Robert Smithson

Thumb back through the pages of Artforum thirty years ago. “Robert Smithson,” declared John Coplans in the first sentence of “The ‘Amarillo Ramp,’” “was a problem from the beginning.” An odd enough pronouncement, given its quasi-necrological context: Published in 1974, the essay was the first that the magazine devoted entirely to the artist since his death the year before. Of course Coplans (then a little over two years into his controversial stint as editor) was quick to explain his claim. One problem was formal. Smithson’s sculpture was eccentric, its spiraling antigeometries dissident answers to the “inert and selfcontained icons of Minimalism.” Such shapes were appropriate to a man endowed with an aggressive sense of mission; Smithson was ready to challenge and prepared to push (this was problem two). Yet the qualities of his sculpture alone could not compensate for the sad dearth of a larger body of realized pieces (problem three). For, his drawings notwithstanding, the output was small, and the Earthworks inaccessible; death cut short a progressive development that could only be judged incomplete. “This raises the [final] problem,” Coplans concluded, “of how an artist becomes part of the culture through his residue—Smithson left enough work for us to assess him, but not enough to canonize him. So Smithson proved to be a problem at the beginning, and remains one at the end.”

The difficulty has not gone away. On the contrary, each article, book and exhibition raises it anew, as more “residue” emerges, is more and more beautifully photographed, and takes its place in an oeuvre, knowledge of which is still trying to elude the final limit of death. With bizarre results: The general reader can now become familiar with “new” works, such as a long scroll imprinted with several woodcuts by the seventeen-year-old Smithson while still in high school. (Think of puberty as seen by an adolescent Ben Shahn, complete with teenage “boys looking at a hot book,” as the artist’s scrawled caption declares.) And she can examine, title by title, not one but two published listings of everything held in the artist’s library at his death, from books and records down to individual issues of magazines (many Partisan Reviews, no Artforums). All this helps to bring Smithson the polymathic geek and omnivorous reader quite vividly to life. In the meantime, however, less prepossessing aspects of his work still go unnoticed, like a small, glass-fronted black box, ca. 1960, with its contents of twisted wire and woozily painted objects (imagine a gothic version of a Joseph Cornell) that has rarely, if ever, been reproduced in any Smithson text. But the real question, pace Coplans, is not just how the artist “becomes part of the culture” but which culture—which notion or construction of culture—seeks to take him in. Local? National? International? Art historical? Artistic? Mass? Popular? And what comes along with him? Certainly Smithson is exemplary of a charged artistic moment and a highly articulated view of culture. To quote from Renée Green’s 1996 video script, Partially Buried, “The ’70s are in vogue now. Were they in vogue then? What could that mean?”

I wager there is much to be learned from any and every moment of enthusiasm for Smithson. And there are meaningful differences among the contexts and terms in which his work is successively framed. All apply directly to the Coplans conundrum: how to assess Smithson, and whether canonization finally stands waiting in the wings. Consider the concerns of the solo exhibitions mounted in the last decade or so. Several have indeed been utterly local: at Kent State University, a consideration of Partially Buried Woodshed, 1970; in Vancouver, scrutiny of what Smithson aimed (and failed) to do on Miami Islet in the waters of the Georgia Strait. (The idea was to cover the barren surface with broken glass, and when that proved impossible, with broken concrete, a plan that also fell through.) Robert A. Sobieszek’s revealing 1993 “Photo Works” at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art focused on a particular medium, while Eugenie Tsai’s 1991 “Robert Smithson Unearthed” at Columbia University made the role of his drawing its expansive point. But if such tightly focused exhibitions enlarged our notion of Smithson, they have been matched and doubled by several more inclusive, and sometimes more orthodox, surveys. All told, there have been four retrospectives since the artist’s death, three in Europe and now, finally, one in the United States.1

The European surveys might seem to parallel and recall a 1960s patronage model, when Smithson’s work, like that of other advanced American artists, turned up at nearly every major exhibition venue in Europe, whether Essen, London, Rome, Düsseldorf, Turin, or Bern. And if it is surprising that it has taken three decades to mount a stateside retrospective, the question of which Smithson it offers seems the most urgent, given that long delay.2 Does the artist remain a problem? If canonization still lingers as an issue, maybe even a possibility, we should remember that according to the necessary protocol, beatification always comes first.

To conjure the specter of a beatified Smithson leads directly to the current retrospective, organized by Tsai with Cornelia Butler at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. Later stops include the Dallas Museum of Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art, but in all three versions the selection will remain limited to around 180 works, small enough to seem a little skimpy, if not downright terse. As shown in Los Angeles, at least, no one could fail to notice either how much the streamlined logic of the presentation breaks with the usual priorities of the monographic model, or how its structure and choices urge on us a Smithson for our times.

Where I say logic, some will find illogic. For what is novel in the organization of the show is its utter disregard of anything like a chronological scheme. We enter in medias res: The first gallery is filled chockablock with sculpture and drawings of 1966 and 1967, the former including, Earthworks excepted, some of the most physically present and imposing pieces the artist ever made: Plunge, The Cryosphere, Alogon, Alogon #2, and Pointless Vanishing Point. Made of metal painted white or black, or in the case of The Cryosphere, green with added chrome, these works not only have an undeniable spatial and visual presence, but they themselves directly concern our faculties of vision, its powers and limits alike.

Like Brancusi before him, Smithson knew that for a sculpture to concern itself with vision means that it arrives at a selfconscious, even aggressive staging of sight. Mirrors, reflections, afterimages, shadows: All have their place in this exhibition, and it is utterly like Smithson to wring these immaterial effects and sensations from materials that are almost hyperbolically present, insistently there. It seems telling for the argument of the installation that along one wall of the opening gallery marches a multipartite mirror piece, Mirage No. 1, 1967. Its panels pick up the pieces around it, particularly the vertiginous Plunge, and submit each to a replication that is also a dematerialization: a characteristic Smithson move.

What is surprising about this exhibition is the extended case it clearly wants to make for Smithson as a visual artist. If italics are necessary, this is because the very idea goes squarely against what to many has seemed most important about the Smithson we already have. This is Smithson the writer and reader, the same Smithson who famously wrote of “the illusory babels of language” and the intoxications of “dizzying syntaxes”; the Smithson who, in his drawing A Heap of Language, 1966, tirelessly piled word on word, synonym atop synonym, like Pelion upon Ossa (“Language / phraseology speech / tongue lingo vernacular . . .”). This is the Smithson who in his 1970 movie The Spiral Jetty scattered a book’s torn pages to water and wind. It is not that the MoCA exhibition banishes this persona entirely. The notorious A Heap of Language is certainly included, its orderly graph-paper grid overwritten by penciled word-shapes—words as fragmented repetitions, which in this context trade syntactical connections for a focus on (visual) form. And there are other drawings whose scattered verbal jottings come complete with favorite quotations or scrawled lists: towns in New Jersey, say, Lodi through Mendham with area codes.

But for sheer graphic poetry, images like these cannot hold a candle to some of the exhibition’s less familiar inclusions. There is Texas Airport, 1966, for example. Also a gridded work, the sheet assembles, via photostat, a global collection of airport groundplans from Bogotá to Buffalo to San Juan to Dhahran, only to transform their constructivist angles into mazes and earth mounds, all with the addition of a few fine lines. Or there is Study for Glacial Mirror, ca. 1969, in which a bright Kubrickian trapezoid floats in from some odyssey somewhere; unsupported, it hovers within, but just fails to bridge, a polar abyss. The collage is tiny, but its scale is not. And again the effect is purely visual in kind. Maybe that emphasis explains why the ultradiscreet labels never indicate either the date or source of the Smithson essays they cite. It is as if what mattered was merely the existence of each apodictic pronouncement, rather than prosaic details like where or when. Smithson: “The artificial ingenuity of time allows no return to nature. . . . There is nothing to ‘understand’ about such a region except the consciousness that makes understanding impossible.” Cue Thus Spake Zarathustra, and turn it up really loud.

To present Smithson as a visual artist, of course, means more than this. For example, it involves offering up his early Pop flirtations: A love for plastic keeps company with a taste for Day-Glo colors, explosions, porn stars, monsters, and more. In Honeymoon Machine, 1964, wires run between a starlet’s nipples and an outsize generator, as if a transfer of energy (surging in which direction?) might fire the artwork into (necessarily mechanical) life. Sometimes the apocalyptic motor is instead the bleeding body of the Christian martyr (Thomas Crow’s essay in the accompanying catalogue offers a brilliant reading of what, not least in terms of grandiloquent ambition, Smithson continued to take from “his old hidden God”).3 Compared to the works of the early ’60s, the later pieces—the “Non-Sites” and “Mirror Displacements” in particular—often look, for all their hectic doublings and repetitions, positively serene.

Or if not serene, then at least urgently visual in a chain reaction that, as Smithson knew and savored, would suspend his audience like the bright trapezoid above the proverbial abyss. Abyss, as in mise en abîme. Or abyss as in “raw matter.” This is the term Smithson himself used to define his concept of “Site,” the conceptual antithesis of his “Non-Site” works: “The bins or containers of my Non-Sites gather in the fragments that are experienced in the physical abyss of raw matter.” 4 For Smithson, there was no more important process for an artwork to catalyze than the possibility of moving across, though never bridging, the gap between his contact with the world’s undifferentiated surface and the bounded, fragmented representation of that contact, whether as a map, a photograph, a rock pile, or all three. Heaven knows what he would have made of the curatorial efforts to find approximate matches for the Cayuga salt and Oberhausen slag he once collected, now that the old veins are closed, the waste heaps leveled and covered with sod. Those efforts succeeded, and so the viewer stands before the archaeological re-creations, savoring the endless play of reflection and considering their use value in the present day. But perhaps the thing to do instead is to take a trip to the Spiral Jetty, if only because, as Smithson dreamed it, “in the Spiral Jetty the surd takes over and leads one into a world that cannot be expressed by number or rationality. Ambiguities are admitted rather than rejected, contradictions are increased rather than decreased. . . . Purity is put in jeopardy.” 5 By these lights the Spiral Jetty is not so much a place or artwork as a concept. As such, it is visionary, rather than visual, but these days the visionary and the realist seem like one and the same.

Anne M. Wagner is professor of modern art at the University of California, Berkeley.


1. My reckoning excludes the “retrospective” organized at the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University, in 1980, not only because by the standards of recent exhibitions, its survey, which begins in 1964, is strikingly curtailed, but also “because of the cerebral nature of Smithson’s work,” the exhibition itself discounted the possibility of a retrospective, declaring that “a simple showing of the sculpture in an exhibition would be far from adequate to convey its meaning and significance.” See Robert Hobbs, Robert Smithson: Sculpture (Ithaca, New York and London: Cornell University Press, 1980), 7.

2. Per Bj. Boym, the organizer of a 1999 retrospective that appeared in Oslo, Stockholm, and Ishøj, Denmark, attributed the fact that, until then, Smithson retrospectives had been organized only in Europe “to the way in which Smithson’s art challenges notions about the traditional roles attributed to center and periphery in terms of history, the role of humanity, the role of intellect, compositional principles and the practice of art institutions.” The implication, of course, is that such ideas are inimical to the artistic establishment in the US. See Robert Smithson Retrospective, Works 1955-1973 (Oslo: The National Museum of Contemporary Art, 1999), 12-13.

3. Thomas Crow, “Cosmic Exile: Prophetic Turns in the Art and Life of Robert Smithson,” in Robert Smithson, ed. Eugenie Tsai, (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2004), 56.

4. “A Sedimentation of the Mind: Earth Projects,” Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings, ed. J. Flam, (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1996), 104, First published in Artforum, Sept., 1968.

5. “The Spiral Jetty,” Collected Writings, 147. First published in Arts of the Environment, ed. Gyorgy Kepes (New York: George Braziller, 1972)