New York

Robert Smithson

New York Cultural Center

What we got at Robert Smithson’s drawing show was essentially a rehearsal of the central part of the story whose limits were recently determined by John Coplans, in the course of his discussion of the Amarillo Ramp, 1973 (Artforum, April, 1974). The themes established there—Smithson’s Romanticism, his feeling that art could be made out of anything, his interest in the manipulation of landscape, and in entropy—are paralleled by Susan Ginsberg’s and Joseph Masheck’s contributions to the catalogue. Ginsberg’s is a kind of eulogy that orients one to the work. Masheck’s discussion concentrates on Smithson’s continuity with the tradition of the sublime, as that appears in the work of the Earl of Shaftesbury, an 18th-century English landscape artist and intellectual (Harold Osborne compares him to Kant as one who anticipated phenomenological method) and is subsequently modified and transformed by the 19th-century, postaristocratic, liberal-democratic sensibility of Frederick Law Olmsted, on whom the artist himself wrote. I have a faint objection to bits of Masheck’s argument. Once having located Smithson’s most direct generic antecedents in the 18th century—around the time when the steam engine really got going—he seems to ignore the implications, for instance, when he compares him with Francesco Borromini (1642–56), and to claim that the past is directly accessible. But that isn’t an issue which deserves to be developed here.

I should, though, like to draw attention to the two aspects of Smithson’s work which currently preoccupy me: the degree of his indebtedness to Surrealism—which is, I think, profound—and his work’s affinities with the fiction of Thomas Pynchon.

To take first things first, the spiral—beside representing entropy in the world at large—also appears on the stationery of the Surrealist movement where it’s meant to represent a coil of shit. As such it’s, of course, an image symptomatic of entropic distribution.

Beyond that, which may be just a curious coincidence—unlike, of course, most significances in art history—I think Smithson’s juxtaposition of sculpture and landscape, like Barnett Newman’s identification of scale with size, relies at some level on the Surrealist’s idea of the work as that in which the dream and the everyday—and, by extension, the thought and the thing, the object and its perception—may occupy the same space. Newman and Smithson are as united in their ambivalence toward Surrealism as they are in their involvement with 18th-century esthetics. And I think it might be said that both their work must at some stage be considered in the light of Surrealist intention and syntax in order to get at and articulate the scope of its address. Surrealism programmatically anticipated the present, as did certain well-known Russians of the same period, in imagining a situation in which cinematic accumulation would replace architectural hierarchy as a cultural norm. This is perhaps why Duchamp said he came to America to live in the future, and why Smithson’s use of the Spiral Jetty as the basis for a cinematic tesseration of the geological sedimentation contained by the work must be seen as more than technically dependent on the kind of analysis film makes available. It would be more appropriate to say it relies on the kind of literacy film obliges an open mind to adopt.

It is Smithson’s application of what I want to call a cinematically educated sensibility to the manipulation of landscape that seems to link him to Pynchon most emphatically. Pynchon explores the historical sedimentation of the immediate and less immediate past through a structure constantly responsive to the kinds of perceptual associations—syntactical orderings—film makes available. Then there’s subject matter in the more conventional sense. One of Pynchon’s first published stories, “Lowlands,” has people spiraling through the landscape in a car toward a garbage dump. Another, “Entropy” (1961), involves the people in two adjoining apartments in an interaction not unlike that involved in the entropy experiment with two boxes of sand Smithson suggested. Pynchon’s latest novel, Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), involves a developed application of the notion of entropy—and one could certainly analogize Pynchon’s development over the last decade with Smithson’s—to a depiction of contemporary sensibility that, like the dinosaurs cinematically associated with Spiral Jetty, locates the present through that which is immanent in its physical constitution. Contemporary America, in Gravity’s Rainbow, is buried in a European past, in the history of industrial capitalism and colonialism, which is also the history of modern science and psychology. The H-bomb is immanent in the V-2, the possibility of extinction anticipated in the elimination of the Dodo, an early victim of imperialism. A novel is trapped in language, and therefore in a specifically historical epistemology, as I suppose a sculpted landscape need not be. This may be why the death of the Dodo in the one instance is necessarily ideological while the dinosaurs’ demise is, equally clearly, not. That is a difference between novels and sculpture which invites rather than obviates comparison, as does much else in the work of these two men. Comparisons such as this that might be facilitated by a show of Smithson’s earlier work, in which his connection to that aspect of the recent past which contemporary artists have been most insistent on declaring extinct might be more explicit. Entropy, as Smithson was at pains to point out, is by definition irreversible. But, as with Mark Twain, reports concerning the death of the Surreal have been greatly exaggerated.

––Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe