New York

“Robert Smithson: Sculpture”

This exhibition arrived at the Whitney near the end of its tour, which began at the Herbert F. Johnson Museum at Cornell (Autumn 1980) and will culminate in the United States Pavillion at the Venice Biennale (Summer 1982). It followed the publication of Smithson’s writings (New York University Press, 1979) and the steady extension of his cult, and came with its own excellent, amply illustrated book. And it also came with a lofty ambition: to provide a “comprehensive view,” in just over sixty works, of the man who “gave” us entropy and the dialectical landscape, who battled against the object, immortalized the suburbs’ eroding monuments, and who voiced, in so many ways, late-’60s concerns which were developed in the ’70s and are only beginning to bear ’80s fruit. That’s quite an order to fill.

First things first: the show was a visual knockout, something the Whitney’s cavernous spaces and dark, glistening floors further abetted. Obsidian rocks and orange stones, mica flakes and shimmering crystalline salts both occupied and overran their containers, scattering over surfaces intercut by omnipresent mirroring glass. Moreover, it was chronologically complete, offering a selection of works taken from every period of Smithson’s short though prolific career. From the early ’60s there were works in painted metal, with strange perspectival involutions, all mathematically derived, which warp their spatial surroundings, refuting the clear progressions of Minimalism. From the late ’60s there were Non-Sites, each with its corresponding photos and maps, which play mind, abstraction, and displacement against matter, actuality, and site. From the early ’70s we had earthwork photographs and proposals for land reclamation; there were drawings from every period. And there were previously unexhibited and unexpected works, along with certain seminal reconstructions. All in all, this exhibition covered its ground.

Yet the show, to my mind, erred in two central ways. One, perhaps, is unavoidable: Smithson’s energies, which were cerebral, aggressive, and inherently abrasive, can little be evoked within the museum’s confines; his love of vast and uncontrollable forces—of slurping, slushing nature and irreversible decay—seems timid in its pristine purlieus. But the other, perhaps, is more serious. For in general a retrospective can be conceived in one of two ways—as an act of amplification, which elaborates, extends, and, basically, explores the ramifications of personality and work; or as an act of reduction, of refinement and definition, of paring and pruning. And “Robert Smithson: Sculpture” was conceived according to the latter term, hewing to the straight and narrow path of history, to its unswerving walkway of “influence.” Everything here seems sanitized, whether by choice or by installation. The early-’60s works look like plaza art, the non-sites like elegant objects. All the odd emanations of Smithson’s personality—the drawn perversities and the varied rumblings of his Catholic dissent—are absent. And that’s unfortunate, since they were important both to him and to his colleagues, and to a newly-inquisitive generation as well. How strange that the man who railed against cultural confinement and fought for impurity should get such a clean treatment here.

Addendum: in typical fashion, the gallery that represents the estate held a concurrent exhibition, which contained several unexpected Smithson gems. Lots of painted metal and mirrors, of course, but also a series of three-dimensional drawings made of corrugated paper, roughly shaped and held together by twigs. A spiral, a box, a meandering figure eight . . . forms infinite in their evocations, like Smithson’s ungraspable architectures and drawn symbolic fantasies. And humorous sketches amidst the project renderings. In one, temporal parallels are arrayed as King Kong meets the Gem of Egypt, a wrecking machine, performing the identical act of destruction. . . .

Kate Linker