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Provocatively described by the artist Joan Jonas as a Mannerist, Robert Smithson is certainly best, and sometimes only, remembered for his iconic earthwork pieces, in particular his Spiral Jetty of 1970 (Brian Conley and Joe Amrhein, eds., Collection of Writings on Robert Smithson [New York: Pierogi, 2000], 37). So does this epithet have any merit? The recent retrospective of Smithson’s work at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, the first such comprehensive exhibition in the United States, answered this with a resounding “yes.” Smithson’s formal language is certainly one of movement, space, spiritual intensity, anticlassicism, and the fusion of the arts. The intellectually complex iconography and theoretical content furthermore add to Jonas’s case for Smithson’s brand of Mannerism.
The exhibition, featuring more than 150 works including paintings, works on paper, essays, photographs, objects, and films dating from 1953 to 1973, was ably organized by the independent curator Eugenie Tsai with the museum’s Connie Butler. Avoiding the easier road of a chronological overview, the exhibition was arranged thematically. In the absence of any cumbersome (albeit occasionally helpful) wall texts, these themes were left to be discovered by the careful, attentive visitor. Smithson, with his penchant for cartography and collage, would certainly have approved. The curators, however, make clear their challenge to the typical view of critics—and of the artist himself—that he only reached artistic maturity in the nonfigurative works produced from ca. 1965 onward. Smithson’s early works so richly inform his later, more mature works that they deserve the new attention given them in this retrospective. As Smithson himself said, “It seems that no matter how far out you go, you’re always thrown back to your point of origin.” (Alexander Alberro and Patricia Norvell, eds., Recording Conceptual Art: Early Interviews with Barry, Huebler, Kaltenbach, LeWitt, Morris, Oppenheim, Siegelaub, Smithson, Weiner, by Patricia Norvell [Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001], 126).
The first room of the exhibition featured such minimal sculptures as Plunge (1966), Alogon (1966), and The Cryosphere (1966); this gallery, with its high, stepped ceiling, was a perfect setting for these pieces. The minimal works retain their clarity and well-fabricated boldness. The works on paper displayed in this gallery also demonstrate the artist’s multifaceted engagement with maps and perspective. The map collages speak of a young man fascinated with both the “treasure map” (and ensuing hunts to such places as Antarctica) and the scientific precision of mapmaking. Smithson’s 1966 design proposals for the Dallas–Fort Worth Regional Airport, some of which were displayed here, may not have been realized but allowed him to “think big,” to consider the outside landscape, and, perhaps most importantly, the aerial perspective that is crucial for his quintessential Spiral Jetty. The second room contained what were arguably the most unexpected and fascinating works for the visitor who is primarily familiar with Smithson’s well-known nonsites and earthworks. The surprises were abundant and decidedly Mannerist: the Pop colors and slickness of the painted metal and mirrored wall reliefs; the sexual content in such works as Untitled (Hexagonal Center) and Untitled (Second Stage Injector) (both 1963); and the busy yet wise and witty collage work St. John in the Desert (1961–63). Smithson’s fascination with perceptual experience is hypnotically passed along to the viewer in such works as the reconstructed Enantiomorphic Chambers (1965/2003) and Three Mirror Vortex (1965). These works and others fulfill Smithson’s pronouncement that “[i]nstallations should empty rooms, not fill them” (Nancy Holt, ed., The Writings of Robert Smithson [New York: New York University Press, 1979], 60). While serious investigations of optics, these pieces also satisfy Smithson’s sly sense of humor as the viewer is left searching for his or her reflection. The space around the pieces is collapsed and the surrounding architecture is undermined, leading the reflectionless viewer to surmise that Smithson’s work will soon leave the gallery space altogether.
Installed in the third gallery was a selection of nonsites and mirror displacements from 1968 and 1969—Smithson’s first bold moves to engage the landscape outside of the gallery. These are strong works that were unfortunately too crowded in this space. (This crowding, however, nudged the viewer to anticipate Smithson’s next move, working completely outdoors). The nonsite pieces, installed with their corresponding photographs and maps, create a kind of travelogue for the entropic landscape but are still intensely aware of the gallery walls and the interior space of a room. Smithson’s voluptuous mirror displacements, such as Mirror with Crushed Shells (Sanibel Island) (1969), following shortly after the nonsite pieces, work toward eliminating both the steel containers of the early nonsites (and thus letting the earth material spill more freely) as well as the gallery walls themselves (once again, through the use of arranged mirrors).
The exhibition moved on to the documentation of Smithson’s rundowns and pours; his Asphalt Rundown (1969) was his first earthwork made and shown at an outdoor site. The humor of this piece contrasts with the more melancholy Partially Buried Woodshed (1970); Smithson’s documentation of this work is bolstered by Robert Fiore and Jane Crawford’s film (dating from the 1970s and 2004), which was screened at the retrospective. The same melancholic entropy is found in the Hotel Palenque project of 1969. Nearby were earlier works on paper such as The End of Man (1960), à la William Blake, and ink drawings from 1962 that are largely text pieces. The majority of Smithson’s work, through explicit content, inferred inspiration, and titling, speaks of his voracious and eclectic reading habits and his fascination with language as an artistic material. Smithson was also a literate and vivid writer, albeit an occasionally prolix one. A sampling of his essays (Arts Magazine, November 1966; Artforum, December 1967 and September 1969) was displayed in the exhibition, not simply as supplemental material but as projects as vital as his art.
In another room, early expressionistic paintings such as Eye of Blood (1966) and Feet of Christ (1961) were juxtaposed with works on paper from 1970 and 1971 that relate to Spiral Jetty. While the religious content of some of these works may momentarily startle some viewers—Smithson was raised a Catholic—it is the recurring motif of the spiral and the consistent palette of red, black, and white that beg attention. While Smithson could not know that his Spiral Jetty would be his climactic work, it is almost chilling to realize that Smithson’s long-standing attraction to these primal forms and colors were to find their culmination there, especially considering that when Spiral Jetty recently resurfaced, its once dark color had become white with salt crystals.
The last gallery was dominated by Mirrors and Shelly Sand (1969–70), a large mirror displacement piece that, unlike the others in the exhibition, had room to breathe and be properly enjoyed. Smithson’s playfulness is apparent in such strong works on paper as Map of Broken Glass (Atlantis) (1970) and A Heap of Language (1966) as well as in the less successful Urination Map of the Constellation Hydra (1969). A fitting end to the exhibition was the companion film Smithson made about the making of Spiral Jetty. Smithson’s artistic intensity and the actual enormity of the project are vibrantly conveyed, as well as his boyish preoccupations with dinosaurs, trucks, rocks, mythology (i.e., the “hidden whirlpool” connecting the Great Salt Lake to the Pacific Ocean), and treasure maps. This is not meant derogatorily; on the contrary, Smithson’s honesty, youthfulness (he was only thirty-five years old when he tragically died), and earnestness are part of his continuing charm and influence. The final sequence of the film shows Smithson being chased by a helicopter as he runs, stumbling and panting, along the spiral; this “exhausted play” is a vestige of his childhood that he has luckily—and ambitiously—parlayed into his career. It is because of his coupled seriousness and humor in addition to his insatiable curiosity (seen in the variety of literary, philosophic, scientific, and popular-culture references found throughout his oeuvre) that Smithson is able to make his work and his experience of creating it more, rather than less, real to us. Avoiding the overplayed hermeneutics often heaped upon Smithson, the exhibition instead allowed his art and his words, boyish penmanship and all, to speak to the viewer—and to one another—more directly and completely.
Getty Research Institute
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