PRINT February 1981

Smithson’s Site/Non-Site: New York City Walk

IN THE LATE 1960s, before he dispensed with all need for gallery presentations, Robert Smithson exhibited a transitional series of sculptures entitled “Site/Non-Site.” In each of these works, shaped containers built by the artist confine (as does our experience of viewing the work in a formal space) the collected materials. Exhibited along with this usually geological “sample” are maps, notes, and photographs providing the facts and measurements of the original site and describing its locale. By following these guides it is possible, if you take the time and trouble, to experience personally this same site and to draw your own conclusions about the choices Smithson made while cross-referencing his subjective response to the objective world.

In Smithson’s work it is the over-used landscape, or the passed-over backland, or the disfigured industrial remnant that is selected as primary site. These “discards” are the basic ingredients of his art and the logical extension of his study of the law of entropy. He understood art to exist in time rather than outside of it, and sculpture to be subject to the same cycle of physical modification and decay as any other matter. He recognized constant change as the only constant. Smithson was not interested in making the sort of improvements to a place that would please a conservationist, or in restoring or transforming it according to some fixed concept or criterion. Both the rapid processes of urban change and the infinitesimally slow ones of geological shift fascinated Smithson. And his art is an attempt to achieve a knowing accommodation with, rather than of, camouflage. While his attitude is one of ironic acceptance of the state of things, it is not sarcastic.

Since Smithson’s concern was not centered on untouched nature, nor his interest limited to any area of the country or part of the world, he applied his Site/Non-Site dialectic to both urban and rural locations. His concern was making art, and to him art was “mainly an act of viewing, a mental activity that zeroes in on discrete sites.”1 Anywhere and every place was understood to be natural and therefore part of nature: a city is a natural setting equal to the Grand Canyon. In fact, he considered the best sites for earth art to be those “disrupted by industry, reckless urbanization or nature’s own devastation.”2 This makes New York City an excellent subject for Smithson’s approach. Most of us would agree that New York City fits the first two descriptions without question, and qualifies on the third count on the occasions of catastrophe that occur intermittently. When this much-maligned, but unique place is considered a “site” rather than a collecting point, the notion of it as an art center is allowed to move beyond the usual confines.

In assembling the following Site/Non-Site: New York City, I have selected written rather than geological samples of the place. Since Smithson lived and worked in this city, his writings refer to it frequently, and the vein of such references is rich. A map of Manhattan from 34th Street to 96th Street indicates the general area of the “act of viewing,” and the photographs illustrate particular points of discussion. The site itself can be experienced directly by taking a long walk (or several shorter ones) up Central Park West to West 79th Street, across Central Park to Fifth Avenue and then down the East Side of Manhattan via Third, Park and Fifth Avenues, ending at the corner of 34th Street and Fifth Avenue. In this way it is possible to combine one’s own reactions with the experience of place, in the present, with Smithson’s tone of voice, with the dart of his eye, and of his thoughts.

Noticeable changes have occurred in the city since Smithson wrote, and these changes are not as subtle as those in less inhabited settings might be. But the variations are of a kind that would no doubt be accepted and expected by him. Like his sculpture, Smithson’s writings are many-faceted and open to various interpretations. With the publication in 1979 of his Writings, his articles, essays and interviews are more generally accessible than his difficult-to-reach Earthworks or his too-rarely-exhibited sculpture and drawings. The writings are highly personal and are, in themselves, an important body of work. Like any sample, this is only a suggestion of a larger whole, one you might find intriguing enough to pursue more fully.

“Back in New York, the urban desert . . .”3

1. THE CENTURY, 25 Central Park West at West 61st Street;

2. THE MAJESTIC, 115 Central Park West at West 72nd Street:
The ’thirties apartment buildings along Central Park West are named after the bewildering and the remote—The Century, The Majestic, The Eldorado. On top of some of the ultra-towers we discover ziggurats or models of “cosmic mountains.” The heavy leaden memories of monolithic civilizations are placed out of sight, in the aerial regions that few look at. A miniature Aztec ziggurat might be poised on the edge of an escarpment. Incessant and unreachable limits are built not into an “architecture,” but rather into a “cosmos,” that dissolves into fatigued and tired distances. Today’s artist tries to make his art refer to nothing, while the art of the thirties seemed to refer to everything. But of course, today and yesterday may always be reversed. The surfaces of most thirties buildings may be viewed as topographic maps of interminable landscapes.4

3. AMERICAN MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY, Central Park West at West 79th:
Hall of Late Dinosaurs: The prehistory one finds in the Museum of Natural History is fugitive and uncertain. It is reconstructed from “Epochs” and “Periods,” that no man has ever witnessed, and based on the remains of “animated beings” from Trilobites to Triceratops. We vaguely know about them through Walt Disney and Sinclair Oil—they are the dinosaurs. One of the best “recreators” of this “dinosaurism” is Charles R. Knight. . . . Knight’s art is never seen in museums outside the M.N.H., because it doesn’t fit in with the contrived “art-histories” of Modernism or the Renaissance.5

Hayden Planetarium: The planetarium becomes the same size as the universe, which it is. Perplexed, dizzied, one encounters here a cosmic nostalgia. Vertigo at contemplating man’s most futile gesture—patrimony of the infinite. . . . The Solar System, this mechanical collection of tracks, boxes, bulbs, gears, armatures, rods, seems tired, torpid. A chamber of ennui. And fatigue. It is endless, if only the electricity holds out.6

4. CENTRAL PARK, 59th Street to 110th Street, Central Park West to Fifth Avenue:

Well, it seems that in a city like New York where everything is concrete there’s this craving to stick up a tree somewhere.7

The site of Central Park was the result of “urban blight”—trees were cut down by the early settlers without any thought of the future. Such a site could be reclaimed by direct earth-moving, without fear of upsetting the ecology.8

Olmsted and Vaux studied the site topography for their proposed park called “Greensward.” In Greensward Presentation Sketch No. 5 we see a “before” photograph of the site they would remake in terms of earth sculpture. It reminds me of the strip-mining regions I saw last year in southeastern Ohio.9

Walking east, I passed graffiti on boulders. Somehow, I can accept graffiti on subway trains, but not on boulders. . . . Passing under Glade Arch and into the Glade, I came to the Conservatory Water Pool; the overall shape of its concrete banks being an interplay of curves and right angles. . . . As I continued southward, near Fifth Avenue, I passed a “kiddy land,” one of the latest incursions into the Park. Designed by Richard Datter in 1970, it looks like a pastiche of Philip Johnson and Mark di Suvero.10

Looking on the nature of the park, or its history and our perception of it, we are first presented with an endless maze of relations and interconnections, in which nothing remains what or where it is, as a-thing-itself, but the whole park changes like day and night, in and out, dark and light—a carefully designed clump of bushes can also be a mugger’s hideout. . . . Central Park is a ground work of necessity and chance, a range of contrasting viewpoints that are forever fluctuating, yet solidly based in the earth.11

5. SOLOMON R. GUGGENHEIM MUSEUM, Fifth Avenue at East 89th Street:

The Guggenheim Museum is perhaps Wright’s most visceral achievement. No building is more organic than this inverse digestive tract. The ambulatories are metaphorically intestines. It is a concrete stomach.12

I am attached to the idea of clearing out the museums and letting better designed ones like the Guggenheim exist as sculptures, as works, as such, almost closed to people.13

6. METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART, Fifth Avenue at East 82nd Street:

Actually, our older museums are full of fragments, bits and pieces of European art. They were ripped out of total artistic structures, given a whole new classification and then categorized. The categorizing of art into painting, architecture and sculpture seems to be one of the most unfortunate things that took place. Now all these categories are splintering into more and more categories, and it’s like an interminable avalanche of categories. You have about forty different kinds of formalism and about a hundred different kinds of expressionism.14

7. CINEMA I AND II, Third Avenue at East 60th Street:

Some artists see an infinite number of movies. . . . The “blood and guts” of horror movies provides for their “organic needs,” while the “cold steel” of Sci-fic movies provides for their “inorganic needs.” Serious movies are too heavy on “values,” and so are dismissed by the more perceptive artists. . . . Even more of a mental conditioner than the movies, is the actual movie house. Especially the “moderne” interior architecture of the new “art-houses” like Cinema I and II . . . Instead of the crummy baroque and rococo of the 42nd Street theaters, we get the “padded cell” look, the “stripped down” look or the “good-taste” look. The physical confinement of the dark box-like room indirectly conditions the mind.15 What I would like to do is build a cinema in a cave or an abandoned mine, and film the process of its construction. That film would be the only film shown in the cave. . . . It would be a truly “underground” cinema.16

8. UNION CARBIDE BUILDING, 270 Park Avenue at 53rd Street East ; 9. LEVER HOUSE, 390 Park Avenue at 49th Street East:

The much denigrated architecture of Park Avenue known as “cold glass boxes,” along with the Manneristic modernity of Philip Johnson, have helped to foster the entropic mood. The Union Carbide building best typifies such architectural entropy. . . . This kind of architecture without “value or qualities,” is, if anything, a fact. From this “undistinguished” run of architecture, as Flavin calls it, we gain a clear perception of physical reality free from the general claims of “purity and idealism.” Only commodities can afford such illusionistic values; for instance, soap is 99 44/100% pure, beer has more spirit in it, and dog food is ideal; all and all this means such values are worthless. As the cloying effect of such “values” wears off, one perceives the “facts” of the outer edge, the flat surface, the banal, the empty, the cool, blank after blank; in other words, that infinitesimal condition known as entropy.17

10. RADIO CITY, Fifth Avenue of 49th Street:

One encounters extensive geographic topographies that suggest the farthest spatial frontiers. The walls of these forgotten buildings . . . bring one face to face with the incredible features of something immortal, yet corrupt. . . . Radio City is even billed as a “city within a city”—a microcosm in a macrocosm. The symmetrical patterns in some Ultramoderne walls seem devised to baffle and to prove the notion of a demi-urge. No doubt the thirties will be falsified into a style, perhaps endless styles, or maybe it has been already––who knows? For the thirties are built on ideas that could only have originated in the illusory depth of The Mirror of Mirrors. And as everybody knows, the mirror is a symbol of illusion, as immaterial as a projected film.18

11. EMPIRE STATE BUILDING, Fifth Avenue at 34th Street:

The arduous limits of the Empire State fill one with thoughts of extinguishment and vertigo.19

Amy Baker is the executive publisher of Artforum. She organized the Smithson exhibition “Mirror/Salt Pieces,” 1976.


1. “Discussions with Heizer, Oppenheim, Smithson,” Avalanche, Fall 1970, p. 62.

2. “Frederick Law Olmsted and the Dialectical Landscape,” Artforum, February, 1973, p. 65.

3. “The Spiral Jetty,” Arts of the Environment, ed. G. Kepes, 1972, p. 22.

4. “Uttramoderne.” Arts magazine, September-October, 1967, p. 31.

5. “A Museum of Language in the Vicinity of Art,” Art International, March, 1968, p. 23.

6. “The Domain of the Great Bear” (with Mel Buchner), Art Voices, Fall 1966, p. 45.

7. “Entropy Made Visible” (interview with A. Sky), On Site #4, 1973, p. 30.

8. “Frederick Law Olmsted and the Dialectical Landscape,” p. 65.

9. “Olmsted,” p. 62.

10. “Olmsted,” p. 67.

11. “Olmsted,” p. 65.

12. “Quasi-infinites and the Waning of Space,” Arts magazine. November, 1966, p 29.

13. “What is a Museum?—Dialogue with Allan Kaprow,” Arts Yearbook, The Museum World, 1967, p. 95.

14. “What is a Museum?”, p 96

15. “Entropy and the New Monuments,” Artforum, June, 1966, p. 29.

16. “A Cinematic Atopia,” Artforum, September, 1971, p. 55

17. “Entropy and the New Monuments,” p. 27.

18. “Ultramoderne,” pp. 31-32.

19. “Ultramoderne,” pp. 31-32.