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Robert Smithson was a seminal figure in the Land Art movement through the 1960s and 1970s, though his immensely influential body of work also extends into writing, drawing, painting, sculpture, and photography. Best known for Spiral Jetty, his 1970 "earthwork" in the Great Salt Lake, Smithson made art using such unconventional materials as dump trucks, mirrors, maps, and quarries--all with the aim of transporting viewers, literally or figuratively, outside the gallery and museum space, which he considered "jails" and "tombs" inadequate for conveying the messy nature of reality.
Born in 1938 in Passaic, New Jersey, Smithson dropped out of high school to accept a scholarship at the Arts Students League in New York, where he began making expressionistic paintings that often featured religious or totemic themes. After graduation he spent six months in the Army as a volunteer and then hitchhiked across the country, visiting Native American landmarks, before returning to New York to produce his first solo show, at Artists Gallery in 1959, when he was only 21. In the early 1960s he had a show in Rome, where he was deeply affected by the city's ruins--entropy, in fact, would later become a major concern of his work. Leaving painting behind, he began making sculptures in the Minimalist style, and in 1966 he exhibited alongside Donald Judd and Dan Flavin in "Primary Structures," an influential Minimalism show at the Jewish Museum.
In 1967 Smithson, who considered his writing a vital parallel to his art, signaled the beginning of his mature artistic phase with the publication of "The Monuments of Passaic" in Artforum. In the famous photographic essay, the artist described how he took a copy of Brian Aldiss' science-fiction novel Earthworks with him on a trip to New Jersey's Passaic River, where he toured such industrial "monuments" as a bridge and a water derrick with a camera in hand, noticing that the "noonday sunshine cinema-ized the site, turning the bridge and the river into an over-exposed picture." Taking a picture of it, he wrote, "was like photographing a photograph.... When I walked on the bridge, it was as though I was walking on an enormous photograph that was made of wood and steel, and underneath the river existed as an enormous movie film that showed nothing but a continuous blank."
After this epiphany, Smithson--who concluded that "a great artist can make art by simply casting a glance"--began making work that engaged with the perception of the landscape and its representation, coining the term "site" for a place where art cannot be separated from its context. Some of his work, like his Yucatan Mirror Displacements (1969), where he placed mirrors in a series of nine natural settings, or Glue Pour (1969), where he ran a barrel of glue down a dirt slope in Vancouver, were temporary pieces captured in photographs. Other works, his "nonsites," took part of a landscape into the gallery, using it as a conduit to beam the viewer out to the actual site--with "nonsite" being a punning reference to the fact that viewers cannot actually "sight" the original. For instance, A Nonsite, Franklin, New Jersey (1968) consists of wooden boxes of limestone gathered at the Franklin Furnace mines together with an aerial photograph of the mines. Smithson called all of these pieces "earthworks," after Aldiss' book.
Constantly sketching and planning more ambitious earthworks that could be permanently installed in a landscape, Smithson traveled widely to scout possible sites, often with his wife Nancy Holt, also an important Land Artist. Visiting Utah, he found the site for Spiral Jetty when he came across a stretch of the Great Salt Lake where the water was colored dark pink (as a result of algae) and was drawn to the otherworldly, Martian color. Smithson hired two dump trucks to lay 6,650 tons of black basalt and earth into the water, creating a raised bank that stretched into the lake in a coiled shape inspired by the Great Serpent Mount, a Pre-Columbian indian monument in Ohio. While the 1970 piece was meant to be concealed and revealed as the water level rose and fell, an abundance of water kept it almost entirely submerged until a drought reduced the lake in 1999. The masterpiece, now overseen by the Dia Art Foundation, is visible today, though at the mercy of erosion and potential oil drilling nearby.
After completing other permanent works, including Parially Buried Woodshed (1970) at Kent State University and Broken Circle (1971) in Emmend, Holland, Smithson was flying in a small aircraft in 1973 to survey the site for Amarillo Ramp in Texas when the plane crashed, killing him at age 35. An appreciation in Artforum mourned that "Smithson died in the midst of a meditation on nature and art as original as any since Cezanne." Since then several of Smithson's works were executed posthumously under the supervision of Holt, who runs his estate--Amarillo Ramp was completed in 1973, and in 2005, as part of a retrospective at the Whitney, his plan to have a floating island towed around Manhattan by a tugboat was realized.
Watch a video of Spiral Jetty as viewed from a helicopter:
Watch a video of Smithson's 1969 Asphalt Rundown in Rome:
Take a video tour of the "Monuments of Passaic":(read less)
Techniques & Media: Drawing, Film and Video Art, Installation, Mixed Media, Painting, Photography, Sculpture
Inspirations & Key Themes: ancient civilizations, Anthropology, Decay, entropy, Frederick Law Olmsted, Jorge Luis Borges, Language, Nature, science, science fiction, TS Eliot
Influenced : Tony Cragg , Olafur Eliasson
Influenced by : Jackson Pollock
Worked with : Nancy Holt