PRINT Summer 2004


Mirror-Travels: Robert Smithson and History

CANONIZED FOUNDER OF EARTHWORKS, filmmaker, respected antiformalist theorist, “preconscious” religious visionary, homoerotic draftsman, and Beat poet (not to mention posthumous market-driven photographer)—these Robert Smithsons have proliferated since the artist aligned himself with the new entropic monuments later designated as Minimal art. Perhaps because of his deadpan enthusiasm for what he called the “inactive history” of Flavin, Judd, et al., the eccentric works Smithson produced from roughly 1964 to 1969 (Minimalism’s heyday) are useful tools for scholars trying to get inside the Minimalist box. Smithson, along with Eva Hesse, helped us unravel the ways in which Minimalism’s geometry was always already anxious—poised between Greenbergian formalist empiricism and postmodern polysemy.

In light of LA MoCA’s current exhibition “A Minimal Future?” and its upcoming Smithson retrospective under the curatorial direction of Eugenie Tsai, as well as landscape architect Mitchell Rasor’s planned “Trespassage”on Smithson turf and art historian Jennifer L. Roberts’s new monograph on Smithson and history, we seem to be in yet another phase of Smithsonian crystallization. But like the four Smithson works exhibited at MoCA, including a mirror “vortex” and a diminishing mirrored “Mirage,” this set of Smithsons will be as uneasy and vertiginous as the rest, spilling backward and forward into the “fossilized sexuality,” to borrow Smithson’s words, of our own scholarly desires. We’ve yet to achieve the cool entropic calm the artist envisioned in the heat of the 1960s. Doubtless we never will—there’s too much to be gained by multiplying our mirrors of Smithson, too much pleasure to be had in activating his buried stratigraphic histories and mining the “heap of language” he left behind.

Is the present phase of crystallization distinct in any significant way from research begun in the mid-’80s and ’90s, as the Smithson estate began to release unknown studies and early works? Inaugurating the current plethora of Smithsons was the pathbreaking archaeology of Peter Halley (writing the first essay on Smithson’s religious works, for the Diane Brown Gallery in 1985), followed by Tsai’s Robert Smithson Unearthed of 1991. These built on Robert Hobbs’s crucial first monograph (1981) and Smithson’s own collected writings, providing access to the unpublished religious texts and fantastic drawings that are now part of the Smithson corpus. Were it not for the perversity, dialectical transformations, and sheer weirdness that emerged almost twenty years ago to inflect our understanding of Smithson’s practice, this artist would have remained a quirky Minimalist who (like Walter De Maria, perhaps) somehow generated one of the twentieth century’s most compelling icons—the Spiral Jetty, 1970. As I see it, Smithson’s continuing significance for contemporary practitioners of art, design, and critical discourse depends on the complex relations among his writings, earliest drawn paintings, later objects, and conceptual nomadism. The dense matrix of meanings generated by this varied production makes Spiral Jetty more than just an Earthwork whose time has passed, and promises to fuel the expanding referential spiral of Smithson scholarship for decades to come.

Roberts’s Mirror-Travels: Robert Smithson and History enters this field well prepared, inserting itself into the substantial Smithson literature with surgical precision. Five tightly focused chapters cover specific sections of the work (leaving out others, about which more later): the religious paintings that formed the basis for Smithson’s first one-man show in Rome in 1961, the crystalline objects of his “conscious” abstract phase from roughly 1964 to 1968, the famous Passaic essay and related non-site works of 1967 to 1968, the less-discussed “Incidents of Mirror-Travel in the Yucatan” (1969), which gives the book its title, and, of course, the Spiral Jetty that is always seen to cap Smithson’s truncated career. Simply conveying the title of this last “case study” chapter will send a shudder through some branches of the Smithson industry: “Spiral Jetty/Golden Spike.” As loaded as Greenberg’s “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” (preserving the modernist’s privileged order but using a virgule to link the Jetty’s high-cultural address and the Spike’s touristic mass appeal), Roberts’s final chapter seems to portend a vulgarized Smithson—outside the permitted bounds, that is, of the ironic vulgarization wielded by the artist himself.

Heightening the anxiety of those who would preserve a global, Conceptual, postmodernist Smithson, Roberts (an Americanist trained at Yale and currently teaching at Harvard) produces a Smithson who “rewrites American history.” This is a claim that would hardly need making were it not for the fact that a quiet historiographic transformation has characterized postwar American artists as altogether outside the “American” ghetto, always “contemporary,” and assertively global (in a Euro-American, hegemonic sort of way). The fact that Roberts’s approach encompasses Latin American perspectives on Smithson’s Yucatán trip, for example, should ward off any misunderstanding of her project as chauvinist or nationalist. But she knows how thin the ice is, and her lengthy methodological introduction treads carefully.

Roberts frames her work as a corrective to charac- terizations of Smithson as an artist “who seemingly swooped in from his own bizarre world” to critique the midcentury modernism of Greenberg and Fried. Nor is she interested in constructing Smithson as the heroic instigator of postmodernism’s “triumphant critiques.” As Roberts sees it, scholars such as Halley, Tsai, Yve-Alain Bois and Rosalind Krauss, Ann Reynolds, and I are overstating the case when we position Smithson as mordantly opposed to canonized, formalist modernism. She charts relations that more closely link him with his fabled foes, mirroring a Smithson who desired “continuance” (his term, made hers) with a complex, populous past—either premodern or stubbornly local—en route to a future that might skip certain modernist formations altogether. Smithson’s relation to history, in Roberts’s account, both aligns him with modernist tradition and “leads through and out of it into a timeless, posthistorical stasis” that she relates to the transcendentalism of Greenberg and Fried (a controversial claim defended ably for the religious work but not for the Jetty). At the same time, she acknowledges that even for Americanists, who would otherwise seem to support her efforts to locate Smithson within American history (if only to transcend it), her focus on “long historical connections” might “risk venturing into methodologically objectionable territory . . . reminiscent of the nationalist-essentialist criticism that marked the early years of the field.” In Mirror-Travels, at least, the risk is justified.

Drawing on the trove of archival materials that Nancy Holt generously deposited at the Archives of American Art in 1987 (already mined extensively by Reynolds), Roberts has used Smithson’s own archaeological strata to craft a revisionist history. She takes the celebrated “proto-postmodern” Smithson and shows him as both obsessed with historical time and compelled to neutralize it into a “transcendent, eternal condition.” Not surprisingly, this makes her first chapter on Smithson’s religious period among the most compelling in the book. Attending to the yellowing typescripts of his religious screeds as if they were medieval incunabula, Roberts locates, for example, the substitution of his own neologism “iconoscope” (a frozen tableau) for Edison’s “kinetoscope,” a word still faintly visible under the artist’s typed correction. Smithson’s more static term literally rubs out Edison’s frenetic dynamism. In Roberts’s analysis: “The iconoscope offers a certain cold comfort—it manages, by bringing the opposite spheres of sacred and mundane into a dedifferentiated equilibrium, to wrest a form of transcendence out of the iconoclasm itself.” By acting as a Derridean sleuth, Roberts is thus able to find traces of a modernist past within Smithson’s work. Those traces link his iconostasis to Greenberg’s “at-onceness,” Michael Fried’s “presentness,” and Kant’s transcendence. Yet her binary between the sacred and mundane, fruitful though it is for her fascinating reading of Smithson’s religious thought, is itself a curious transposition of the usual Western pairing: sacred and profane. Roberts has nothing to say about Smithson’s insistent sexual metaphors, for example, instead pursuing his “continuance” via the buried histories of local contexts that were neutralized by Smithson’s crystallizing gaze.

A quite different coherence emerges by taking seriously the visual and verbal erotics that Smithson invoked throughout the religious, Minimalist, discursive, and Earth-art phases of his career. For Roberts, the religious works remain uncomplicated by the 1960 suite of Hitler’s Opera drawings, in which the fascist Antichrist mimics gay porn before being crucified on an airplane fusillage; nor are the Minimal works she discusses troubled by the “dialectics of the cartouche,” the means by which Smithson bracketed his crystalline geometric investigations off from a sexy soup of lounging hermaphrodites and puddling goo. Roberts’s exclusions must be due partly to the highly tailored brevity of her text. With the pressures of academic publishing being what they are, her very slim book has an almost marginless two-column layout, no bibliography, and a minimal index that omits contemporar y Smithson authors altogether.

Despite these frustrating economies, Roberts packs in a lot. Her chapters on the Minimalist objects as “depositions” of the crystalline connect in a lovely way back to the religious chapter through the analogy she draws with Smithson’s interest in the chilled religiosity of Mannerist “depositions.” Her textured use of Smithson’s library yields numerous revelations of what Smithson himself razored out of his collection of crystallographic textbooks or studied in treatises on projective geometry. The Yucatán chapter incisively compares Smithson’s travels with those on which he (ironically) modeled himself (John Lloyd Stephens’s 1843 Incidents of Travel in Yucatán), claiming that there is far more of the gringo imperialist in Smithson than we want to believe. “Spiral Jetty/Golden Spike” reanimates the bogus celebration of the “wedding of the rails” that had occurred just months before Smithson’s arrival, showing what kinds of history Spiral Jetty labored to deconstruct.

The strength of Roberts’s book is its refusal to join the entropic party, to become part of the nodding scanners of the informe who accept Smithson’s own eloquent accounts of what he was doing. Mind you, Smithson’s brilliance always threatens to trump our best analyses, exemplified by my favorite of his offhand remarks: “I’m not really discontented. I’m just interested in exploring the apparatus I’m being threaded through.” But Roberts’s insistence on reanimating the thick wads of recent history that Smithson carved away to bring his “iconoscope” into focus gives “site-specificity” a new wrinkle. Precisely what understanding of a particular site informs the artist’s designation of its “specifics”? Roberts answers this question by surfacing the racialized Passaic underlying Smithson’s dopey “monuments”; sketching the traumatized subjects of a colonized Yucatán just out of sight of his mirrors; limning a kitschy and equally racist Golden Spike peripheralized by his own Spiral Jetty; and revealing the reactionary religiosity that provoked his tropism toward entropy. In so doing, she reflects a new Smithson of sophisticated historical depth. If one feels that more remains to be said about the “sodomizing” Passaic fountain and other elements of fossil sexuality that Smithson wanted us to think about, so be it. Objects in the mirror may be larger than they appear.

Caroline A. Jones teaches contemporary art and theory in the Department of Architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.


Jennifer L. Roberts, Mirror-Travels: Robert Smithson and History (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press), 162 pages.