PRINT October 1979


The Writings of Robert Smithson

The Writings of Robert Smithson, ed. Nancy Holt (New York, New York University Press, 1979), 221 pages, 220 black and white illustrations.

Artists-as-artists, Ad Reinhardt wrote, say the same thing—repetitive nothing is the subject of their work—but Robert Smithson, the guardian of impurity, had a very great deal to express. Those party to his late-night ramblings at Max’s could have these dictates readily. There the vituperative tongue and wide-ranging intellect held court until all hours. But for the rest, it seemed, there were other sources to contact. In the late 1960s one could expect regular reports from the fringes, permeating the Minimal core. Smithson’s opinions were broadcast regularly in the pages of magazines, generally Artforum (through the encouragement of Philip Leider), but also Arts, Art News and others. From 1966 to 1973 perhaps two dozen pieces appeared—substantial for any critic, let alone an artist. Some, like “The Monuments of Passaic” (1967), “A Sedimentation of the Mind: Earth Projects” (1968), “Frederick Law Olmstead and the Dialectical Landscape” (1973) became minor monuments, key documents for all concerned with this transitional period in American art.

But when Smithson died in a plane crash in 1973, leaving a small completed oeuvre and the horde of writings, their status became increasingly uncertain, Strange fare for the ’50s, with its credo of “Don’t talk; Paint,” they were hardly so to his own generation, who saw him as reviving the artist-intellectual. The size of his output, joined to inaccessibility and its temporal nature, helped to foster speculation on the importance of Smithson’s words. For many, indeed, the texts contained his most seminal insights. When Arts Magazine published a special issue on his work (May 1978) the verbal outweighed the visual. Smithson, the man who “gave” us entropy and the dialectical landscape, who battled against the object and immortalized the suburbs’ eroding monuments, seemed to raise the question of just what should become his own monument.

The Writings of Robert Smithson is one in a series of books on or by artists published by New York University Press. (The preceding ones are Donald Judd: Complete Writings 1959–1975 and Eva Hesse, by Lucy Lippard.) It fulfills a wish voiced by the artist several years before his death for a complete receuil, and is a collaborative effort, edited by his widow, the sculptor Nancy Holt, introduced by Philip Leider, and handsomely designed by his colleague Sol LeWitt. Ample illustrations fit out the texts, and wherever possible Smithson’s layouts have been used, so that important designs like the Decoid styling of “Ultramoderne” (1967) and the “earthword” layerings in “Strata: A Geophotographic Fiction” (1972) are preserved. The texts themselves, hailed as a total collection, are of three general sorts: formal published articles; transcribed panel discussions and interviews; and a group of unpublished articles, press releases, notes and occasional texts. Letters, journals and informal remains that might, as inside information, illuminate idiosyncrasies et al. are excluded: this is a collection of formed writings, aimed at delineating perspective and presenting the artist as writer.

How precisely to interpret Smithson’s role as writer, though, is perhaps more problematic. These 50-odd texts span a career, marking and enlarging key concerns to shape a context for his art. We can scan them as indices of artistic aims—the classic mode for judging artists’ words, which seeks a one-to-one relation of text to art—noting how issues emerge, shift or intensify according to artistic predilections. The artist-writer, viewed this way and spotlit by chronological arrangement, writes himself. Thus the early texts (1966–67) encircle Smithson’s eccentric Minimalism, describing his and others’ art in terms of slowed-down “entropic” form. Then the site/non-site theme is announced, buttressed and, increasingly, subsumed by dialectical theory. In the pieces beginning in 1968 the earthwork phase is enunciated, and the issues become markedly complex.

But we can also view them historically, noting the way single oeuvres come to signify periods or traditions, heeding Smithson less as his own advocate than as agent for late ’60s concerns that were developed in the ’70s. Here they belong within a general trend, exemplified by Bochner, Morris and Judd, for artists to assume the plural roles of critics and exegetes of new art. Here, too, we run against the kind of claims in the biography and introduction (“Until Robert Smithson arrived on the art scene . . .”) for Smithson as a “revolutionary,” a turning point in American art and a sort of post-Pollock messiah. This watershed urge has been flamed by Smithson’s drive and fueled by personal mystique. And undoubtedly it contains valid elements: Smithson’s speculations became simple truths for an entire generation of artists. But whether they were determinants, antecedents or reflections of transformations is, historically, harder to tell.

He appears in the writings themselves not in mystical robes (the cult figure status was to follow later) but in a quasi-barometric function, antedating certain developments, acting the role of artist-as-agitator, opening specific areas for perusal while closing others—like Modernist formalism—regarded as long overdue. A variety of voices resonate here: Smithson as art conscience, championing an economically “innocent” art; Smithson as messianic defender of the earth; Smithson as the exegete and promoter of a distinct genre and historical preoccupation. What these writings convey, devoid of exaggerated readings, is the artist acting as spokesman for a generation beginning to sense the inadequacy of traditional “rational” esthetic categories (painting, sculpture, architecture) and to propose, as a solution, an expanded artistic field. What we now call postmodernism is articulated here, as played against orthodox purism. There are constellations of cavils, linking immanent criticism and rationalism, senseless “visual” artifacts and formalist dogma, progress and the avant-garde. Paul Cummings’ interview (1972) and one with Moira Roth (1973) show Smithson’s grasp of the history of transcendental abstraction, its literary parallels and their critical paradigms. Allusions to Eliot, Pound and Wyndham Lewis elaborate the lineaments of this critical awareness, drawing attention to the politics of form, and formal consciousness itself.

In purely artistic terms, texts like “A Sedimentation of the Mind: Earth Projects” (1968) shows Smithson placing himself against the sculptural example of Caro, and his critical defense by Greenberg and Fried, to evolve, from this embattled position, a more intricate texture of art (Leider somewhat wryly comments in his introduction that the touchstone which Caro’s Prairie never became was instead the Spiral Jetty). This kind of tactical maneuver is classic in the internal development of art, yet rarely is it so documented or explored as in these texts. Although the immediate event was that shifting province embracing earthworks, environments and sited sculpture (and though the major theory—it has been scantily, if frequently, discussed—is given in these texts), Smithson’s recurring themes sketch a sensibility radically distinct from its predecessors and seminal to its followers. The notion of the studio-spawned, museum-enclosed object, buttressed by idealist philosophy and sanctioned by market value, is squared against its rephrasing related to land, class, labor and time, and found wanting.

Indeed, the terms describing the general ethical context of this enterprise furnish a sort of lingua franca for the ’70s. Consider the mutterings against cultural confinement—against the white-wall gallery, the museum as graveyard and the categorization of art. These complaints, registered in Smithson’s early writings, provide the core of the statement forming his Documenta entry for 1972. “A work of art when placed in a gallery loses its charge, and becomes a portable object or surface disengaged from the outside world.” It is a common refrain now, this protestation of fetishism, but we may forget that Smithson was among the first to articulate it. That “framing” objects by galleries becomes an exercise in double entendre is its legacy, just as that modern art history can be related to its perceptual spaces is central to its approach. The way hanging and general context impose value and interpretation is repeated again and again, to comprise a linking leitmotif for these texts. Thus, railing against bourgeois insensitivity to site, Smithson notes, with tongue in cheek, that “the public ‘sculpture garden’ for the most part is an outdoor ‘room’ that in time becomes a limbo of modernisms” (1968; p. 91). As in “Some Void Thoughts on Museums” (1967), art history becomes the neutralizer of its object—a slender confine removing art from the world, blocking its efficacy, transforming it into commodity. Criticism, similarly, “appeals to a society that values only commodity type art separated from the artist’s mind,” so that “a commodity value can be maintained by a system independent of the artist” (1968; p.90).

That the political core of art was to provide a capital subject for the ’70s is here recognized and affirmed. In a discussion with Bruce Kurtz that is among the best of its kind (1972), Smithson notes the artist’s estrangement from his product and remarks: “This is the great issue, I think it will be the growing issue of the seventies: the investigation of the apparatus the artist is threaded through.” The idea of a network characterized by a densely reticulated structure surrounding art’s actual production is juxtaposed with a previous sensibility stressing isolation, neutrality, separation. In another section, discussing photographs and films, Smithson posits “an alternative value system where actually artists might be more in control of their own value” in timely terms, given recent claims for video, multiples and artists’ books.

Smithson tended to see his world in modernist black and dialectic white, a belligerent narrowness that is his least appealing quality. In a tenaciously invoked antithesis, idealism joins with formal purity to battle against the opposing materialist camp. These lists of oppositions link up across his texts in imbricated clusters of gripes. Hence Duchamp is discredited because he is not dialectical; the “spiritualist of Woolworth,” he trades on the alienated object, bestowing on manufactured goods a mysticism which, for all its ironic force, becomes the summit of puristic abstraction. A false equation between modernism and the gallery animates this polarity, despite assertions of historical reversal (“Duchamp is really more in line with postmodernism insofar as he is very knowledgeable about the modernist traditions but disdains them” (1973; p. 197). Similarly, modernism viewed politically becomes Fascism, opposed to the “democratic dialectic between the sylvan and the industrial” evident in Olmstead and Price. Elsewhere, the texts show Smithson’s tendency to appropriate and use—hence abuse—sources to his own ideological ends. How far Smithson would go to make a point or stack an argument was considerable, and hardly flattering. Thus Pollock’s “oceanic” work becomes a geological process; more than “a physical metaphor without realism or naturalism,” it is an instance of “interest in geological artifices,” something undoubtedly foreign to Pollock’s own mind. This, as William Wilson once noted, is theoretical wishful thinking, as Smithson uses Pollock to his own ends, attending only to those qualities which are evident in his own art.

But if there is something petulant in Smithson’s hammering away at idealist philosophy, and something narrow in his constant call to polarities, there is also something remarkably ingenious in his ability to marshall these varied terms into the unifying metaphor of time. Time, in these texts, is viewed not only as change (the motive of dialectics) and the attribute of entropy (Smithson described himself as hallucinating on “one pebble moving one foot in two billion years”), but as thought’s organizing medium, the coordinate on which we array our apprehensions of the world.

Thus an early piece, the 1966 “Quasi-Infinities and the Waning of Space,” shows how we perceive through time, not space, reversing the terms of art apprehension. Modernism, progress and art history are seen falsely grounded in biological time, the linear sequence of past, present and future, countered by the “crystalline” physical chronos. This is hardly a new position, but what is original is the way it both nurtures the rationale for earthworks and provides a model for sensory perception. Thus, just as the earth becomes “a jumbled museum,” “a text that contains limits and boundaries which evade the rational order, and social structures which confine art,” and in which the present “falls forward and backward into a tumult of ‘de-differentiation’ ” (1968; p.89), so too the terms of proliferation get applied to the cosmos of small perceptions. We see the world, in Faustian terms, both large and small: “What seems to be without order, often turns out to be highly ordered. By isolating the most unstable thing, we can arrive at some kind of coherence, at least for awhile. . . . But no sooner have we fixed the order in our mind than it dissolves into limbo . . . tangled jungles, blind paths, secret passages, lost cities invade our perception . . . (1971: p.107).” The past’s cities and the future’s intimations mingle within this oceanic world of teeming relations, furnishing a more accurate model of “lived” sensation than does rational thought. A complicated interplay is developed between erosion, as the chaos of time; illusion or ficticity; and the absence of any ultimate order. It is a relation wreaking havoc with both the human urge for coherence and the formalist love of gestalt. Each glance yields a different perspective; perspectives are but relations; this relativism denies both the possibility of categories and the entity of discrete “things.” Meaning, reason’s last refuge, is here shown defeated by time and subsumed by the multiplicity of perception.

In the 1966 “Crystal Land,” the allure of the mineral is already pronounced, as geological structure confirms a universe not founded on organic “nature.” (Interestingly Smithson’s followers have often abused these original insights. How many projects-in-nature, based on environmental dialectics, embrace a reverence for the organic alien to his anti-organic approach. Dialectical process and organic interpretation are thereby confused.) Elsewhere, temporality rhymes with realism. Some nice points in “A Museum . . .” touch on the 18th and 19th-century novel, its linear scan and its obliviousness to time as both “mental structure” and “abstract support” (1968; p.71). Such terms, like photography coupled to dead time, accentuate the lexicon of Smithson’s language. In “Ultramodeme,” a meditation on “prismatic” ’30s time, allusions to other eras and to Latin literature are employed to project the rediscovery of this ahistorical sense: “The direction of ‘art-time’ has since the ’fifties tended toward France, along the line of progress from the avant-garde, but that line appears to be shifting away from France and Europe toward South America and India. In fact the one line of the avant-garde is forking, breaking and becoming many lines.” (1967; p.50). It is Borges played against Berenson, Fuentes rather than Mifflin.

In the Kurtz interview, voicing the need for an “archaeology of the artworld,” Smithson remarks, “I’m trying to make it conscious . . .” It seems a rather patronizing approach, this stance of mental messiah, and it takes on a number of different tones, from the visionary down to the bitchy, sniping provocateur. The dextrous tongue here weds acerbic wit. Reading these texts, one has that uncomfortable feeling, common to artists’ critical works, that everything seems to culminate in the example of Smithson’s art. The author implicitly, if far from methodically, eliminates all other options, so that the Spiral Jetty achieves a sort of celebrated status, as an exemplary cure-all for art-ills.

Some of this is unavoidable for the artist: obviously he makes what he makes from a sense of necessity, assessing the situation as it exists. Obviously, too, Smithson savored his role as the savage in this Jarryesque artistic purge. But the relation between Smithson’s acid attacks, esthetic opinions and his own art is more complicated. This is no Reinhardt, after all, though Smithson respected Reinhardt. Rather, the texts represent one of those rare encounters between verbal skills, combative temperament and a specific historic moment. The combination of patronage, historical overdetermination and political fervor characteristic of the late ’60s demanded an appropriate answer, an image of art in all its complex relations, which the esthetic of earthworks, if not their actual effect, provided. For all the moral claims made for modernist self-criticism, the issues its successors generated were more authentically ethical in scope.

Ultimately, this mixture of personal interest and historic mission, individual sentiment and communal voice is what confers on these writings their own peculiar cast. It’s interesting to scan the issues which emerge from the vantage of historical hindsight. Beyond modernism’s role in Smithson’s discourse there is a wonderful description, by way of discussion of siting, of the Caroesque sculptural school. The image of yellow steel framed by daffodils and reframed by the borders of House and Garden plays up to perfection the bourgeois decorativeness so often attendant on formalist “difficulty.” Michael Fried’s antitheatrical injunctions—infamous, and inversely influential, terms—are answered in a piece from 1967. Still other texts are raucous maunderings, betraying the polemicist’s tool of extreme statement. Exaggeration turns to absurdity in Smithson’s manic need to force a point to emergence. In “Some Void Thoughts on Museums,” for instance, the travelogue idiom gets applied to a perambulation of museological abstractions. The eye/mind moves from null to nil: “Anachronisms hang and protrude from every angle. Themes without meaning press on the eye. Multifarious nothings permute into false windows (frames) that open up on a verity of blanks. Stale images cancel one’s perceptions and and deviate one’s motivation . . . Brain drain leads to eye drain . . . (1967; p.58).”

A bleak vision, but a near-perfect parody of the modernist “progression” through the closing doors of esthetic options. Elsewhere, statements condemning the hand, and technique in general, emit a timely ring. Others rank up as common gripes. “Art critics,” Smithson writes, “are generally poets who have betrayed their art . . .,” using an overworked ploy to signal a rising sense of artistic authority.

Remembering the anti-painting bent of Minimalism, what are we to make of such a dictum, uttered in 1968: “There is nothing abstract about any kind of painting—it all represents space”? Pictorial representation is here condemned as a mental product, the surrogate of ideal form. And prescriptive criticism masks personal predilection, as it is sensed on the part of an entire generation. Thus, echoing the contemporary attention to Robbe-Grillet and his efforts to rid writing of vestiges of subjectivity, we hear Smithson’s intonations again from 1968: “Any kind of expressionism involves the pathetic remains of the self.”

Where can we place these texts, then, honoring both their personal role and their historical effect? They occupy an uneasy, ambiguous, altogether original territory in the realm of artists’ writings which alternate between personal recollection, system-building of an informal sort, and that most common (and common to American artists) form, the statement. Smithson, for all his aphoristic gifts, made few statements. He was an outsider to theoretical form, an insider to its impact. Yet despite their distance from detachment and formal argument, his texts are more effective, as theory, than the more pointed efforts by previous artists. Mondrian would have flunked freshman philosophy. Malevich’s texts are impacted amalgams of conflicting opinions, the opposite of cogent discours. What gives these works their efficacy, and their particular interest among artists’ words, is the relation between a stylistic approach and the esthetic information invoked.

What emerges from Smithson’s varied literary modes is not a stylist in search of a subject, or a theorist using language as thought’s instrument, but an artist researching a verbal style adequate to expressively convey, and embody, his point. No theorist would so energetically sound the crevasses of words, the fissures and failures of language, within the context of his writing style. In essays like “Incidents of Mirror-Travel in the Yucatan” (1968), theory, information and esthetic intent are so skillfully secreted within the inner lubrications of words as to be comprehensible to only the most adept of readers. Smithson was a precise and committed writer, not purely a limner of ideas. Words move across the page in jagged or overflowing patterns. The texts halt and stammer, then flow eruptively or abruptly end. They assume, in their explosion and evanescence, many material properties of earthworks, and we seem to read them as if within a sensuous field, scanning perspectives, surveying alternatives, mirroring the processes of a sensibility in action.

Indeed, the travelogue idiom, in which “Olmstead,” “The New Monuments” and “Monuments of Passaic” are phrased, provides a functional metaphor for this approach, the opposite of a priori knowledge and idealism, in which the mind is immersed in the conditions it describes and consciousness parallels geological change. A journey through time and the landscape, it is also movement through the forming body of knowledge. Evocation, not explanation, is accentuated. As phenomenological rambles, these texts were modeled on a travel genre, the 18th-century picturesque. But they also echo to such literary structures as the bildungsroman, in which the journey symbolizes growth and the progression toward knowledge, initiated from nothing.

That Smithson, with his interest in time, would be drawn to literature is only natural: literature is a time-machine, in which the linear scan of the page, and the flow of the book, is juxtaposed, related, lubricated with multiple “lived” time. Time as “mental structure” and “abstract support” here yield a variety of different relations. Reading through Smithson’s texts, one comes upon passages where words themselves become subject to the travelogue technique. Consider the excerpt above, from the piece on museums. Words in this passage assume a physical quality, a mineral hardness that makes them (texturally) like and (analogically) unlike their referents. The mind moves amidst protrusions, obfuscations, levels of hardness and hardening viscosity: this is not language placed as pure matter, as in Picasso’s verbal patterings, but language used as something parallel in substance, process and, finally, epistemological and esthetic function, to the earth. Smithson’s analogies to geological process are legion —“One’s mind and the earth are in a constant state of erosion, mental rivers wear away abstract banks . . .” (1968; p.82)—but here words, separately, have a refractive function similar to the visual elements of the travelogue. If allusion to the specifically mineral nature of language is common in current Latin American fiction, what comes through here is words used as irradiant crystals whose different aspects yield an infinity of illusions. It is not far from the mirrors placed in the Yucatan, as homages to time and its artifices, to the interreflective, logically obfuscatory words that describe them. Mirages and mirroring fuse. Each yields multiple aspects, a panoply of relations defying clear Gestalt (“. . . nothing is certain or formal . . .”) to the mind moving through them. Smithson does not accept the false Babels of language: he exploits them.

Indeed, one of Smithson’s seminal insights concerns the linguistic structure of art, the way changes in use or context emit new meanings, engender new values. It is not just one hypothesis among others, but a concept pivotal to his oeuvre, directing the reclamations of earth art, the perceptual dislocations of site work, and implying subversions within static art historical terrain. Phrased in terms of dialectics, it is clearly a product of the years that spawned Art and Language and the Dwan language shows in which Smithson, as a curator, was instrumental. One can cringe, today under the deluge of semiotica, wince at the obligatory references to Roland Barthes; but surely one must be impressed by this lucid prefiguration of installations, phrased in 1967: “‘Sculpture’ when not figurative, also is conditioned by architectural details. Floors, walls, windows and ceilings delimit the bounds of interior sculpture. . . . The walls of modern museums need not exist as walls, with diseased details near or on them. Instead, the artist could define the interior as a total network of surfaces and lines . . .” (p.47). Other phrases strike more contradictory cues, like a call for “an esthetic method that brings together anthropology and linguistics in terms of “buildings.” But beyond the geological analogies—erosion and fissure (don’t we know that a word is always inadequate to what it names?), metaphor as strata (words piled on words in never-ending series of analogies)—Smithson’s written oeuvre presents an instance of relational reading equalled only, among artists, by the example of Matisse. And much as Matisse’s meditation on the sign’s shifting meanings within different pictorial contexts depends on Mallarmé and the “integral” work of art, so Smithson’s insight projects those lessons far beyond the object to a host of external factors. It both draws on the tradition of modernism, and signals its depletion.

One of the merits of this collection is its unpublished writings, here assembled and printed for the first time. One might quibble about inclusions (“Nature and Abstraction” [1968] is a word-for-word section from the Olmstead piece, abstracted and strangely reproduced) or query, elsewhere, exclusions (Smithson’s response to the 1970 Artforum “Art and Politics” symposium questionnaire is absent, though it falls within the editor’s definition of “writing”; a maudlin, polemic piece, but no more so than other included texts), but these paragraphs or proposals do distill or extend key themes. An outline for a symposium, for instance, proposes an “abstract phenomenology” that would view art as unknowable and formally inexplicable. Several late paragraphs (1971 and 1972) and a proposal for a reclamation project (Ohio State University, 1972), stress the import of the dialectical enterprise, the need for an art mediating ecology and industry. The same reiterated terms—relations and process, abstraction versus dialectical implication—recur, stressed, and are integrated to near-visionary form.

Ultimately, then, these are visionary writings, though of a most remarkable sort. Didn’t Smithson say of Carl Andre, in 1968, that one person’s materialism becomes another person’s romanticism? Sensibility, vision, romance—hated terms to the lean, gaunt minds of the ’60s and ’70s—become the most apt ones for Smithson’s own enthusiasms, which tended toward derelict buildings and erosion, and turned the long-ago-and-far-away into a chapter of Sci-Fi fantasy. We can view these texts as personal and historical filters, gleaning them for information, but in the proposal from 1972 there is a brief appeal to, artistic function: “The artist must come out of the isolation of galleries and museums and provide a concrete consciousness for the present as it really exists. . . .” It’s a Shelley-like vision of the artist as worker, uttered in the most pragmatic terms.

Kate Linker