Born in Passaic, New Jersey, in 1938, Robert Smithson’s artistic talent was recognized at a young age. While still attending high school, he earned a two-year scholarship to study at The Art Students League in New York, and also studied briefly at the Brooklyn Museum School. Although he was largely self-taught and never attended college, he had a solo show in New York at the age of twenty-one and another two years later in Rome. By the late 1960s, Smithson would be considered a central artist, writer, and critic in the post-Minimalist movement.
Heavily influenced by Abstract Expressionism, Smithson’s earliest pieces were paintings and collages that combined elements of his interest in popular culture, science fiction, European history, religion, and Byzantine art. He also was fascinated with sculptor David Smith’s use of unnatural materials that were decayed and discolored by natural elements. Smithson’s practice evolved after his marriage to sculptor Nancy Holt in 1963, and he later emerged as a proponent of the growing Minimalist movement.
Although Smithson was inspired by the Minimalists’ use of industrial materials, as well as their attention to both the art object and the experience of the space around it, he, like other young sculptors of the time, sought to abandon even more aspects of traditional sculpture. Smithson started to expand his work outside of galleries and into the landscape. He also constructed sculptures from scattered materials and sought ways to confound the viewer’s understanding of sculpture through the use mirrors, glass sheets, or neon lighting tubes in confusing scales. The sculpture Enantiomorphic Chambers (1964), which is composed of two cubic chambers made of painted steel and mirrors, is an exploration of mirroring, visual refraction, and negative aspects of perception. He created the piece to support the following claim: “If art is about vision, it is also about non vision.” Another work, The Eliminator (1964)—which was conceived as a clock that loses times rather than keeps it—was made from neon lights and mirrors to create a disproportionate sense of space by means of reflections.
During the late 1960s, Smithson established his concepts of Site and Nonsite, which are important contributions to the theoretical development of Land Art. The Site is a work created at a location outside the gallery, whereas the Nonsite is a grouping of objects and documentation inside the gallery. For Sites, Smithson made sculpture out of the landscape as a rejection of the exclusivity of art institutions and art historical classifications. Using nature as his studio, he aimed to frustrate the commodification of art and make its experience more direct and immediate. For his seminal 1969 series, Mirror Displacements, Smithson placed temporary groupings of mirrors half-embedded in earth that reflect the surrounding landscape at sites in England, the Yucatan, Florida, and central New York. The following year, Smithson devised Floating Island to Travel Around Manhattan Island. His sketch of the work depicted a toy tug pulling a barge carrying rocks and trees. Thirty-five years later, the Whitney Museum and Minetta Brook art organization commissioned a real tugboat to pull a 150-ton green and rocky landscape on a barge around Manhattan. The result was a mobile monument to the dialectical relationship between industry and nature.
Smithson’s Nonsites solved the problem of inaccessibility in his Sites. The works combine a map and photographs of a particular outdoor location with a container that housed the natural or industrial materials he had brought back from a Site. In 1967 Smithson began exploring industrial areas around New Jersey for a series of Nonsites that examined dump trucks excavating tons of earth. One of those works, A Nonsite, Franklin, New Jersey (1968), features an aerial photograph of the land near the Franklin Furnace Mines as well as wooden boxes containing ore deposit. Smithson shaped the image and bins into five trapezoids, and like his earlier mirror works, they reflect reality (and each other) as they displace it.
Smithson also coined the term “Land Art” in the late 1960s and gave birth to the movement by producing large-scale outdoor projects, or earthworks, that were no longer confined by the gallery. The works began with a series of “Pours” that include Glue Pour (1969) in Chicago, Concrete Pour (1969) in Vancouver, and Asphalt Rundown (1969) in Rome. The titles describe the forms and contents of the works, as well as the process of pouring glue, concrete, or asphalt down the sides of hills or cliffs. The works also reflect Smithson’s continued interest in relations between industrial expansion and geological processes. Harking back to his earlier attraction to decaying materials, much of Smithson’s output during this time was also shaped by an interest in the concept of entropy, the second law of thermodynamics that predicts the gradual decline into disorder and collapse of any given system or all objects in nature. Rather than propounding some sort of environmentalist idealism, Smithson approached his works in nature much as he did his projects with coalmines and garbage dumps. Furthermore, as he rejected the notion of the eternal, precious art object by which artists hope to immortalize themselves, Smithson designed his earthworks to be consumed in time and by nature. In this way, he aimed to show not only nature’s fragility in the face of industry, but also its ability to defend itself against such an invasion.
Smithson’s approach to nature is perhaps encapsulated best in the earthwork for which he is widely known, Spiral Jetty (1970). Constructed in six days on the shore of the Great Salt Lake in Utah, the 1,500-foot-long and 15-foot-wide spiral formation is composed entirely of “mud, salt crystals, rocks and water,” as Smithson states in the film that documents its creation. Unbeknownst to him, the film and photographs would be the only way in which viewers would see Spiral Jetty for almost three decades. Upon completion of the project, Smithson realized that he had constructed the jetty when the water level of the lake was unusually low. About two years later, the level returned to normal. It was not until a drought in 2002 that Spiral Jetty began to appear intermittently for the next ten years.
According to editor Philip Leider, Smithson set Spiral Jetty in the red water of the Great Salt Lake because “it had successfully resisted any and all attempts by man to put it to any constructive use whatsoever, from the day men first laid eyes on it right up to now.” Smithson also saw the work as an allusion to monuments of past civilizations like the Egyptian pyramids. In relation, the film (written and directed by Smithson and Holt) juxtaposes sequences of the construction of the jetty with footage of maps, dinosaurs in a natural history museum, and pages ripped from a history book. As part of his narration of the ideas that informed the creation of Spiral Jetty, Smithson states, “the earth’s history seems at times like a story recorded in a book, each page of which is torn into small pieces. Many of the pages and some of the pieces of each page are missing.”
Thus, Smithson encourages alternative views of history that recover the people, events, and objects that institutions often fail to represent. Spiral Jetty‘s spiraling vistas, which were filmed from a helicopter, also (literally) deny normalized points of view and purposefully disorient the viewer. In doing so, Smithson negates a definition or assignment of time and place for the artwork. These visual effects also serve to counter the conventions of film. On the one hand, like the aforementioned book, Spiral Jetty is a history edited by cutting strips of film. On the other hand, instead of imposing a linear perspective, Smithson reminds viewers that histories, in their attempts to categorize reality, are always manipulated and never complete.
At the age of thirty-five, three years after producing Spiral Jetty, Smithson died in a plane crash near Amarillo, Texas, while surveying another land art project. Despite his short lifetime, Smithson’s innovative approach to art-making gave rise to a legacy that continues to garner respect and recognition within and beyond the art world. — Contributed by Kanitra Fletcher