New York Sun
June 23, 2005

Setting Sights on an American Visionary

Some two hours west of Salt Lake City, below a formidably rutted dirt road at a place called Rozel Point, a 1,500-foot-long coiling line of rock juts into the improbably red water of the Great Salt Lake. Constructed in 1970, "Spiral Jetty," a seminal and early example of Earthworks - also known as land art - is pretty much all most people know about the American artist Robert Smithson (1938-73). If, that is, they've heard of him at all. And because of its remote location, most people know of "Spiral Jetty" only from photographs. For most of us, Smithson has remained something of a mystery, an artist who died young, at 35, and whose work is revered but rarely seen.

With an aim to redress that lack of familiarity, a new exhibition - the first comprehensive American retrospective of his work - opens today at the Whitney Museum. Ably organized by Eugenie Tsai, this engrossing show features some 150 pieces that span the artist's lamentably short career. Over a period of fewer than 20 years, Smithson produced a large, beguiling, and remarkably influential body of work.

Ms. Tsai begins her catalog essay by correctly noting that "one of the most important concepts Smithson advanced was that of the 'site,' a place in the world where art is inseparable from its context." In other words, a site is a place for art - like the Great Salt Lake - beyond such traditional locations as the gallery, museum, or sculpture garden. Of course, "site" has become a much abused word. Art-world discussions tend to link Smithson and the notion of the site with "institutional critique," an ideological criticism of museums and the commercial, white-cube gallery. Those discussions, however, slight what Smithson brought into the gallery space. I prefer to regard Smithson as a questing, visionary artist in the great tradition of American visionaries. His outlook seems closer to that of the Transcendentalists, to Whitman's democratic vistas, to Olmstead, and even to William Carlos Williams (who, it turns out, was Smithson's pediatrician). He is an example of the peculiar American romance of nature and science. Born in Passaic, N.J., Smithson won a scholarship to study at the Art Students League while still in high school. He later eschewed college, and his frequently brilliant writings have an autodidact's density and anarchic originality. He was also something of a prodigy, having his first solo show, in 1959, at age 21.

The early works contain unfledged versions of many of the themes and obsessions that appeared during what he considered his mature period, which began some five years later. A pinwheel shape sits atop a thick stem, and against a red background, in the wildly expressive painting "Vile Flower" (1961), and spirals mark the wounds in "Feet of Christ" (1961), one of a number of paintings on religious themes. He titled one surreal, almost psychedelic pencil drawing "The Museum" (1960); another, "A Quarry in Upper Montclair, New Jersey" (1960) announces his fascination with the landscape and what he called "entropic" landscapes - marginal, decaying, and disused areas. His early collages quote equally from art history (St. John in the Desert), pop culture (King Kong), and technology (circuit plans and the like). By the mid-1960s, Smithson began making sculptures, and some paintings, in a cool, hypermodern style, and in 1966 he participated in "Primary Structures," the Jewish Museum's epoch-defining show that introduced the Minimalism of Donald Judd and Dan Flavin to the world. But Smithson's sculptures of the period range wider than the Minimalists with whom he was often associated.

Addressing problems of sight, his "Enantiomorphic Chambers" (1965), for example, are wall-mounted boxes that use mirrors to, in Smithson's words, "cancel out one's reflected image, when one is directly between the two mirrors." He made painted-steel sculptures in something close to a Minimalist idiom - multiple towers of stepped cubes, for instance - but also mimicked whirling crystalline structures and used neon-red plastic to create a zippy double-pyramid.

It was in 1966 and 1967, while working on a proposal for public artworks at the Dallas-Fort Worth Regional Airport (now Dallas-Fort Worth International), that his imagination utterly cut loose. He developed the notion of the site, creating such whimsical pieces as "The Monuments of Passaic" (1967), a sort of photo-travelogue featuring gorgeous images of such industrial wreckage as drainage pipes and old bridges. Yet, as the "site" took art out to the landscape, Smithson's "nonsites" brought the landscape, or elements of it, into the gallery. "Mono Lake Nonsite (Cinders Near Black Point)" places cinders from Mono Lake in a painted steel, frame like box, open in the center, which sits on the floor in front of a Photostat of a map of the region with an empty square marked out at its center.

The experimentations with the sites resulted in the extraordinary Earthworks, such as "Spiral Jetty," for which Smithson became famous, and, in a sense, for which he died. He was killed in a plane crash while scouting locations for the posthumously realized "Amarillo Ramp" (1973). The nonsites, on the other hand, led to the similarly magnificent mirror displacements, which are simple arrangements of natural materials - sand, salt, seashells - and mirrors that, through the magic of art, come together with hypnotic beauty.

In addition to the sculptures, drawings, and paintings, the Whitney's excellent show includes maps and photographs, letters and other documents, as well as several important films. And, despite 30 subsequent years of verbiage about institutional critique, Smithson's work seems quite at home in the museum setting, often elegant and always intriguing. It will cause you to experience your environment, the world outside the museum, with refreshed eyes. I hope it will also lead viewers to seek out the Earthworks, which can't be seen in any museum. Until October 23 (945 Madison Avenue at 75th Street, 212-570-3614).


Robert Smithson's Drawings, by Carter Ratcliff, 1962, © 2000, Art on Paper
A Heap of Language: Robert Smithson and American Hieroglyphic,
by Richard Sieburth, Professor of French and Comparative Literature, New York University,
From a talk on November 18, 1999

The Salt of the Earth, By MELISSA SANFORD, Published: January 13, 2004
Yucatan is Elsewhere, On Robert Smithson's Hotel Palenque
(First printed in Parkett 43, 1995, page. 133)
Sculpture From the Earth, But Never Limited by
It By MICHAEL KIMMELMAN, New York Times, June 24, 2005

Setting Sights on an American Visionary
BY DANIEL KUNITZ, New York Sun, June 23, 2005

The Whitney brings a little of
Robert Smithson?s outward-looking art back into the white box.
By Mark Stevens , New York Magazine

IKONS by Katy Siegel



All site content including Smithson art and text is © 2001 Holt-Smithson Foundation, Licensed by VAGA, New York. Courtesy of James Cohan Gallery, New York/Shanghai