PRINT April 1985


IN 1961 GEORGE LESTER, who owned a gallery in Rome, put Robert Smithson on a stipend to make work for a one-man exhibit there. Early this year Lester helped to mount an augmented version of that Italian show at the Diane Brown Gallery in New York,1 with the result that 40 “new” paintings have come to light and a brief, crucial phase of Smithson’s development can be discussed for the first time.

Not unexpectedly, genres range from conventional second-generation Abstract Expressionist Sturm und Orang through proto-Pop collage. Somewhere between the two are cross-sectioned landscapes, showing above—and below—ground areas, and a hieratic figuration as tortured as the vegetable studies are relaxed. Apparently disparate works are connected emotionally and thematically. This is a vision of the City and the Plain, of baroque cathedrals and desert agonies. Time is infinite; a diving apparatus resembles an Egyptian mummy case, while a space capsule looks like a prehistoric burial chamber. Figures are both more and less than human, varying between the grotesque and the sublime: mermaids, chimeras, walking trees, even Christ Himself. Creatures of myth and legend are in a struggle for survival. An angel topples into an abyss to be eaten by a giant insect, while both Jesus and a chimera display their stigmata, the tokens of eternal suffering. The pervasive sensation is of threat.

Vulnerability demands protective tactics. Apparently doubting his medium as a means of revelation, Smithson uses pigment as camouflage; his horror vacui is countered by an uncompromising presentation of vacancy itself. This may result from a broken connection. For Willem de Kooning an equation between flesh and paint seemed as natural as breathing; Smithson felt otherwise—his figures seem never to have arisen naturally out of swirls of pigment, or from casual wrist actions, but to have been introduced artificially. In Purgatory, 1959, one of Smithson’s own favorite paintings from this period, faces cower behind a roughly worked grid which imprisons them. An implicit critique of Jackson Pollock’s Eyes in the Heat, 1956, it is a warning against anthropomorphic abstraction. Smithson’s iconic alternative, at its most extreme in his religious subjects, offered a way out. But at what price?

Smithson’s train of thought culminated in the experience he described in the 1972 essay he wrote on his Spiral Jetty, 1970: the complete paradox of a simultaneous heightening and eradication of pure consciousness. This frenzy was brought about by sheer intellectual overload and a condition of delirium induced by years of dialectical perception. Either this or boredom was the state he expected would intervene after a ceaseless attempt to fuse elements of his theorizing. Repetition was vital; the high decorative quotient in the paintings implies ceaseless change and paralysis caused by an inability to choose. Smithson’s aim may have been to convert paradox into a workable “dialectic.” In fact, his progress consisted of hovering ceaselessly between opposing but equally attractive alternatives, only to reject both. It is a sequence evident in his first great dilemma—a confrontation with what he regarded as the unwarranted anthropomorphic basis of New York School abstraction. For Smithson, Pollock’s dependence on myth and submerged figuration was “eating him up inside;” his fatal flaw was a refusal to reject “the sensuous anthropomorphic pantheism of Renaissance humanism.” Did this smack of European decadence to the 23-year old Smithson? In Rome he had been reading Ezra Pound, who described Europe as “an old bitch, gone in the teeth,” and T.S. Eliot, who envisaged it as a cross between Dickensian London and the barren land of Ecclesiastes. One method of redefining abstraction was to return to Wilhelm Warringer’s (and T.E. Hulme’s) talk of a hard, classicizing impulse. In future his attempt to bring this about would mean employing crystalline structures. At present he turned to figures influenced by Byzantine art and Celtic decoration. Perhaps this was the first of many occasions on which he experienced attraction and repulsion in equal measure. The group of English literary Modernists around T.E. Hulme, a group he was still puzzling over in his last essay, “Frederick Law Olmsted and the Dialectical Landscape” (1973), had developed a decidely antidemocratic turn of mind. Wyndham Lewis even wrote books on Hitler. If a young man, impressed by Catholic ritual and the classic architecture of the Eternal City, felt drawn to religion, was this urge for spiritual direction somehow linked with a more worldly attraction to authority? Perhaps he had read Eliof’s After Strange Gods (1933).

The religiosity which beset Abstract Expressionism in its late days was Smithson’s inheritance. Only in light of his subsequent work is it possible to measure the force with which it had to be discarded. Perhaps he already deplored the rejection by Worringer and Hulme of what he later called the “nature dialectic.” The truth is probably that he felt an act of faith would solve his problems too soon; he may have sensed correctly that his would be a career in which the journey, not the arrival, mattered , or that his masochism demanded more scope. Certainly, any nonreligious reading of the naked male figures flaunting their wounds would have to acknowledge a certain paranoid tendency. Or could the turn from religion have arisen simply from a need to deal with problems in more worldly terms? Worringer had regarded Egyptian and Byzantine art as an escape from “nature.” Perhaps mysticism would have served as Smithson’s escape; Christ may be above and beyond human “nature.” Was Smithson feeling guilty of blasphemy for making religious art because of merely theoretical considerations? All that can be suggested with any measure of certainty is that his crisis may have involved an equal and opposite attraction to Catholicism, and a need to overthrow it.

As art-historical documents, these paintings could hang in major museums. As new art they could take pride of place in any East Village gallery. But categories matter less than impact. In some measure these works possess the obscure scholarship, the morbidity, the humor, the perverse eroticism, the taste for emotion so high it may unbalance the mind or so low it may make it subhuman—indeed all of the creative and destructive power that made Smithson the most troubling, subversive American artist since Pollock.



1. The works reproduced on pp. 67 and 68 are from the exhibition under discussion here, while that on p. 69 is courtesy the Estate of Robert Smithson and was not in the show.