PRINT November 1972

Robert Smithson’s Development

SMITHSON’S SCULPTURE OF 1964–68 is regarded as belonging with Minimal art, but this view needs qualification, partly because of the way in which his later development throws retroactive light on earlier pieces. The reason for linking him with Minimal art is not hard to find: he made the connection himself. In an article of 1966, for example, he writes particularly about Flavin, Judd, LeWitt, and Morris1 and in 1968 discusses the writings of Andre, Flavin, Judd, LeWitt, Morris, and Ad Reinhardt.2 These names do not exhaust his references, but they amount to a primary emphasis. Aside from the evidence of his interests and associates, what about the style of his work in relation to the requirements of Minimal art? The canon certainly required a sculpture of neutral units, either modular or monolithic. Another expectation was inertness, a denial of visual animation and contrast. A third factor, proposed by Lucy Lippard, was the desire of the artists to “compete visually with their non-art surroundings” by means of “projects that would in fact create a new landscape made of sculpture rather than decorated by sculpture.”3 Whether this environmental impulse belongs properly to Minimal art can be contested if, as Lippard suggests, it begins with “Tony Smith’s long visualized ‘artificial landscapes without cultural precedent’.”4 Actually Smith makes big sculptures, sometimes at architectural scale, but their solid fabrication separates them fundamentally from the concept of a ”landscape made of sculpture.“ Lippard’s extrapolation of Minimal art to Earthworks is problematic in another way, inasmuch as she assumes Minimal art to be a fundamental stylistic entity. It is true that artists who were called Minimal produced Earthworks in and after 1968, but this does not make the later work dependent on Minimalism. What happened with Minimal art is that the very general reductive impulses of a period were consolidated and appropriated for a few artists. At any rate, what is clear on rereading contemporary criticism is that Smithson presented a problem to the critics who supported Minimal art as a movement. Typically in Lippard’s text quoted above, the main reference to Smithson concerns his article ”Entropy and the New Monuments" and not his sculpture.

What aspect of Smithson’s sculpture relates most closely to Minimal art? Obviously it is the use of modules to control repetitive arrays of forms. Though some of Smithson’s pieces employ an extendable module of fixed dimension, like LeWitt’s or Judd’s, the direction of his development is toward progressions with expanding sequences. The morphological difference between seriality and progression is considerable. The steps of these sequences are systematic but their complexity is in excess of the tolerances of Minimal art. Consider Smithson’s long steplike sculptures, such as Plunge, 1966: the intricacy of the units, ten of them expanding along the row at the rate of half an inch each time, deliberately opposes the notion of all-at-once graspability typical of the Minimalist application of Gestalt theory. It is true that LeWitt’s grids, as the parts become numerous, propose a visual display of overlapping partial and oblique views different from the given module in effect. The divergence of recipe and object is of course intentional, but can this be linked to Smithson’s interests? LeWitt’s precisely defined and repeatable ambiguities are easily learnable and, as such, have a kinship with Renaissance rational perspective platforms. Smithson, on the contrary, has a sense of collapsing systems which has far-reaching implications for his art. A clue to his attitude is contained in the title Alogon 1, 1966. This is a Pythagorean term for mathematical incommensurables, meaning “the unnamable” or “unutterable”; these were unaccountable imperfections in the numerical fabric of the universe, not mysteries, which is why they were not to be named or discussed.5 Jo Baer (who studied Greek) prepared a lexical note for Smithson on alogon: its senses include inexpressive, irrational, and unexpected as well as incommensurable. Alogon 1 has regular forms but the interplay of actual diminishment and the perspectival effect of tapering in the side views produce a sense of dislocated systems. Its cantilevered bulk resembles a massive corbel table, but with nothing to support, and the black matte paint, by reducing perceptible light changes, can be said to “slow” the light. The formality of the sculpture, therefore, confirms the title’s pessimistic reference to the limits of knowledge or to a system’s weak points.

Smithson’s intricacy and suspension of definite closure seem to me decisive separations from what Minimal art was supposed to be. In 1967–68 the tendency to complexity reached a climax in Smithson’s sculpture. One example is the project for the Dallas-Fort -Worth Regional Airport, a large spiral constructed of triangular concrete segments, flat on the ground, viewable as a whole form only from airborne planes. The spiral motif is developed three dimensionally in Gyrostasis in which twelve joined blocks, triangular in section, rise from the largest step which is also the base of the sculpture and diminish to form a suspended half-circle at the top. Here the tapering progression is not simply stretched in one direction, as in Plunge and Alogon 1, but made into a complex freestanding object: each straightedged step is clearly articulated and each is an episode along the flow of the spiral. The source of the spiral is in crystallography, as Smithson’s early sculpture Enantiomorphic Chambers, 1964, proves. An enantiotropic system is one for which "changes are completely reversible,”6 as in “a substance [which] when heated changes from form A to form B, the reverse change taking place on cooling.”7 In the sculpture two identical but reversed chambers are placed side by side with internal mirrors to double up the symmetry. The translation of a concept from crystallography to the structure of a work of art is typical of Smithson’s interest in the relationships of art and the world as opposed to an art isolated by its internal relationships. In this case he applies the reversible forms and the mirrors to a refutation of “the illusionistic plane of focus sometimes called the ‘picture plane.’”8

Coincident with his sculpture Smithson began a series of trips into the country in December, 1966, which he documented photographically. The first was to Great Notch Quarry, near Patterson, the visual record is of a desolate New Jersey landscape. Smithson has commented on his fondness for “sites that had been in some way disrupted or pulverized.”9 This means, as his practice from this time on confirms, that he is attending to landscape not only in terms of natural process but in terms of human intervention as well. Since the 19th century, man has shared in landscape formation at a scale comparable to that of geological process. The development of cities and industries with their attendant pollution has produced changes of the same order of magnitude as nature’s. Indeed it is no longer possible to separate man from nature and New Jersey, the California of the East, is one of the places where the geological network of faults and the human network of waste penetrate one another to form a unitary landscape. On an earlier trip to the quarry with Donald Judd, based on their “mutual interest in geology and mineralogy,” he wrote of its walls: “fragmentation, corrosion, de composition, disintegration, rock creep, debris slides, mud flow, avalanche were everywhere in evidence.”10 The fullness with which Smithson describes these traces of change is typical of his relish of collapsing systems. In fact, what he sees out there is related to the interpreting brain which, Smithson stresses, governs perception: “slump, debris slides, avalanches all take place within the cracking limits of the brain.”11 He does not tolerate ideas of man and nature in separation; his interest is in systems that contain both.

In April, 1966, he made a “site selection trip” to the Pine Barren Plains with Robert Morris, Carl Andre, Nancy Holt, and Virginia Dwan which culminated in the first nonsite. They subsequently tried to buy some land for an Earthwork exhibition there. In May, 1968, he wrote: “If one travels to southern New Jersey in order to see the origin of the nonsite, one may look around and say ‘Is this all there is?’ The Pine Barrens Plains are not much to look at. And the hexagonal map with its 30 subdivisions surrounding a hexagonal airfield may leave the participator wondering.”12 It is no accident that the cue for this first nonsite was an air field. Since July, 1966, Smithson had been an artist consultant to Tippets-Abbett-McCarthy Stratton (engineers and architects) on their projected Dallas-Fort Worth Regional Airport. To quote from his report: “The straight lines of landing fields and runways bring into existence a perception of ‘perspective’ that evades all our conceptions of nature.”13 ”The landscape begins to looks more like a three dimensional map rather than a rustic garden.”14 Thus there is a reference to a real but artificial object at the center of the hexagonal map. It is not only a question of real site and artificial nonsite; we must take into account the artificiality of the signified site as well as the concreteness of the soil samples in the Minimal art containers.

Nonsite, 1 was originally described as A Nonsite (indoor earthwork). Smithson was interested in the scale change, as between a signifier and the signified. A stubborn sculptural sense has always kept him aware of the mass and volume of absent signifieds; it is a sculpture of absence. The contraction of the world into more or less arbitrary designations led him to the concept of the “indoor earthwork” but his immediate revision of this paradox to a dialectic strengthened his position immensely. He equalized the ambiguities of both site and nonsite, nature and its analogue, presuming a common spectrum of artifice and abstraction. Site and nonsite constitute a collection of relationships among variables. The site is identified by information sup plied by the artist in the form of maps, photo graphs, analogical objects (bins and trays cued by the original lay of the land), rock samples, and verbal captions. The nonsite, by this accumulation of references, acts as the signifier of the absent site. What has happened is that the modules of Smithson’s abstract sculpture have been turned into maps. The coordinates of cartographical grids have replaced the ideal geometry of modular sculpture. This can be put another way, inasmuch as Smithson rejects Wilhelm Worringer’s dualistic system of abstraction and empathy. “Geometry strikes me as a ‘rendering’ of inanimate matter. What are the lattices and grids of pure abstraction, if not renderings and representations of a reduced order of nature?”15 Thus the significative role of the grid in the nonsites can be taken as a linguistic extension of the modules of Minimal art. Smithson defines the relation of site and nonsite as dialectical affirming its basis in “a changing reality with a material basis” (Random unabridged). Here is the artist’s list of the two terms:

1. Open limits
2. A series of points
3. Outer Coordinates
4. Subtraction
5. Indeterminate certainty
6. Scattered information
7. Reflection
8. Edge
9. Some place (physical)
10. Many

1. Closed limits
2. An array of matter
3. Inner coordinates
4. Addition
5. Determinate uncertainty
6. Contained information
7. Mirror
8. Center
9. No place (abstract)
10. One16

The names of several of the sites are evocatively “entropic,” to use a word that Smithson brought into the literature of art. Pine Barrens, Line of Wreckage, Edgewater, Mono Lake. This is in line with his skeptical view of the optimistic technology of 20th-century modernists, such as David Smith; Smithson proposes rust as “the fundamental property of steel.”17 This is an acknowledgement of the inevitability of decay and of change; the sites/nonsites are a meditation on the connection of these states to everything in the world. Site/Nonsite: Bayonne, Line of Wreckage, 1968, refers to a crumbling shore line in New Jersey which was being stabilized by clean fill. Smithson subtracted some of the broken concrete being used for this for the nonsite. It was characteristically a desolate place to be “redefined in terms of art,” to quote the artist. The Jersey swamps are here, masses of reeds that grow high enough to make the space they enclose indeterminate; the turnpike is close by, but it is hard to enter if you are off it; and the buildings are, Smithson observes, “essentially anonymous.” On a later visit Smithson discovered that the landscape had radically changed, with factories built out to the line of the recently completed fill. A part of what he likes about New Jersey is the fact that it is a “landscape in transition.” As the sites change, his nonsites take on increasingly the character of memorials to dead cities (or hypothetical continents). The nonsite system of references always has the possibility of canceling itself out.

The original location of Site/Nonsite: Edgewater, the Palisades, 1968, was discovered in a book on the geology of New York City by Christopher J. Schuberth. He discusses layers of sandstone, “the oldest exposed strata of the Newark series,” and basalt in the cliff face of the Palisades and describes “the right of way of the old trolley that connected the amusement park with the Edgewater–125th Street ferry until August 5, 1938.”18 The trolley bed climbs the cliff, through choking vegetation; it has become the corroded track of an occasional stream, littered with junk that has come down from adult discards to children’s playthings. There is a “large open clearing . . . where the trolley made a hairpin turn,” to quote Schuberth, now a clearing for nothing except a spectacular view over the suburban roofs of Edgewater across the Hudson River, to Manhattan. The site is a coalition of indeterminate time rates. There is a piece of 19th-century engineering almost effaced; by comparison the ancient and complex geology is intact. The prehistoric asserts its newness against old technology, for it is old compared to the 20th-century buildings in view across the river, and from which we come. Smithson’s photographs of the site record objects and spaces in trajectories of change.

The contrast of sense perception, on site, and abstraction, at the nonsite, is stretched further in Six Stops on a Section, 1968. To quote Smithson: “the section line is a 142 degree angle on an 1874 map of northern New Jersey, showing iron and limestone districts. Covering about sixty-three miles.” Along this line he selected the following sites, each characterized geologically: 1) Bergen Hill (gravel); 2) Second Mountain (stones); 3) Morris Plains (stones and sand); 4) Mount Hope (rocks and stones); 5) Lafayette (gravel); and 6) Dingman’s Ferry (slate). The first stop, also known as Laurel Hill, is a high outcrop of ancient trap rock, which is being quarried on one side for gravel. It sticks up rawly from the flat swamps; from the top is a view of the Newark skyline and a sight of the second stop. The quarrying operations have a long way to go before the outcrop is consumed, but the machines are munching away steadily. In Passaic Trip 1, 1967, Smithson made 24 photographs of a construction site along the river (published with six photographs in Artforum as “The Monuments of Passaic”).19 The ”monuments“ have not survived to 1972, except for the bridge and The Sand-Box Monument (also called The Desert) in Taras Shevchenko Park, which has been newly painted blue, orange, and gray. The sites/nonsites are not a dualistic system, such as, nature and art, true and false. On the contrary the same unstoppable rate of change and threat of entropy permeates both terms: ”it is the back-and-forth thing," as Smithson has observed.20 Neither site nor nonsite is a reliable source of fixed value, neither completely elucidates the other.

“On Saturday, September 30, 1967, I went to the Port Authority Building on 41st Street and 8th Avenue. I brought a copy of the New York Times and a Signet paperback called Earthworks by Brian W. Aldiss.”21 Then he took the bus to New Jersey on the excursion described in ”The Monuments of Passaic.“ In the proposals to Tippets-Abbett-McCarthy-Stratton, Smithson had already used the term: ”on the boundaries of the taxiways, runways, and approach ‘clear zones’ we might construct ‘earthworks’ or grid type frame works close to the ground level.”22 In fall, 1968, a group exhibition at the Dwan Gallery was called “Earthworks” and it was clear that a new tendency had been named. It was the large spaces around the airport that forced Smithson’s attention to a new scale of operation, eliciting the idea of an art of expanding thresholds. Returning to the bus: from the New York Times Smithson quotes a series of inanities about works of art, including the headline “Moving a 1000 Pound Sculpture Can Be a Fine Work of Art, Too.” From this it is a logical step to interpret the construction site as a series of monuments, such as Monuments with Pontoons: the Pumping Derrick, and The Fountain Monument. This monumentalizing of the quotidian relates to a basic turn of Smithson’s mind. He is not taking the Dada tradition of the found object and applying it to the newspaper and the construction site equally, but it is an anticipation of Conceptual art’s play with naming. It has more to do with the overlap of systems that, in one way or another, recurs through his work. The article is a documented inventory but Smithson imposes a convention on the data that we do not anticipate. It is, to use the original title, a “Guide to the Monuments of Passaic” and follows the perambulatory form of a guide book, including meditations on time and monuments. "Has Passaic re placed Rome as the eternal City? If certain cities of the world were placed end to end in a straight line according to size, starting with Rome, where would Passaic be in that impossible progression?”23 This is Six Stops on a Section translated into the city mobility and contracted time of science fiction. The guide is a fictionalized documentary, with a nitty-gritty iconography amplified into the grandeur of monumentality and ancient cities. The fluctuations and intersections of the two conventions seem closer to the way one handles the input of the world than any singlevalued interpretation of data would be.

Smithson is a brilliant writer with a vocabulary that includes knotty technical terms, adjectival largesse, broad references, and serpentine arguments. It is I think indicative that his spell of maximum writing, 1966–1969, coincides with the period when he was moving from sculpture to Earthworks, from an art of autonomous objects to an art penetrating the world and penetrated by sign systems. However, as pointed out earlier, his sculpture was prone to demonstrate complexity and artificiality, rather than summary wholeness and supposed inevitability (an illusory quality, in fact). Thus he seems always to have resisted the reductive and essentializing moves begun in the ’50s, and continued through the ’60s. He wrote mainly for two editors, Phil Leider of Artforum, five articles, and Sam Edwards of Arts and Art Voices, four articles. The central subject is his art or at least the ideas that inhabit and direct his art. He wrote about the Hayden Planetarium and science fiction, Art Deco and New Jersey, the writings of his fellow artists and art as a linguistic system, geology and Mexican mythology. To indicate both the specificity of his data and its discursive routes, I shall quote from the “Cretaceous” section of “Strata”:

Globigerina ooze and the blueish muds. Creta the Latin word for chalk (the chalk age). An article called Grottoes, Geology and the Gothic Revival. Philosophic Romances. Greensands accumulated over wide areas in shallow water. Upraised plateaux in Australia. Sediment samples. Conifers. Remains of a flightless bird discovered in a chalk pit. Causes of extinction unknown. The fabulous sea serpent. The classical attitude toward mountains is gloomy.24

By means of the sites/nonsites Smithson established a dialectic between outdoor and indoor locations. He was able to use the gallery not simply as a container for preexisting objects but brought it into a complex allusive relation to the absent site. Earthworks depended for their financing and for the distribution of information concerning them on the traditional resources of art dealers, but only Smithson figured out a way to use the support system as part of the meaning of the work. By comparison Michael Heizer, when he shows blown-up or small photographs in galleries, is settling for the simple situation of signaling an absent original by means of confirmatory documents. His photographs, as it were, say, yes there is a hill or a cut out there in a positivistic sense, whereas Smithson’s nonsite is epistemological. The mirror displacements, begun in the salt mine at Cayuga Lake, New York, 1969, climaxed later that year in the Yucatan series; here the problematics of the nonsite are carried into the site itself. A dozen mirrors, each 12 inches square, were arranged in various places, such as a field of ashes (“The people in this region clear land by burning it out”),25 a quarry, the seashore, the jungle. The manufactured 20th-century artifacts are not only set against the landscape, the images in the mirrors are of the environments, but dis placed by reflections. The reflections bring in the theme of duplication, a kind of mapping, but the reflections of light are endless and unpredictable; to quote the artist, they ”evade measure." The scattering of modular plates in the organic environment also has the effect of mixing the ordered and the unexpected. The mirrors act like the elements of the nonsite in their allusive signification.

Entropy is a loaded term in Smithson’s vocabulary. (It customarily means decreasing organization and, along with that, loss of distinctiveness.) Here are some examples from his writings which, since they come from the same source as his art, may be considered to provide information about the art. Referring to the construction site in Passaic, he observed: “That zero panorama seemed to contain ruins in reverse, that is—all the new construction that would eventually be built.”26 In his original article on entropy he stated “falseness, as an ultimate, is inextricably a part of entropy, and this falseness is devoid of moral implications.”27 Thus all systems of communication, to the extent that they are not one-to-one, have a false and indistinct aspect. Smithson applies the idea to time, as in his characterization of “the obsolete future of H. G. Wells’ The Shape of Things to Come (1938).”28 “The Jersey Swamps—a good location for a movie about life on Mars.”29 Basically Smithson’s idea of entropy concerns not only the deterioration of order, though he observes it attentively, ”but rather the clash of uncoordinated orders," to quote a formulation of Rudolph Arnheim’s.30

There is a shift in Smithson’s work to outdoor sites solely, large in scale, freed of significative bonds, which is marked by his Partially Buried Wood Shed, 1970, at Kent State University, Ohio. The measurements of the shed are 45’ x 18.6’ x 10.2’ high, but these figures do not describe the limits of Smithson’s work, only what was given. His original intention was to subject an existing hill to the pressure of a mud flow, but sub-zero temperatures defeated the plan. He had already used a truck in Asphalt Rundown the year before and now he used a backhoe on a tractor to pile dirt onto the shed until the central beam cracked. (In Smithson’s mind, among other things, as he set up this piece, were those science fiction movies in which amorphous beings inundate known structures and incorporate people, such as The Blob.) The man-made (in terms of structure and right-angles) and the inchoate (masses of soil) were brought together to create a stress situation: the work was finished when the beam broke, so that the timing of collapse is, in a sense, the work’s subject. Hence Smithson’s instructions when he donated the work to the university: “everything in the shed is part of the art and should not be removed. The entire work of art is subject to weathering and should be considered part of the work.”31

The Spiral Jetty, 1970, built on the north shore of the Great Salt Lake, is an expansion to literal scale of the capacious sign systems that Smithson had been dealing with since 1968. It’s a move into logistic complexity and an expanded technology. It can be described as a “post-studio” system of operation . After he had located the site Smithson took specifications for the job to a number of contractors, none of whom were willing to run the risk of moving heavy earth-moving equipment out into the shallows of the lake. Finally Parsons Asphalt Inc., Ogden, took the job, because of the personal interest of Robert Phillips in the problems it presented; the company had worked in the lake before, building straight and square dikes, but this was the first time they had had to construct curved embankments into the water. The working procedure on what was called Job No. 73 was as follows. Front-end loaders (Michigan Model 175) were used to burrow rocks out and to collect sand on the shore. Ten-wheeler dump trucks carried the load to the lake, backed out along the coil, and tipped it off the end. Here truck loaders (Caterpillar Model 955) placed the dumped rocks and tamped them down within the narrow limits set up by guide lines placed by Smithson. The technical difficulties were considerable and called on all the skills of the drivers, including the operational hunch that tells when the ground is too soft and likely to subside. The drivers, far from being ironic about a nonutilitarian project, appreciated the task as a challenge and would bring their families out to the site for picnics at which they could demonstrate their virtuosity. The machines tipped and jostled their way along the spiral as the new embankments grew. A crucial figure in the work was the foreman, Grant Boosenbarck, who responded to the problems of the unprecedented structure with canny skill and maintained the concentration of the workmen by his leadership.

The dimensions of Smithson’s work had been increasing since Asphalt Rundown, 1969, in which he tipped asphalt down the side of a quarry near Rome, Italy. The use of this sluggish material picks up an earlier theme, stated in the Tar Pool Project, 1966, and expanded conceptually in 1969 as Earth Map of Sulphur and Tar (Cambrian Period), a proposal for a model of the earth with (yellow) sulphur continents and (black) tar oceans to be constructed on a long axis of 400 feet. The viscous mud-asphalt theme is also present in Texas Overflow, a project of 1970, in which a plateau paved in asphalt is ringed by broken chunks of sulphur. When he came to operate in enlarged dimensions, the conditions of Smithson’s work changed drastically. He found himself out of the studio and no longer dependent on middle agents for the handling of his work. With the earth as his medium he had to deal directly with contractors, engineers, realtors, executives, and civic officials. This was true for both The Spiral Jetty and the Spiral Hill and Broken Circle at Emmen, Holland, and for a group of pending projects. For the Salton Sea, California, he has a proposal he has been discussing with city authorities for a work called Coastal Crescents, to measure 750 feet across. For the Egypt Valley, Ohio, there is a proposal under discussion with the Hanna Coal Company for reclamation of 1,000 acre tract of strip-mined country. The work is a jetty that combines elements of both spiral (a hornlike curve of beach) and circle (an arm of earth carried out into a lake). It is an expansion of ideas given in Broken Circle and Spiral Hill. Smithson wrote recently: “Across the country there are many mining areas, dis used quarries, and polluted lakes and rivers. One practical solution for the utilization of such devastated places would be land and water re-cycling in terms of ‘Earth Art’. . . . Economics, when abstracted from the world, is blind to natural processes.”32 Thus, as his works have expanded, as the contacts that make them possible have diversified, he has come to a situation in which he can manipulate directly the large-scale natural and man-made forces of which he has always been aware. Accompanying this expansion of operations the view he takes of galleries and museums has hardened, from the subtle accommodations of the site-nonsite relationship to what Smithson has described nicely as “a more succinct disclosure of limits.” In “Cultural Confinement” he emphasizes the limits of architectural display in term of privations rather than conventions.33

To return to the Spiral Jetty. Approaching it from the land you crest a low ridge and there, in front of and below you, is the spiral, spun out into the flat reddish water. It is securely locked to the shore, both materially and morphologically. It is 1500 feet from the top of the ridge out to the tip of the coil which measures about 15 feet across, just enough to support the trucks. The fill is made up of 3,500 cubic yards of boulders and earth; each cubic yard weighs 3,800 pounds, which means that a total of 6,650 tons was moved to constitute the embankment. These statistics, which should be read as the equivalent of a technical description, such as oil on canvas or watercolor on paper, indicate scale. Walking along the spiral lifts one out into the water into a breathless experience of horizontality. The lake stretches away until finally there is a ripple of distant mountains and close around one the shore crumbles down into the water, echoing the mountains. From this point of view the spiral is a low trail of stones and rocks, resting on the water like a leaf on a stream. It is a moist and earthy causeway with salt caking on the rocks and on the visitor. The landscape is openly geologic, evoking past time with placid insistence.

Concurrently with the Earthwork Smithson made a film which shows its construction and, after completion, its vertiginous relation to water and sun. The film is both a record and a representative work by Smithson as well. The sculpture and the film are related like site and nonsite, though with a new amplitude of re sources and references. “The sites in films are not to be located or trusted,” Smithson has observed.34 In the film he declines to use the horizontal expanse of the site. As in his still photography he likes low-profile imagery. The typical camera angle is, so to say, slightly stooped, with little sky visible, or close up. The machines are mostly shot in close-up, looming on the screen, biting earth, emitting rocks: they are compared to prehistoric animals in a technological-prehistorical analogy. In various ways the theme of time runs through the film. The present acts of construction (earthmoving) are compared to earth’s past. The ancient geological formations constitute a time-bound present and the sequence in the Hall of the Late Dinosaurs in the Museum of Natural History implies futurity. The sequence was shot with a red filter to suggest an entropic equalization of energy. “Nothing has ever changed since I have been here,” says Smithson on the soundtrack, matching the drained images to Samuel Beckett’s The Unnamable (Alogon). Thus the photographic record of present activity, the building of the jetty, is set into a context of great duration. The long final sequence, photo graphed from .a helicopter, abolishes the low keyed style that the film maintains until this point. The climactic sequence fuses water and sun as the camera picks up the sun’s reflections in the lake and in the channels of water that infiltrate the spiral to its center. Here the reflected solar imagery, an enormous “displacement,” produces an exhilarating world picture. The sound track at this point includes a quotation from The Time Stream by John Taine referring to “a vast spiral nebula of innumerable suns.”35 The quotation is apt but it is typical of Smithson’s double takes, his sense of perpetual reservation, that the story should be old-fashioned science fiction, published originally in 1932. In an early sequence, establishing the ubiquity of spirals and “introducing” the sun, the sound track records the wheezes of the bag of a respirator machine. It is as if to say the sun is burning up, but it is still alive. At the close of the film, after the solar and water spectacular (a planetary amplification of Smithson’s original Dallas-Fort Worth Airport ideas), Smith son himself appears running into the spiral, pursued by the helicopter though only for the purpose of photographing him. When he gets to the center he pauses, then starts to walk back, a factual, deflationary detail, typical of Smithson’s la conic but undeviating anti-idealism.

What is remarkable about Smithson’s work in the past ten years is both the distance of ground covered in his move from sculpture to Earthworks without any break in the continuity of his generating ideas. He has a built-in sense of permeability, possibly parallel to his interest in geology, the subject of which is matter in perpetual stress, overlapping, and penetration. The ways in which modules turned into mapping and mapping into sites are examples of the course of one idea into and through another. To this can be added the diffusion of his early experiences in New Jersey, where he was born and raised, into his later investigations of the same landscape. The Pines Barrens, for instance, was an area he had frequented long before he brought it into the area of art. “Since I was a kid,” Smithson remembers, he had been interested in crystals after an uncle, who worked for the Hammond Map Company, gave him a quartz crystal. The point is that the landscape and its systems of ordering have been familiar to Smithson most of his life and their presence can be felt on every level of his art and thinking. He is not building barriers around fragments of personality or stylistic innovation, as happened with a good deal of art in the ’60s. He does not attempt to fix reality in a permanent form by means of art, but demonstrates a sustained and interlocked view of a per meant reality.

Lawrence Alloway



1. Robert Smithson, “Entropy and the New Monuments,” Artforum, June, 1966, pp. 26–31.

2. Robert Smithson, “A Museum of Language in the Vicinity of Art,” Art International, March, 1968, pp. 21–27.

3. Lucy Lippard, “10 Structurists in 20 Paragraphs,” Minimal Art, Haags Gemeentemuseum, 1968, p. 30.

4. Ibid.

5. Tobias Dantzig, Number: the Language of Science, New York, 1954, p. 103. (All books cited here are in Smithson’s possession.)

6. Ajit Ram Verma and P. Krishna, Polymorphism and Polytypism in Crystals, New York, 1966, pp. 20–21.

7. Ibid., p. 10.

8. Robert Smithson, “Pointless Vanishing Points,” Typescript, 1967.

9. “Discussions with Heizer, Oppenheim, Smithson,” Avalanche, Fall, 1970, pp. 48–71.

10: Robert Smithson, “The Crystal Land,” Harper’s Bazaar, May, 1966.

11. Robert Smithson, “A Sedimentation of the Mind: Earth Projects,” Artforum, September, 1968, pp. 44–50.

12. Robert Smithson, “Participation Degree Zero,” Typescript, 1968.

13. Robert Smithson, “Aerial Art,” Studio International, April, 1969, pp. 180–181. (Smithson invited the collaboration of Andre, LeWitt and Morris.)

14. Ibid.

15. Robert Smithson, “Nature and Abstraction,” Typescript, 1971. Cf. “Language to be looked at and/or things to be read,” press release, Dwan Gallery, New York, 1967. (Pseudonym for Smithson: Eton Corrasable.)

16. Robert Smithson, “Dialectic of Site and Nonsite,” in Gerry Schum, Land Art, Berlin, 1969, n.p.

17. Robert Smithson, “A Sedimentation of the Mind: Earth Projects,” p. 46.

18. Christopher J. Schuberth, The Geology of New York City and Environs, Natural History Press, 1968, pp. 232–236.

19. Robert Smithson, “The Monuments of Passaic,” Artforum, December, 1967, pp. 48–51.

20. Earth Art, Andrew Dickson White Museum of Art, Cornell University, exhibition catalogue 1970, Robert Smithson et al., “Symposium,” n.p.

21. Robert Smithson, “The Monuments of Passaic,” p. 48.

22. Robert Smithson, “Aerial Art.”

23. Robert Smithson, “The Monuments of Passaic,” p. 51.

24. Robert Smithson, “Strata: A Geophotographic Fiction,” Aspen, 8, 1967.

25. Robert Smithson, “Incidents of Mirror Travel in the Yucatan,” Artforum, September, 1969, pp. 28–33. The title of course is a paraphrase of the brilliant travel book, Incidents of Travel in Yucatan, by John L. Stephens.

26. Robert Smithson, “The Monuments of Passaic,” p. 50.

27. Smithson, “Entropy and the New Monuments,” p. 29.

28. Robert Smithson, “Ultra-Moderne,” Arts, September-October, 1967, pp. 31–33.

29. Robert Smithson, “The Crystal Land.”

30. Rudolph Arnheim, Entrophy and Art, University of California, 1971, p. 15.

31. Robert Smithson, Typescript, 1970.

32. Robert Smithson, Typescript, 1972.

33. Robert Smithson, “Cultural Confinement,” Artforum, October, 1972, p. 39.

34. Robert Smithson, “A Cinematic Atopia,” Artforum, September, 1971, pp. 53–55.

35. John Taine, Three Science Fiction Novels (including The Time Stream), 1964.


“Donald Judd,” Seven Sculptors, Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania, 1965.

“Robert Smithson: ‘Interpolation of the Enantiomorphic Chambers,’” Finch College, Art and Process, 1, 1966.

“The Crystal Land,” Harper’s Bazaar, May, 1966.

“Entropy and the New Monuments,” Artforum, June, 1966, pp. 26–31.

“The Domain of the Great Bear,” Art Voices, Fall, 1966, pp. 44–51. (Written with Mel Bochner who wrote pp. 44, 45; the rest is by Smithson.)

“Quasi-Infinities and the Waning of Space,” Arts, November, 1966, pp. 28–31.

“Some Void Thoughts on Museums,” Arts, February, 1967, p. 41.

“Toward the Development of an Air Terminal Site,” Artforum, June, 1967, pp. 36–40.

"Language to be Looked at and or things to be read,” Dwan Gallery press release, 1967.

“Ultra-Moderne,” Arts, September–October, 1967, pp. 31–33.

“The Monuments of Passaic,” Artforum, December, 1967. pp. 48–51.

“Dialogue with Allan Kaprow, What is a Museum?” Arts Yearbook, 1967, pp. 94–101.

“Strata: a Geophotographic Fiction,” Aspen, 8, 1967.

“A Museum of Language in the Vicinity of Art,” Art International, March, 1968, pp. 21–27.

“The Establishment,” Metro, June, 1968.

“Minus Twelve,” Minimal Art, ed. by Gregory Battcock, New York, 1968, pp. 402–406.

“Smithson’s Nonsite Sights,” Interview by Anthony Robbins, Art News, February, 1969, p. 50.

“A Sedimentation of the Mind: Earth Projects,” Artforum, September, 1968, pp. 44–50.

“Aerial Art,” Studio International, February/April, 1969, pp. 180–181.

“Incidents of Mirror Travel in the Yucatan,” Artforum, September, 1969, pp. 28–33.

Andrew Dickson White Museum of Art, Cornell University, 1970. Earth Art. “Symposium.” Smithson et al., n.p.

“Discussions with Heizer, Oppenheim, Smithson,” Avalanche, Fall, 1970, pp. 48–71.

Dwan Gallery, “The Spiral Jetty,” 1970, Poster for the film in the form of a story board.

“A Cinematic Atopia,” Artforum, September, 1971, pp. 53–55.

“. . . the Earth, Subject to Cataclysms, is a Cruel Master,” Interview by Gregoire Muller, Arts, November, 1971, pp. 36–41.

“The Spiral Jetty,” Arts of the Environment, ed. by G. Kepes, New York, 1972. pp. 222–232.

“Cultural Confinement,” Artforum, October, 1972, p. 39.


Nonsite 1, Pine Barrens, New Jersey.

Nonsite 2, Franklin Mineral Dumps, New Jersey.

Nonsite 3, Bayonne, New Jersey: Line of Wreckage.
Broken concrete.

Nonsite 4, Edgewater, The Palisades, New Jersey.
Trap rock.
Source: Christopher J. Schuberth, The Geology of New York City and Environs, pp. 232–236.

Nonsite 5, Mono Lake, California.

Nonsite 6, Oberhausen, Germany.
Bernard Becher acted as guide through the Ruhr District.

Nonsite 7, site uncertain.
Based on a hypothetical map of the Carboniferous Period, somewhere in the midwestern United States.

Double Nonsite.
Baker-Kelso, California. Lava.
Source: Mary Francis Strong, Desert Gem Trails, p. 61.

Mineral County, Nevada. Obsidian.
Source: Cora B. Houghtaling, Rock Hounding Out of Bishop, p. 11.

Six Stops on a Section.
1) Bergen Hill (gravel); 2) Second Mountain (sandstone); 3) Morris Plains (stones and sand); 4) Mount Hope (rocks and stones); 5) LaFayette (gravel); 6) Dingman’s Ferry (slate).