Robert Smithson

Museum of Contemporary Art, Australia

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

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