New York

Robert Smithson

International Center for Photography

For Robert Smithson, photography was fraught with ontological complexity, “cameras,” he said, “possess the power to invent many worlds.” Though he made use of a range of photographic media, from serial photography to film, he was always sharply conscious of the danger of being limited by the representational qualities of a given method. He kept his use of photography as open-ended as possible, and while the act of recording a site remained integral to his projects—which were always fluid in conception and often ephemeral in form—in his careful hands it yielded infinitely more than a means of documentation.

The numerous gems in this show of photoworks included pieces documenting seminal projects such as the “mirror displacements,” the Spiral Jetty, 1970, and The Monuments of Passaic, 1967. An extraordinary sequence of slides depicting an array of views of the Hotel Palenque in Mexico—a functioning ruin in 1969—at which Smithson stayed with his wife Nancy Holt and dealer Virginia Dwan while he completed the project, was less familiar. These scenes—which in their bare sincerity and air of primitive fantasy resemble the tawdry B-movies by which he was endlessly fascinated—were shown accompanied by a tape of often hilarious, mock-anthropological commentary, in which Smithson referred to the Palenque’s ongoing decay, and periodic, makeshift renovation, as a kind of cosmic program accomplished with “sensitivity and grace.”

Though he adored cinema and frequently invoked it in his writing as a loose, framing metaphor, Smithson was less comfortable using film than still photography. His 1970 film, The Spiral Jetty, however—while more hyperbolic than photographs of the same subject—effectively exposes the underlying structure of the work it documents. In much the same way that his texts serve at once as foil and lyrical counterpoint to his art, the film’s voiceover is powerfully evocative, while it is also distancing and discombobulating, obsessing over minutiae such as crystal formation and the symptoms of sunstroke, revealing the Spiral Jetty to be, above all, an explosion of scale.

For Smithson, photography was often as organic and potentially uncontrollable as the site. “A camera,” he said, “is wild in just anybody’s hands, therefore one must set limits.” Though The Monuments of Passaic, perhaps his most disarming work (which ironically framed subjects like the dirty Passaic river, bulldozers, pylons, even a doleful plaster Venus), is palpably, though speciously melancholic, the photos balk at even the blandest sentimentality. One senses, in fact, that these deadpan vistas are themselves ultimately uncontainable, which renders these quotidian scenes oddly foreign. Part of Smithson’s genius was that he scanned the American landscape with the cunning zeal of a seasoned time-traveller.

In an effort to highlight the then burgeoning coincidence of art and text, Harold Rosenberg once called Smithson’s art an “excrescence of theory”—but, in fact, for Smithson himself his theory was anything but primary; he said, for example, “There is no perfection in my range, because my thoughts as well as the material that I’m dealing with are always coming loose, breaking apart and bleeding at the edges.” At a time when it seems that art is becoming increasingly grounded by theory less flexible than Smithson’s, his work seems not to recede with time, but, rather, to continue to resonate. Paradoxically, Smithson’s work formed an open system within a universe that he recognized as supremely entropic. The Spiral Jetty has, in fact, recently resurfaced after decades of submersion, radically transformed by thick encrustations of salt crystals.

K. Marriott Jones