Robert Smithson (1938–1973) once remarked, “I’m not a reductive artist, I’m a generative artist” (Moira Roth, “An Interview with Robert Smithson (1973),” in Eugenie Tsai, ed., Robert Smithson, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004, 88). The Smithson Effect, an exhibition at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts exploring Smithson’s afterlife in the work of other artists since the 1990s, proves that his generative quality exceeded even his own lifetime. With The Smithson Effect, curator Jill Dawsey brings together twenty-two contemporary artists whose work either appropriates Smithson’s or explores his central concepts in new directions. This visually arresting collection of art produced in a wide variety of media constructs a compelling argument for the significance of his contribution. Moreover, the figure of Smithson provides a rationale for bringing an exhibition of established contemporary artists to an audience peripheral to major art-world centers.
The exhibition aims to show how, in the 1990s, a number of leading artists turned distinctly to Smithson’s practice in their work. Drawing on previous scholarship as inspiration for this concept, Dawsey cites essays by Cornelia Butler and James Meyer that assess younger artists’ assimilation, appropriation, and recovery of avant-garde art of the 1960s and 1970s (Cornelia Butler, “A Lurid Presence: Smithson’s Legacy and Post-Studio Art,” in Tsai, ed., Robert Smithson, 224–43; James Meyer, “Nostalgia and Memory: Legacies of the 1960s in Recent Work,” in Scott Burton et al., eds., Painting, Object, Film, Concept: Works from the Herbig Collection, New York: Christie’s, 1998, 26–35). Butler positions Smithson as a pioneer of “post-studio” practice and surveys artists in the 1990s who returned to his work, including several artists who appear in The Smithson Effect: The Center for Land Use Interpretation (CLUI), Tacita Dean, Mark Dion, Renée Green, and Simon Leung. Meyer’s essay examines the resonance of the 1960s in the strategies and sensibilities employed by a number of contemporary artists. He speculates that this reclamation may be attributed to the desire on the part of artists who came of age during the art boom in the 1980s to reject practices involving traditional media and easily commodifiable objects and look to avant-garde art of the 1960s for alternatives. Both essays are foundational for Dawsey’s exhibition, which examines this “renewed historical consciousness” through the lens of Smithson (Jill Dawsey, “The Smithson Effect,” exhibition pamphlet).
The Smithson Effect fittingly begins with a room of artworks referencing Spiral Jetty (1970). As not only Smithson’s best-known work but also a monument of local pride in the greater Salt Lake City area (the earthwork sits in the Great Salt Lake about two-and-a half hours northeast of the Utah Museum of Fine Arts), Spiral Jetty serves as a logical point of departure. This first section inspired by Spiral Jetty is also the most literal, easing the viewer into what will become increasingly difficult associations between the work in the gallery and the constellation of writings, films, sculpture, drawings, photographs, and so on that constitute Smithson’s oeuvre. From Adam Bateman’s video Jetty (2007), featuring small-scale reconstructions with electric toy bulldozers, to Florian Maier-Aichen’s elegant photograph of the earthwork at night with bright points of flashbulb lights, One Day at Spiral Jetty (2009), the gallery is filled with works that attempt to alter the viewers’ perceptions of an image that has become pervasive both in art history and in the popular culture of Utah.
The video and film pieces tend to offer more complex examples of the artistic possibilities produced through dialogue with Smithson’s work. Melanie Smith’s black-and-white video Spiral City (2002) was shot from a helicopter flying over Mexico City. As the image spirals further away from the ground, the debris-covered rooftops morph into a grid of rectangles divided by city streets. Emulating the helicopter sequence surveying the earthwork in Smithson’s film Spiral Jetty (1970), but focusing on Mexico City, Smith communicates a sense of endless urban expansion and overpopulation. Playing on Smithson’s notion that the spiral undermines the logic of the grid (Smithson, “The Spiral Jetty” (1972), in Jack Flam, ed., Robert Smithson: Collected Writings, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996, 143–53), Smith uses his concept as one strategy in her ongoing investigation of the social and economic structures of Mexico City. Deborah Ligorio’s video of a trip to Spiral Jetty, Donut to Spiral (2004), is a meditation on the mountainous desert landscape of Utah and the associations that emerge while watching that landscape speed by a car window. She describes the feel of the hot desert breeze, the sense of desolation, the confusion of scale when human perception has no bearings, and the image of the western landscape in popular film and science fiction—all of these aspects becoming more significant than the final destination. Adjacent to Ligorio’s video is a larger-than-life color photograph, Robert Smithson (Las Vegas) (1995), in which the artist, Tony Tasset, takes on the mythic and notably absent figure of Smithson. Dressed in a white denim suit with cowboy hat and boots, wearing eyeglasses, and posed with his foot on a shovel, the Smithson impersonator stands ready to dig a hole in the desert floor.
In the most compelling pieces on view, Smithson provides a model for rethinking the artist’s relationship to history. Green’s twenty-minute film Partially Buried (1996) intersperses her search for the site of Smithson’s no longer extant sculpture at Kent State University, Partially Buried Woodshed (1970), with other fragments of information from various sources including 1970s pop culture and her childhood. Her interpretative and subjective approach suggests the inadequacy of history understood as a coherent narrative. Although Smithson had not intended Partially Buried Woodshed to function as a political piece when he poured dirt onto an abandoned shed on the Kent State campus four months before the Ohio National Guard killed four students protesting the U.S. invasion of Cambodia, his site-specific artwork became invested with additional significance. Green is certainly aware not only of the circumstances of the production of Partially Buried Woodshed but also its afterlife as makeshift political monument and lost earthwork (removed at a later point by the university administration). This complex history has served as a focus for a series of works by Green, including a follow-up film, Partially Buried Continued (1997), also shown in The Smithson Effect, and a multimedia installation in 1996.
Sam Durant’s Partially Buried 1960s/70s Dystopia Revealed (Mick Jagger at Altamont) & Utopia Reflected (Wavy Gravy at Woodstock) (1998) appropriates Smithson’s “non-sites” to comment on the historical change that took place in 1969. Two rectangular mirrors lie on the floor with mounds of dirt, large enough to conceal a body but in actuality covering speakers playing two different soundtracks simultaneously. Both are edited to stop and start in a stuttering manner: one of Wavy Gravy welcoming the audience to Woodstock, the other of Mick Jagger pleading with the Altamont crowd with phrases like, “Why are we fighting?” Recalling Smithson’s “non-sites” comprised of piles of earth taken from an exterior site and placed within geometric containers or right-angled mirror constructions in the gallery space along with other documentation of the site, Durant alters perceptions of these minimalist constructions. Through the use of scale and sound he transforms the raw materials into a statement about the disillusionment felt at the end of the 1960s. Next to Durant’s installation hangs a diptych painting by Alexis Rockman, Central Park (1997–98), showing two possible futures in which the park is covered by a monumental glacier or a tropical rainforest, the surrounding buildings abandoned and succumbing to Technicolor ruin. The painting provides an interesting counterpoint to Durant’s piece in that painting is a more traditional medium, and yet it also successfully expresses a notion of entropy, in this case an ecological entropy in which the city physically decays while nature persists.
The Smithson Effect culminates in a series of poignant critical commentaries on U.S. culture. Golden Age (2009), one of Tom Burr’s two installations, consists of a folding screen composed of four rectangular mirrors that reflect an image of the viewer and hide copies of the book Doctor, Make Me Beautiful! (1973), opened and placed in a pile on the floor behind the screen as if in mid-read. The installation points to the inevitable aging of the body as another mode of entropy humans fight and ultimately fail to overcome. The Six Grandfathers, Paha Sapa, In the Year 502,002 C.E. (2002) by Matthew Buckingham imagines the eventual erosion of Mount Rushmore in a digital photograph and brings a fascination with time, entropy, and science fiction to bear on history. The pseudo-documentary photograph, supposedly based on how geologists predict the mountainside will look in about 500,000 years, is juxtaposed with a timeline from prehistory to 2000 printed on the museum wall detailing the United States’s attempted displacement and extermination of Native Americans in the area where Gutzon Borglum, Mormon sculptor and member of the Ku Klux Klan, created the monument.
Although some might mistakenly understand Smithson as the “origin” for the ideas presented in the show, his own multidimensional practice drew from diverse sources including natural history, science, science fiction, literature, philosophy, and, of course, the history of art. Similarly, the most successful pieces in The Smithson Effect both absorb and transform existing ideas. The distance to which the concept of entropy, for example, is pushed to political ends in Buckingham’s piece on Mount Rushmore supports Dawsey’s thesis that artists mine Smithson’s work to find “new possibilities for art making and activism in the present.” Like Smithson’s “site/non-sites,” the sum total of these works and their references cannot be contained within the limits of the gallery space but open out onto further associations and experiences. As for me, I took the journey out to see Spiral Jetty after viewing the exhibition to experience the dialectical relationship between the site-specific Spiral Jetty and the gallery filled with art in homage to Smithson’s ideas.