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Robert Smithson’s “Monuments of Passaic”

Robert Smithson’s map of Passaic, Wallington, and Woodridge, New Jersey, ca. 1967, showing his amended path. From the Robert Smithson and Nancy Holt Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

ROBERT SMITHSON knew the route of the No. 30 intercity bus by heart. When the twenty-nine-year-old artist boarded the No. 30 on September 30, 1967, to make the short trip between New York’s Port Authority Bus Terminal and the Union Avenue Bridge in Rutherford, New Jersey, little seemed to have changed. He still could have been the teenager with a scholarship to the Art Students League riding the bus between old Clifton High School and the seedy neighborhood in Manhattan where he always disembarked.

Ever since “The Monuments of Passaic” was published in these pages fifty years ago, the bus ride Smithson described in his article has been treated as nondescript. In fact, it was anything but. For starters, he rode past the home of poet William Carlos Williams, his pediatrician; the two-family home in which he had lived with his parents until he was eight or nine; and the elementary school in whose entryway had once been displayed a “life-size” drawing of a dinosaur he’d made as a second grader. He also was within shouting distance of the house where, in 1917, his paternal grandfather had started a newfangled business, storing batteries for automobile owners during the winter.

In visiting the town where he was born, did Smithson feel like he was traveling back in time? Unlike the day at various New Jersey quarries that the artist recounted in his 1966 text for Harper’s Bazaar, “The Crystal Land,” he was alone, unaccompanied by his wife, Nancy Holt, or any other friends and companions. Additionally, his latest text would be accompanied by some of the Instamatic snapshots that he now was taking as artworks in their own right. With its illustrations, “The Monuments of Passaic” would become a more sophisticated version of his earlier text.

As he headed, on a warm, sunny day, toward the starting point of the walk he planned to take, Smithson encountered something unexpected. The streets and roads he’d intended to traverse had been turned into a construction site—the future Route 21—and he had to alter his plans. Rather than crossing the Union Avenue Bridge from Rutherford into Passaic and then walking a few blocks along River Road in the direction of the dull, unremarkable borough of Wallington—following the itinerary he’d indicated in pencil on a map now in the Robert Smithson and Nancy Holt Papers at the Archives of American Art in Washington, DC—Smithson instead set out for the Central Theatre in downtown Passaic.

If he’d intended the trip to Passaic as a nostalgic visit to his past, he now was hurtling toward the eerie, quasi-industrial future.

As he passed the Route 21 construction site, he entered a startlingly alien environment, surrounded by all sorts of temporary drainage pipes installed along the Passaic River. If he’d intended the trip to Passaic as a nostalgic visit to his past, he now was hurtling toward the eerie, quasi-industrial future, as if he had stepped into the pages of a sci-fi novel. He took snapshots of this scene, and the pipes became the centerpiece of his article; he dubbed them, respectively, Monument with Pontoons: The Pumping Derrick, The Great Pipes Monument, and The Fountain Monument.

The construction site Smithson discovered could not have been better made-to-order. In “The Crystal Land,” the artist had suggested that the Meadowlands off of Route 3 reminded him of Mars, which was a bit of a stretch. The future Route 21 allowed Smithson to be even more fanciful. He described what he saw as “ruins in reverse. . . . This is the opposite of the ‘romantic ruin’ because the buildings don’t fall into ruin after they are built but rather rise into ruin before they are built.” Maybe he was traveling to neither the future nor the past: “This antiromantic mise-en-scene suggests,” he writes, “the discredited idea of time.”

When Smithson wrote, “Passaic center loomed like a dull adjective,” he was taking artistic license for the sake of his story. Moreover, although the Union Avenue Bridge in Smithson’s photograph looks old and dilapidated—he describes a “ramshackle network” of trusses and a “heavy set of beams”—the riverbanks below it are as pastoral as a painting by Corot. But Smithson’s piece, representing a new way to write about art, was never meant to be taken as fact. His self-consciously dreamlike account effects a sense of unreality, one tied in spirit to many parallel, and prescient, efforts to see the suburbs not as an optimistic wellspring of the American dream, but as someplace uncanny and always-obsolescent—perhaps even bleak. “If the future is ‘out of date,’” Smithson writes, “then I had been to the future.”

Unlike many art historians and curators who have written about “The Monuments of Passaic,” I had the opportunity to talk with Smithson about the city where the two of us were born and I was raised. Our conversations evoked a bustling place, more like Grover’s Corners in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town than the kind of desolate communities seen in the B movies the artist enjoyed watching in Forty-Second Street theaters. Smithson’s account of the afternoon he spent in Passaic has endured because he told a compelling narrative that married sci-fi with a city he knew well.

Phyllis Tuchman is writing This is the Land: The Life and Times of Robert Smithson.