“New Jersey as Non-Site”

Princeton University Art Museum
Princeton University
October 5, 2013–January 5, 2014

Robert Smithson, Nonsite: Line of Wreckage (Bayonne, NJ), 1968, painted aluminum container with broken concrete, framed map, and three photo panels, dimensions variable.

The public’s perception of Land art is ruled by individual sites: a grid of steel poles in New Mexico, a curl of earth in a salt lake in Utah, saffron gates in Central Park, and so on. This exhibition, curated by Kelly Baum, successfully argues for a larger view that aggregates the work from a fixed period (between 1950 and 1975) and a single place (New Jersey) based on the confluence of influential artists and works created within the state. “New Jersey as Non-Site” celebrates the state’s gritty, desolate, and devastated aspects, staking a claim for a working-class Land art as opposed to that of a majestic, uninhabited landscape.

From the photographs of Dan Graham to Gordon Matta-Clark’s Splitting, 1974, working-class homes become abstracted, linear objects—stark, cookie-cutter homes and abandoned structures, all material that could be freely appropriated. Likewise, the prevalence of construction sites off the New Jersey Turnpike made overturned soil and man-made pits a constant in the landscape, and an easy source for materials. Michelle Stuart acquired rose- and beige-hued soil samples from a quarry off the Turnpike in Sayreville and embedded the dirt onto paper with photographs of the quarry below, creating both a beautifully pigmented surface as well as a geological record of the man-made pit. In contrast, Charles Simonds’s films (1972–74) depicting the artist nude, rolling in the vibrant New Jersey dirt evoke a primal landscape in which the soil becomes a potent, ritualistic material.

“New Jersey as Non-Site” also emphasizes the importance of universities, which brought artists to the area as faculty. George Segal’s farm was a locus of this, acting as the site of happenings and performances including Robert Watts’s proto-Fluxus event Yam Festival (1962–63). Segal and Watts concurrently taught at Rutgers; these positions brought them into contact with Allan Kaprow, George Brecht, and John Cage, who would meet to discuss what they called an art form of the future, one that incorporated movement, scent, and sound. As the list of works grows, the impact of these Jersey-based artworks becomes undeniable, but the exhibition resists privileging site-specificity over personality, instead stressing the fertility of highways and suburbia as artistic media.

— Lilly Lampe