Robert Smithson

James Cohan Gallery | Lower East Side
291 Grand Street
November 21, 2015–December 23, 2015

Robert Smithson, Untitled [Pink linoleum center], 1964, collage and colored pencil on paper, 30 x 22".

“Pop,” the inaugural exhibition of James Cohan’s new Lower East Side space, brings together seventeen of Robert “Spiral Jetty” Smithson’s surprising deep cuts. These campy mixed-media drawings and assemblages are very weird, but their curious qualities pale in comparison to the curious fact of their existence in the first place. It’s mind-boggling and fun to try and reconcile these early experiments—sort of terrible, sort of great—with the radical writings and Earthworks that came on their heels.

In the drawings, which resemble meticulous studies for altarpiece panels, nude figures seemingly copied from porn are outlined in pencil and flatly colored in. Winged pinup girls in garters and hunky cowboys stripped down to their accessories float alongside neon zigzags, stars, blobs, and text to form decorative borders for central images or collage elements, such as the reproduction of the classical sculpture in Untitled [Venus with lightning bolts], or the yucky-textured, compositionally domineering rectangle pasted onto Untitled [Pink linoleum center], both from 1964.

The show’s publication includes a 1972 interview with the artist that touches on his motivation in pairing this distinctly lowbrow graphic style with art-historical and Christian references. In Pollock and de Kooning, his big teen influences, he detected a problematic religious “anthropomorphism . . . somehow seething underneath all those masses of paint.” Perhaps in the naughty bisexual figuration of Smithson’s penciled designs, there’s a riposte to their blind spot. But if you don’t accept this theory of smirking juvenilia, no doubt you’ll find something else of interest seething below the surface of this inspiringly bizarre young work.

Johanna Fateman