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Robert Smithson 1938-1973
Robert Smithson 1938-1973
Robert Smithson 1938-1973

Words that fit: Artist in many mediums, Art Cricket, Essayist, etc.

Smithson is most famous for being an 'earth' artist and creating massive works like The Spiral Jetty (a 1500 foot long spiral of mud, rock and salt cystals that juts out into the Great Salt Lake in Utah). He worked with earth a lot. This may or may not be important for my unwary readers' understanding of why I choose certain excerpt when talking about Smithson's childhood and 'formative' years.

Biographical Information

So you can feel like you know him, in the scientific, scientistic way of a chronology, and a discussion of his origins.

Smithson was born in Passaic, New Jersey and lived (variously) in that town and also in Paterson, Clifton and Rutherford, also in New Jersey, before his move to New York City when his art career took off. When he was a young boy, his pediatrician happened to be William Carlos Williams, who (uncoincidentally) wrote the poem Paterson and is generally recognized as one of the 'cornerstone' authors of American modernism. ((See Lometa's excellent (superb, even) writeup on Williams for lots more information.)) Though Williams' contact with Smithson wasn't important or earth-shattering by any means, Smithson met him later in life. A discussion of this meeting...

Interviewer: Would you like to say something about your visit with William Carlos Williams?

Smithson: Yes. Well, this took place I think either in 1958 or 1959. William Carlos Williams was going to do an introduction for Irving Layton's book of poems. So I went out to Rutherford with Irving Layton. It wasn't for an interview, he was in pretty bad shape at that time, he was kind of palsied. But he was rather interesting.-- Once he found out that we weren't going to be doing any articles, he was pretty open. Sophie Williams was there too. He said that he enjoyed meeting artists more than writers.

Interviewer: Oh, really? Why?

Smithson: He just found them more interesting to talk to. (P. 146-147)

I don't really know why I included that little episode. Well, maybe I do. I think it's interesting to see little encounters like that, brief unimportant (in the grand scheme sense of the word) meetings between two (generally) unrelated people. Both Smithson and Williams were arguably at the forefront of their fields. In any case, let's move on.

Yes. Let's.

In addition to his famous doctorb, Smithson was interested at a young age in Natural History/Geology. He visited the Museum of Natural History in New York, and started his own sort of Museum in his basement, with the help of his father. He collected and organized (curated) his own specimens, and had a sizeable collection. More interview excerpts (I like reading interviews and letters...):

Smithson: I was also very interested at that time in natural history. In Clifton my father built what you could call a kind of suburban basement museum for me to display all my fossils and shells, and I was involved with collecting insects and...

Interviewer: Where did these shells come from?

Smithson: Oh, different places. We traveled a lot at that time. Right after the war in 1946 when we went out West I was about eight years old. It was an impressionable period. I started to get involved in collecting at that time. But basically I was pretty much unto myself in being interested in field naturalist things, looking for insects, rocks and whatever.

Interviewer: Did you have books around that were involved with these topics?

Smithson: Yes. And I went to the Museum of Natural History. When I was about seven I did very large paper constructions of dinosaurs which in a way, I suppose, relate right up to the present in terms of the film I made on The Spiral Jetty-- the prehistoric motif runs throughout the film. So in a funny way I guess there is not that much difference between what I am now and my childhood. (p. 137)

Later on he discusses how he was disappointed with a visit to the Museum of Modern Art and how he decided with his father to return to the Museum of Natural History. This may or may not let you know about Smithson's pressing concerns...

Well, I tire easily of dealing with the Facts of (someone else's) life, so I'll sum up a few other things in point format:
  1. In his last years of high school, Smithson managed to convince his principal in New Jersey to allow him to attend the Art Students League in New York for a few days a week. He met other artists there and became more involved in the 'art world'.
  2. He began working with earth, and writing essays in the middle to late sixties, along with other Earthwork artists like Neil Jenney, Dennis Oppenheimer, and Gunther Haacke, to name a few.
  3. He died in a plane crash in 1973 while photographing/filming a site which he planned to work on in the future.
  4. Since his death, there have been a large number of exhibitions featuring his work, as well as a continued theoretical interest in both his writing and his artistic works (which, in a number of cases, coincide).

That may or may not have been much of a biography of the man, but it situates him a little bit for what I want to discuss in the next part of this writeup....

Robert Smithson's Nonsites

What draws me to Smithson's work (and writing) is similar to what I find appealing in Cy Twombly's work: its anti-binary character. Smithson often describes his work as dialectical in character. Though I am not overly fond of Hegel (as I've made clear in both my Georg Hegel writeup and my Cy Twombly writeup) I do find the operation of dialectics interesting, certainly more interesting than simply opposing to concepts to each other. Rather than simply opposing the inside and the outside, the gallery and the earthwork, the artist and the viewer, the object and the concept, Smithson's work and writing attempt (and, I think, succeed) to overturn and dissolve these oppositions while in some ways participating in them.

In particular, I think his "Nonsites" are successful in their attempt at subverting, or even circumventing, these sorts of binary oppositions. My interest in this sort of art comes from my more theoretical interests in the more recent anti-metaphysical trend in philosophy, art criticism, and literary theory. Smithson describes my interest in the nonsite better than I can...

Anthony Robbin: It isn't so necessary for the artist to render this chaos into form so much as to expose the fact that...?

Robert Smithson: It's there.

Robbin: Yes. Not only that it's there, but that he is dealing with it, manipulating it, speculating about it.

Smithson: That he is living with it without getting hysterical, and making some ideal system which distorts...

Robbin: Not making an ideal system, but at the same time making some system...

Smithson: Yes. But even some system tells you nothing about art.


Smithson: I'm doing it to expose the fact that it is a system, therefore taking away the vaulted mystery that is supposed to reside in it. The artifice is plainly an artifice. I want to de-mythify things. (pp. 158-159)

I know this interview sounds (reads) abruptly cut and a little confusing, but Smithson (and Robbin) get at the points that I want to discuss: the act of creating a system can, at once, be both systematic and anti-systematic. This is what I think Smithson's non-sites achieve: participation, evasion and criticism all at once.

In the illusory babels of language, an artist might advance specifically to get lost, and to intoxicate himself in dizzying syntaxes, seeking odd intersections of meaning, strange corridors of history, unexpected echoes, unknown humors, or voids of knowledge... -Smithson

The above is from "A Museum of Language in the Vicinity of Art"

So, the moment of truth: what exactly IS a nonsite? Well, without getting into all of the philosophical voodoo terminology, I'll just describe them in the most obvious way. Basically, a nonsite is the combination of a gallery installation, and an actual 'natural' site (a quarry, a salt lake, etc.). The few I've seen consist of rocks or sediments collected at these sites and organized in interesting ways that relate to the sites from which they come from. For instance, one nonsite has certain types of rocks and crystals arranged to match up with an aerial photograph of the site. The particular amount of each type of rock/crystal in the samples also corresponds, to scale, to the actual amount of that rock or crystal found in the 'natural' site. Smithson did a number of these nonsites, all with differing relationships between the site and the nonsite, but I hope that one description lets you know, at least somewhat, what they are 'about'.

Nonsites both participate in the gallery itself, by installing an 'object' of art within the gallery, as well as destroy the gallery, or subvert it, by moving the focus of art outside the 'object' and outside the gallery, period. So, rather than simply evacuating the gallery, Smithson forces it to participate in a dialectic that dissolves the absolute difference between inside/outside, gallery (culture, if you want)/nature. Rather: the gallery becomes both outside and inside, and the site (the quarry, etc.) becomes inside while remaining outside... a dialectical movement between both sides of an opposition dissolves that opposition, and, in doing so, makes it appear uninteresting. What is most interesting about Smithson's work is not simply that it is both inside and outside (though that is interesting too) but that in being in two apparently opposed places at once, Smithson draws our attention to the artifice of art, an artifice that has been 'mystified' and 'mythified' by the art world for centuries.

Passaic seems full of "holes" compared to New York City, which seems tightly packed and solid, and those holes in a sense are the monumental vacancies that define, without trying, the memory-traces of an abandoned set of futures. -Smithson, A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey

In dissolving the problematic of object/concept that plagued debates in the Conceptual art world, as well as the problematic of inside/outside that was the hot-topic of the Earth art world, Smithson has, I think, moved art theory further ahead than even the most avant garde Conceptualist (someone like Sol Lewitt) or Earth Artists...

He questions the whole structure, he participates, he doesn't participate. He succeeds where Dada (and even more obviously, neo-Dada) had only laid the groundwork... His is not only art, it is anti-art and it is non-art. Rather than simply opposing art and anti-art (as Dada has so famously done) Smithson rejects the dichotomy.

Well, I'm about finished... I find Smithson's work both interesting to look at and interesting to read. If you were at all interested in this writeup, I suggest you look at some of the following References:
"High seriousness and high humor are the same thing" -R.S.

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