Robert Smithson

Art Review by Donald Goddard

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In part of the film he made with his wife, Nancy Holt, about Spiral Jetty, Robert Smithson is seen running the length of his work into the Great Salt Lake, filmed from a helicopter behind him. When he reaches the end he is at the center of the spiral, the center of himself, the end of himself, and can go no farther. So he gazes at the water and returns, walking. Of course, the implication is that the spiral does go further, within itself, like the whirlpool that was once thought to mark a deep hole in the lake through which water escaped under the western United States to the Pacific Ocean. Spiral Jetty is an elaborate attempt to escape, into or through the blood-red waters of the lake, knowing it is not possible. Convolutions of his brain were not enough. Neither was a work of art, grand as it might be. Ironically, or perhaps appropriately, the work is often not visible now, and when it is visible the encrustation of salt has turned it into an ethereal, other-worldly specter, like the white hair of an old person, a seemingly infinite (but definitely finite) structure that might have pleased the artist for its crystalline purity and connectivity. It seems more destination now than journey, though it remains in imagination a journey, as it was for Smithson.

Smithson’s struggles with the traditions of Western art were extraordinary. The conventions of pictures in that tradition, of reading imagery on a flat surface, have become quite familiar. Where perspective is involved, from the Renaissance on, the illusion of space is formulated by diagonals (architectural, topographical, figural, etc.) that seem to extend into depth in a more-or-less orderly fashion (often extremely orderly). Where perspective is not involved, as in much painting of the last century, the images are read on the surface, as before, but immanently, as part of the surface. In both cases, on the other hand, space can be read as coming from the inside, from the distance toward us. What we see in front of us, spread across the surface of the picture, whether narrative or abstract, is actually being projected from some infinity of space. One-point perspective brings that vision forward from a single place in infinity, whereas the surface fields of Abstract Expressionism, for instance, seem to be pushed forward by the totality of space. Images in Smithson’s early paintings and collages smash up against the picture plane from behind so that their wounding, desperation, or threat impinges on our conscience: the many images of Christ and of prehistoric and post-historic worlds.

I think Smithson understood the pictorial tradition in this light and wanted to go further, to turn perspective around and make it look at us, and at other things tangential to us, or beyond us–to make us less privileged, as viewers, and at the same time more privileged, as part of the world. In 1964-65, Smithson devised a number of works that subvert the expectations of normal sight. These are faceted, human-scaled objects, like big crystals, composed of triangular mirrors of tinted glass which reflect not the person in front of them but the floor, walls, and ceiling of the room, which in a gallery are usually quite featureless. They are, in other words, minimal objects in the age of Minimalism and the minimalist gallery, objects unto themselves. But of course they contradict the privileged object inasmuch as they are almost garishly colored, with bright borders and tinted glass, and they look out at the world even more insistently and in more directions than we can look at them. They deflect as they reflect, removing us from the picture while mindful of our being there. The object becomes a multifaceted eye perfectly situated to register, rectify, and slightly (sometimes more than slightly) alter the putative blankness around it–the joinings of plain horizontal and vertical planes.

From 1966 until his death in 1973, Smithson worked increasingly out-of-doors, with seemingly boundless energy (his own answer to entropy). Much of this involved mapping on various geographical, geological, and imaginative scales; excursions into the realms of architecture, regional planning, and industrial development; and sampling like an earth scientist. All of it involved photography, where the differences between documentation and art are indistinct, and perhaps unimportant. Some of the photographs–single frames, contact strips, and grids–ended up in collages. But there were thousands of photographs recording expeditions he undertook, usually with Nancy Holt and other artists and friends, to locations in North America and Europe, including the moderne apartment buildings on Central Park West in New York City; monuments and construction sites in Passaic, New Jersey; steelworks and slagheaps in Oberhausen, Germany; forest and beach in Yucatan, Mexico; the Spiral Jetty in Utah. Yes, he was an environmental artist, an earth artist (though that term seems unduly materialistic or innocuous, like painter in oils). He understood, with both courage and trepidation, that the earth holds secrets well beyond the purview of museum and gallery. Still, he remained trenchantly one whose access to those secrets was pictorial, within the tradition he turned around.

On some of the trips Smithson brought mirrors, single square mirrors for eight sites along the eastern shore of Cayuga Lake in upstate New York and clusters of twelve and thirteen square mirrors for nine sites in Yucatan (which have been linked by Suzaan Boettger in the show’s catalogue with the nine regions in each of Dante’s Inferno, Pergatorio, and Paradiso). They belong to the total original works, the journeys they represent, which is in turn recorded in photographs of each placement. The mirrors added a pictorial presence to the landscape in which they were inserted and the photographs add a second pictorial level around the mirrors. The comprehensible, minimalist universe of the earlier geometric gallery pieces is dissipated. In the Cayuga photographs of 1969 (Ithaca Mirror Trail), we look at reflections that are both continuous and discontinuous to a confounding degree with the landscape in which they appear, conjoined opposites of sky and ground, rocks and snow, shadow and light. Our sense of order, or indeed order itself, is dislocated. In the Yucatan Mirror Displacements, also 1969, the groups of mirrors appear as blind eyes, nearly blank reflections of sky, water, leaves. They are often partially buried in earth or sand, or hidden behind vegetation, as though to further prevent us from knowing what they see.

As pictures, the mirrors are entries to other worlds, the equivalents of scenes from the Bible or from ancient Pre-Columbian mythology. But they are also indications of disjunctions in our understanding of how the world is put together, what material and spiritual consciousness mean. They are literal avatars of illusion. Photographs–like maps, measurements, geological excavations–doubly embody the illusion of knowing, because on the one hand they are assumed to reproduce a scene precisely, when in fact that assumption is the very basis for misinterpretation, and because they contribute to a larger body of knowledge, which itself, perforce, must be full of misapprehensions, imprecisions, or at least questions. When Smithson lectured at the University of Utah in 1972 on his Yucatan trip, it was about not the ancient ruins of Palenque but the Hotel Palenque, where he, Holt, and his friend and dealer Virginia Dwan had stayed. Another layer of illusion was added, namely that the hotel is as interesting and important as the ruins, which, of course, it is. Or is one illusion better than another? In the lecture, Smithson calls for one slide after another and describes each shot with the casual and quizzical authority of an academic or a tour guide or an art critic, beginning with an overall shot of the decrepit hotel, which is apparently being torn down and rebuilt at the same time, with a tour bus in front of it and continuing through half demolished roof lines, a tiled walkway, a ruined terrace from which one might see the ancient ruins were it not a misty day, the former swimming pool and dance hall, piles of building materials that have or might be used, a stairway, and a closed green door. The performance is extremely flat and funny, but it is also extremely affectionate about the amazing detail of reality, how things and colors are put together, by accident or on purpose, what purposes things might serve, or not serve. Everything is purposeful in its purposelessness, whether we understand it or not.

Hotel Palenque ended with the closed green door. Floating Island began for me and hundreds of others on the Christopher Street pier in lower Manhattan with the water expanse of New York Harbor and the lower Hudson River, on which a small, dark shape, oddly distinct from the sailboats and water taxis around it, began to appear somewhere beyond the Statue of Liberty. It approached slowly like an insect from the horizon and eventually became distinct as a brief landscape of trees, rocks, and grass surrealistically floating into view. Floating Island was on a 30-foot-by-90-foot barge being pulled by a small tugboat, as in Smithson’s 1970 drawing, and it would be pulled around Manhattan, as the artist wanted it, for several days, inasmuch as Manhattan, with all its buildings and other developments, could not be pulled around it. It approached and moved by, never getting to the land, from which it came, as Smithson, in Spiral Jetty, approached but never got to the water, from which we all come.

Donald Goddard © 2005

Robert Smithson was scheduled for June 23 through October 23 at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Organized by Eugenie Tsai and Cornelia Butler, the exhibition originated at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, California (September 12 through December 13, 2004) and continued at the Dallas Museum of Art (January 14 through April 3, 2005).

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