New York

Robert Smithson

International With Monument

Robert Smithson (1938–1973) is remembered for and represented by Spiral Jetty, 1970, Amarillo Ramp, 1973, and his concepts for other vast and often ephemeral earthworks, as well as for his non-site-specific gallery installations. So it was a treat to see work that predated the earthworks, that confirmed the great break Smithson made with art tradition and his own training. In these ten mixed-media drawings from 1961–63, Smithson’s facile mind and insatiable curiosity can be seen operating in a more concentrated and wittier mode.

Smithson was obviously interested in natural history, geology, and physics, but he was also fascinated by the media, sp ace travel, film, and stereotypes. These drawings illuminate a time of sifting through and development that led Smithson to the phenomenological and monumental scale of the work done in the eight years before his death, as well as the expressive dimension in all of his work.

In one untitled drawing, eight eyes snipped from magazine illustrations weep crocodile tears into a chaotic earth of lavalike consistency. Smithson reveals his wit and a weird mysticism, in what is a vague exploration of geological phenomena as a metaphor for the condition of life itself. Another drawing surrounds a photographic reproduction of a pin-up girl with multiple views of pink-tinted reptiles. Here, sexual desire and horned toads are awarded an equivalency through media representation. In this brief investigation of the media’s ability to confuse truth and desire, Smithson presaged a great infatuation of the ’80s. His King Kong, ca. 1961–63, is a very sedate and inflated ape set into a collage of New City architectural monuments appear to be bracing themselves for the animal’s dubious wrath. Bits of from the original film—“shoot it,” “bomb it,” and “spare us”—are scattered around the beast, like paper in the It is a wonderful synopsis of film fantasy and the power of paranoia.

This exhibition was like flipping a private sketchbook of early ideas, some of which Smithson developed and others he eventually abandoned. Like many artists’ early work, these drawings are both compelling slightly embarrassing because of their freshness and limitations. However they document important formative of this century and provide a more balanced assessment of an artist committed equally to ideas and the less calculable realms of expression.

Particia C. Phillips