The sculptor, essayist, and filmmaker Robert Smithson (1938-1973) is most known for his sitespecific environmental earth works.
The sculptor Robert Smithson began his career as a painter. Born in Passaic, New Jersey, on January 2, 1938, Smithson was educated in New Jersey public schools. While at Clifton High School he won a scholarship to attend evening classes at the Art Students League. In 1956 he studied at the Brooklyn Museum School. After high school graduation and a brief stint in the Army Reserves, Smithson moved to New York City in 1957. There he painted his first canvasses in an Abstract Expressionist style and developed friendships with poets Allan Brillant and Richard Baker. Smithson's life-long concern for "oppositions" surfaced in these early works where, with a decorative and gestural brushstroke, he painted antithetical religious themes of the celestial and the demonic, the earthly and the spiritual, the sacred and the profane.
Since his childhood Smithson had been interested in natural history. At his family home in New Jersey he built and maintained a museum of reptiles, fossils, and artifacts. In high school he frequented the New York Museum of Natural History, where he was particularly fascinated by the dinosaurs. The artist Nancy Holt, whom he remet in 1959 (they had previously met as youngsters in New Jersey), had a strong concern in her work for biology, and she encouraged Smithson to develop this interest in natural history into sculpture. He soon began to collect specimens—for example, sponges or chemical samples—which he then displayed in an art format to demonstrate that art, like biology, is an inert substance based in nature that can be organized and structured into meaningful relationships.
Creating "Oppositions" Sculptures
In 1964-1965 Smithson created his first large scale sculptures. Many of these works, with their emphasis on geometry, industrial fabrication, and rational appearance, utilized the minimalist vocabulary of artists such as Sol LeWitt, Robert Morris, or Carl Andre. Yet Smithson's intent was to undercut logic and to invert systems by merging his observations of nature with art. Enantiomorphic Chambers (1965) combines the artist's interest in crystallography and perception. "Enantiomorphic" refers to crystalline compounds whose molecular structures have a mirrored relationship to each other. Smithson made literal this biological form with a steel structure that holds mirrors at an oblique angle. Vision becomes dispersed as the viewer sees not himself but reflections of reflections, an illusion without an illusion. Thus the crystalline structure acts as a metaphor for art—through a static object it simultaneously refers to both how one sees and to nature. Yet at the same time, this work mirrors no external reality, only itself. Forms based on nature thus point out the ineptness of rational systems and logic.
During this period Smithson often employed mirrors or glass to demonstrate his ideas. This organic material formed into an inorganic shape was either inset, as in Enantiomorphic Chambers, or layered, as in Mirror Strata. In these mirror and glass works Smithson set up an intriguing dialogue between shape and illusion. If one sees Mirror Strata (a large piece formed by overlaid strips of glass) as sculpture, for example, it is necessary to negate the reflective aspect of its material while, on the other hand, if one concentrates on its surface, then its solidity as an object disappears. Appearance and reality play off against one another, allowing the observer to constantly form new definitions and understandings of both the object and the artist's intent. Smithson showed many of these works at his first one-man show at the Dwan Gallery in December-January 1966-1967.
In 1966 Smithson began making excursions to urban, industrial, and quarry sites in New Jersey. At the same time, he published articles on these trips in leading art magazines. These essays both documented his activities and elucidated his artistic theories. One of these articles, "The Monuments of Passaic," a photo essay of his home town, announced Smithson's concern for reclamation of industrial sites and his interest in entropy. Drawing upon the tradition of 18th-century travel books, Smithson here presented "anti-monuments," tributes to suburban sprawl and urban growth that exemplified the decay and deterioration of all things: "One's mind and the earth are in a constant state of erosion, mental rivers wear away abstract banks, brain waves undermine cliffs of thought, ideas decompose into stones of unknowing, and conceptual crystallizations break apart into deposits of gritty reason." Smithson often documented these trips with map-drawings that explored space as both subject matter and formal element. Nancy Holt, whom Smithson married in 1963, often accompanied him on these trips.
Smithson continued to explore entropy and chaos in his dialectical series entitled Site/NonSite. In these sculptures Smithson expanded the cartographic aspect of his field trips to disrupt the premises of traditional sculpture. The Non-Site, consisting of bins filled with material collected from specific locations, refers back to the Site from which it was gathered. The bins are displayed in geometric structures and matched with maps and photographs, thus forming a continuous dialogue between the artist's activity, the object that signifies that activity, and the site in nature from which the object was formed. These Site/NonSite works undermined the museum/gallery location even as they made the transformational actions of the artist on raw matter in its original unbounded state even more explicit.
Smithson continued these ideas on a more conceptual level in his Mirror Displacements. In this series, which was documented as a published article in ArtForum magazine in 1969, Smithson placed nine square mirrors in different surroundings. These mirrors displaced, broke-up, and distorted the world around them. They become both solid and void, object and reflection, positive and negative shape. The artist stressed here the mimetic and illusory aspects of art even as he denied the importance of art objects (the mirrors were immediately dismantled after he photographed them at each site and were stored somewhere in New York). Moreover, the published essay itself became the final artifact of the artist's activity, another mirror that adds one more displacement to our understanding of reality.
Work on a Large Scale
In 1970 Smithson began construction of the large site-specific earth works for which he is most known. Spiral Jetty, made of mud, salt crystals, rocks, and water, was built on an abandoned oil rig site on Rozelle Point off of the Great Salt Lake in Utah. The jetty celebrates both technology and nature: although it was built with dump trucks and caterpillar tractors spreading earth and rock from the surrounding desert, it forms a spiral, an elemental form in nature. The spiral can be seen as a schematic image of evolution, a symbol for growth or destruction, or a classical form for the orbit of the moon; it is both an expanding force (as a nebula) and a contracting one (like a whirlpool); it is fairly complex and yet is an essential motif of all ornamental art. At the center, there is nothing but the sun—the beginning and the end of the universe. This large work involving more than 6,650 tons of material is now totally submerged in the lake and exists mainly in its documentary (non-site) form as photographs, a 35-minute 16mm film, and an essay.
For the last two years of his life Smithson sought to use his art as a resource that would mediate between ecology and industry. He contacted many land mining corporations, offering his services as an artist-consultant for land reclamation. He wished to make art out of the decay of discarded land at such sites, thereby restoring art to an everyday function within society. Broken Circle/Spiral Hill (1971) was built in Emmen, Holland, on a reclaimed quarry. Broken Circle is formed by two semi-circles which are mirrored or doubled—half on land, half on water, half jetty, half canal. In the center is an ancient boulder which could not be moved and formed an "accidental" center, disrupting the dialectic that Smithson had established between the broken circle and the hill. Yet despite this interruption, the two forms constantly refer and relate back to one another: one structure is surrounded by water, the other by land; while the Broken Circle is flat, the Spiral Hill is three-dimensional, its counterclockwise spiral (white sand on black topsoil) again a symbol for destruction. This work, originally commissioned as a temporary outdoor installation, proved so popular with the people of Emmen that they voted to preserve it as a park.
Smithson continued to explore other sites for his land reclamation earth projects. In 1973 he accepted a private commission to build the Amarillo Ramp in Texas. While photographing the site, Smithson died in an airplane crash on July 20, 1973. The work was completed posthumously by Nancy Holt, Richard Serra, and Tony Shafrazi.
Further Reading on Robert Smithson
Smithson's writings have been gathered together in a book edited by Nancy Holt, The Writings of Robert Smithson (1979). The exhibition catalogue for the Smithson retrospective at Cornell, Robert Smithson: Sculpture by Robert Hobbs (1982), gives a thorough discussion and illustration of Smithson's sculptural activity. See also Susan Ginsburg, Robert Smithson: Drawings (1974).
Additional Biography Sources
Hobbs, Robert Carleton, Robert Smithson—sculpture, Ithaca:Cornell University Press, 1981.