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Peter Schjeldahl on Robert Smithson


A Robert Smithson retrospective.

The New Yorker
Issue of 2005-09-05

Robert Smithson is in fashion, in a hair-shirt kind of way. Excited reverence has marked the art-world response to a retrospective of hi work that opened in Los Angeles last year and is now at the Whitney. This may seem odd, given that Smithson, the mystagogical dandy o postminimalism, who died in a plane crash in 1973, at the age of thirty-five, was a sculptor who made exactly one good sculpture: “Th Spiral Jetty” (1970), a coil of rocks and dirt made with earth-moving equipment, in a remote bay of the Great Salt Lake, which few peopl have seen except in handsome but inevitably misleading photographs. (Underwater for many years, it reëmerged in 2002.) I paid my ow first visit recently, jolting over rudimentary dirt roads. The piece is initially disappointing: a rather dainty geometrical figure that, at about hundred and fifty feet across, is too small—not by a lot, but fatally so—to hold scale against the sun-stunned, distantly islanded lake, ami hills that are strewn with black basalt boulders. (It is within sight of another, truly huge jetty, the site of long-derelict facilities that were onc used for extracting oil from some still seeping, odorous tar pits. Smithson, who loved ruins, wrote about it in connection to his work, but strangely, few others have taken it into account.) The “Jetty” improves dramatically when you tread its jagged surface, which is lapped b syrupy, clear water that is tinted pink by algae, and encrusted with formations of ice-white salt left over from the jetty’s intermitten submersions. Out there, I felt mightily centered in the ambient desolation. In the course of an afternoon, I asked occasional fellow-tourist why they had come. All said that they had heard of the “Jetty” and reckoned that it was something to see—usually along with the nearb Golden Spike National Monument, where, periodically, old-timey locomotives reënact the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad, i 1869. (People seemed puzzled when asked if they liked the work. One said, “It’s O.K.”

As an artist, Smithson was a poet, at his best in critical, philosophical, and manifesto-like pieces that he wrote for Artforum and other magazines between 1966 and 1973. If his art is great—in the sense that great art, whatever else it does, nags at the minds of subsequent artists—it is so in ways that do not meet the eye but take form in cogitation. In visual mediums, Smithson was some combination of the congenitally talentless and the allergic to sensory enjoyment. I defy anyone to defend anything in the Whitney show as being satisfying to look at. It ranges from callow religious paintings, through gimmicky geometric sculptures (which are imitative of the minimalists, notably Sol LeWitt), to arid exhibits of rocks, mirrors, and whatnot that relate, like relics, to the artist’s expeditions in various wastelands, along with documentary drawings, maps, and many, many photographs—the harvest of a barely fifteen-year career in which Smithson barged to the nerve center of the New York avant-garde. (I recall the nightly sight of him at Max’s Kansas City, with his permanent smirk and his somehow physically palpable, daunting intelligence.) But his coldly impassioned, polymathic, torrential essays are objects of art that will outlive much of what hangs in modern museums.

The sculptor Carl Andre, a friend of Smithson’s, called him “a trickster rogue . . . Transylvanian.” He was born in 1938 and grew up in the New Jersey suburbs as an only child. (A brother had died of leukemia.) His pediatrician, in Rutherford, was the poet William Carlos Williams, whose rhapsodic treatment of geology in the epic “Paterson” would contribute to his ardor for earth sciences. Obsessed with dinosaurs as a boy, Smithson often visited the Museum of Natural History in New York with his father, a mortgage-and-loan officer, who built a room in their basement for Robert’s collected fossils and live snakes, and encouraged him to plan the family’s vacations to national parks. At the age of sixteen, Smithson was dividing his days between public high school and, on a scholarship, the Art Students League, in New York. He never attended college. He met artists and writers—among them Franz Kline, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and Hubert Selby, Jr., who became a particular friend—at the Cedar Bar and in Village coffeehouses. He hitchhiked across the United States and Mexico. He had a solo show in New York in 1959, when he was twenty-one, and another two years later, in Rome.

A driven autodidact, Smithson became enthralled by the anguished Anglo-Catholicism of T. S. Eliot and the dashing misanthropy of Wyndham Lewis—members, along with Ezra Pound and T. E. Hulme, of what Smithson, deprecating this phase of his development years later, called “the antidemocratic intelligentsia.” They fed an attitude in him of showy suffering and superb disdain. Was Smithson a trifle full of himself? He wrote to a patron in Rome, in 1961, apropos paintings in which he identified with Christ crucified, “I am a Modern artist dying of Modernism,” and, of New York, “I don’t have to appeal to the art world here; they will follow.” He wasn’t far wrong—given that, by the mid-sixties, in New York, almost any radical gesture could gin up a constituency. He was the firstcomer of the postminimalist generation, which grounded itself in a cultural situation revolutionized by minimalism and Pop art—a violently expanded milieu, immediately seductive to academic intellectuals, in which critical attention and institutional backing tended to favor every latest thing, the farther out the better. As a maker of art, Smithson was no match for the three other leading postminimalists—Bruce Nauman, Richard Serra, and Eva Hesse, who let their work speak for them. He surfed ideas. The most potent was the ostensibly anti-commercial, anti-museum argosy of “earthworks,” a species of instant monuments on pharaonic scale in far-flung places, which he conceived in 1966, when he was an “artist consultant” to engineers working on the Dallas/Fort Worth Airport. Those projects included “Partially Buried Woodshed” (1970), in Kent, Ohio, and “Broken Circle” and “Spiral Hill,” both from 1971, in Emmen, Holland. (Among other lately reglamorized classics of the movement are monumental interventions by Michael Heizer in Nevada and Walter de Maria in New Mexico.) Smithson gave earthworks a grounding in history and theory with a brilliant essay on the auteur of Central Park, “Frederick Law Olmsted and the Dialectical Landscape” (1973). By the time he died, his thinking had taken a tentatively civic turn, as in proposing the redemption of played-out strip mines as art.

“In the illusory babels of language,” he wrote in 1968, “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 . . . coherences that vanish into quasiexactitudes and sublunary and translunary principles.” The passage typifies Smithson’s practically hallucinogenic prose style, whose content seems to me at least as much a matter of how it sounds as of what, often with sly opacity, it says. I think of Smithson as the last and, but for Ginsberg, perhaps the best Beat poet. His finest work, for me, along with a richly suggestive film about the making of the “Jetty,” is his essay “A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey” (1967), which, teasing significance from such things as a pumping derrick, drainpipes, and a sandbox, strums the sublime: “Time turns metaphors into things, and stacks them up in cold rooms, or places them in the celestial playgrounds of the suburbs.” Toward the end of the piece, he asks, “Has Passaic replaced Rome as The Eternal City?,” and, by that point, you are fairly prepared to believe it.

As a figure of freedom, temerity, and lyrical prophecy, Smithson stirs nostalgia among artists and others in the art world, which, for all its wealth and popularity, feels increasingly constricted, faltering, and prosaic. That nostalgia is like a yearning for a lost frontier, troubling the sleep of care-worn suburbanites. Smithson’s example suggests not only that anything can be art but that anyone, with proper fire in the belly, can become a great artist, even without being much good at it. This fit of romance won’t last. It will count again that the works that are on display at the Whitney are drab and tedious. But, for a while, thoughts of Smithson will continue to fuel a present, perhaps eventually fruitful, mood of burning dissatisfaction.