New York

Robert Smithson

Dwan Gallery

Faced with Robert Smithson’s geological conundrums, one recognizes that his work must be accounted for––not only for its own imperatives––but because Smithson is so central a figure to a wide spectrum of current production, the most recent example of the genre being the photographically recorded snow shovelings of Dennis Oppenheim surveyed at the John Gibson Gallery. The familiar Smithson is of course still present in the new units, in terms of hollow geometrical forms of either a fixed format (a square, or symmetrical subdivisions of this shape), or in sequences of expanding systems of proportional relationships (constant increments or logarithmic expansions). Smithson’s metal cases—now sprayed in matte pastel colors, dull violets, shady beiges, oyster whites—are hollow metal containers. Some are partially closed or wholly open topside in a manner similar to troughs. These receptacles are filled with the rock formations peculiar to certain areas of the Eastern seaboard which are indicated by maps or map sections. These sectors are central to the works themselves though the temptation would be to discount the cartography as merely supplementary. In this connection, one need only consider momentarily how incomplete and enfeebled Smithson’s work would be without his array of maps, books, diurnal jottings and photographic documentation—and, by extension, the production of the aforementioned range of contemporary artists whose art also is occupied with grand terrestrial considerations. In these elements of Smithson’s art, almost more than in the fabricated object, one senses a more vivid demonstration of his vitality. In comparison, all his stonework and the earthworks and snow work derived from his example, somehow seem to be issues of lesser consequence. Without wishing to stint on so complex an issue I would only briefly suggest that such dislocations indicate in our moment a growing rejection of the notion of “finish” in preference for the revival of certain sentimental practices such as the collecting of snapshots, picture postcards, theater programs and, less frequently, the keeping of journals. The most curious development of these divergences is that to record an event appears to grow more important than to create an event, or, more exactly, that creation and recording are, at very least, virtually congruent activities.

From the outset certain situationist tactics must be granted: that an urgent correlation is admitted to exist between the real geography of, say, a mountainside in New Jersey, the “Site,” and the accumulation of stones quarried in this mountain and exhibited in a gallery, the “Non-site.” This relevance is predicated of course on the scientistic links afforded by the map and the scale rule (although the scale is often violated in terms of the samplings accumulated in the troughs). In the “Non-site,” Smithson, it seems to me, plays with the inherited syntax of Dadaistic permutables. “Large scale becomes small,” Smithson writes. “Small scale becomes large. A point on a map expands to the size of a land mass. A land mass contracts to a point.” The spatial contractions and expansions which Smithson’s work encapsulates—and which are of an intellectual order rather than a physical fact—are all didactically and admirably clear. In the elements for Six Stops On A Section, for example, the profile of the spines of six New Jersey hills have been projected from their maps onto what may casually be described as six “tool boxes.” This figuration, in turn, has been cut into the surface leaving a template delineating the horizon of the real mountainsides. The boxes then have been filled with the characteristic stone derived from the individual peaks in question. One must, in all conscience, still point to the Three Standard Stoppages by Marcel Duchamp (1913–14), so obvious are the affiliations between Smithson’s rock boxes and Duchamp’s yardstick templates of three dropped lengths of thread.

Robert Pincus-Witten