1 + 2 + 5 + 5) is 31, the same as the sum of the digits associated with the letters in Harold’s name.” And yet, if these proliferating tallies begin to undermine Boettger’s authority, we might concede that a certain poetic coherence settles around their absurd math, as if Smithson’s oeuvre demands a critical methodology beyond the bounds of the material world.

Robert Smithson, Self-Less Portrait, 1962, oil and paper collage on canvas, 30 x 25". Photo: Børre Høstland. Holt/Smithson Foundation / by Artists Rights Society, New York.

Conjecture and speculation have their place in life-writing, crucial as they are to inhabit the minds of others on the page. Yet in making Smithson a prisoner of his unconscious—in too often treating him as a cryptogram to be solved—Boettger’s psychodrama struggles to fully imagine his earthly existence among the living. Of his bond with Holt or close friendship with Virginia Dwan, his loyal benefactor, we learn little. It’s mentioned that the artist nurtured a yearslong correspondence with the priest who had instructed Holt in Catholicism, but not what they discussed. Here is a Smithson in conversation only with himself, for his “Passions” are insular and all-consuming; this becomes one way to interpret, if not absolve, his disengagement from politics. Boettger notes that when a hundred thousand New Yorkers marched against the war in Vietnam on April 15, 1967, he made a field trip to New Jersey’s Pine Barrens to scan for potential sites/nonsites. He was edging nearer to his most pressing, unanswerable question: What does it feel like to be a nonsite, to be here and not here?

It was in Mormon country, not the seat of the Roman Catholic Church, where Smithson would realize his great transubstantiation and, in doing so, approach a “new realm” in art. At Utah’s Rozel Point, just north of an abandoned oil derrick, the brackish waters fostered the growth of white salt crystals, which engulfed the basalt rocks on the shore: the perfect exemplar of entropy, enantiomorphism, ruins in reverse. A counterclockwise helix of mud and rock jutting 1,500 feet into the Great Salt Lake, Spiral Jetty, 1970, is a model of time made to be unmade; the sculpture’s transience led Craig Owens to crown it “the memento mori of the twentieth century.” Completely submerged from 1972 to 1993, the work has more recently been landlocked as the lake’s waters, like the crystal rings of Saturn, slowly vanish.

Robert Smithson, Spiral Jetty, 1970, Great Salt Lake, Utah, mud, precipitated salt crystals, rocks, water, 1,500 x 15'. Photo: Nancy Holt, 1995. © Holt/Smithson Foundation and Dia Art Foundation / Artists Rights Society, New York.

In an unprecedented interpretation, Boettger compares the white crystals, black basalt, and incarnadine liquid to white blood cells overtaking red ones, a massive simulation of Harold’s leukemia that doubles as an extravagant analogy for the Eucharist. What had he written in that 1961 incantation? “A voice from the whirlpool of blood / Is crying out for vengeance.” The Spiral Jetty film’s famous scene of Smithson staggering to the work’s endpoint thus becomes the unwinding of a wound, a Jungian jog to the center of his unknown. Her analysis gathers surprising power, even as it feels like a retreat. If scholars such as Roberts have sought to redeem Smithson’s apathetic vision of history as a fatal, fracturing force by showing how his gyre ultimately releases the viewer to face the environment’s matrix of social and political relations, Boettger’s Jetty spirals unreachably inward, a monument to the suffering of a single bloodline.

Despite her book’s title, Boettger alights not on the spiral as Smithson’s true symbol, but on the ouroboros, citing Jung’s definition as “the dragon that devours, fertilizes, begets, and slays itself and brings itself to life again.” His death, in an airplane crash in West Texas, is portrayed as an Icarian inevitability, the artist demanding to get closer and closer to the site of his final work—Amarillo Ramp, 1973, an earthwork conceived as an ouroboric mound of dirt and rock and realized posthumously by Holt, Richard Serra, and Tony Shafrazi—until he was too close. And so the biographer crystallizes the Smithson brothers’ dark and irreversible symmetry.

Halfway through Inside the Spiral, we are told that Smithson had, knowingly or not, embellished his theory of entropy as an urgent cosmic countdown, as the second law of thermodynamics does not apply to open systems such as our own biosphere, which is, in fact, experiencing “negentropy,” or reverse entropy. Boettger’s book may be read as both an entropic text and a generative one, as it magnifies the meanings of her subject’s life and work while reducing it to the “all-encompassing sameness” of his unnamable etiology. “Revelation has no dimensions,” a young Robert Smithson wrote, words he never saw published. That his art appears larger after reading Inside the Spiral is as much a credit to his own capacious imagination as it is to Boettger’s ingenious attempts to contain it.

Zack Hatfield is a senior editor of