Issue 11 June-August 1993 RSS

Extra Terrestrial


Robert Smithson

Both during his brief, productive career and in the years since, commentators have consistently pointed out the individuality of Robert Smithson’s approach. The sculptures associated with ‘Primary Structures’, the nonsites contemporaneous with Anti-Form or Process art, and the earthworks made at a time when others, too, were working in the environment were each recognised to be offering something original to their contexts. For this reason there has seemed little need for a thorough-going reappraisal of the artist at any time since his death in 1973.

What has occurred more generally is that Smithson’s art and ideas have remained relevant and have proved worthy of repeated visits, each one reconfirming his influential status. At a time when the terms ‘installation’ and ‘site-specificity’ are so ubiquitous as to have become virtually unusable as critical concepts, the formulations worked out by Smithson 25 and more years ago around the key issues of space, time and the relationship between ‘somewhere’ and the ‘nowhere’ of the gallery retain a pertinence and vivid freshness that is salutary. In spite of the importance of his work, however, exhibitions have tended to compartmentalise Smithson’s career, concentrating on one or other area of his output. Entropic Landscape, the thoughtful retrospective put together by James Lingwood and Maggie Gilchrist for IVAM, Valencia, is selective, but covers work from 1960 through to 1973. Six galleries include early paintings, collages and pop-related sculptures; Gyrostasis, Alogon #1 and the mirror and glass strata pieces of the mid-60s; Nonsites, photographic works and documentation of the Mirror Displacements; drawings relating to, and documentation of Glue Pour, Partially Buried Woodshed and Asphalt Rundown as well as the remarkable Hotel Palenque slide sequence; Spiral Jetty; and the final two earthworks, Broken Circle/Spiral Hill and Amarillo Ramp, along with drawings and models for other projects.

In an article written the year after Smithson’s death, John Coplans remarked on how, once the Spiral Jetty had been laid down, Smithson had some of the surface boulders ripped up and loosened again: ‘Evidently Smithson wanted to make locomotion discontinuous - to disrupt it - perhaps because the view across the water is so flat and continuous, and so sublime.‘1 You can see the effect of this disruption in Smithson’s film of the work where, in a long sequence shot from a helicopter, he is tracked picking his way and stumbling along the length of the jetty. The journey is mentioned in Smithson’s essay, ‘Spiral Jetty’. ‘Purity is put in jeopardy’ by the non-linearity of his progress: ‘I took my chances on a perilous path, along which my steps zigzagged, resembling a lightening bolt.’ Immediately following this point in the essay comes the well-known passage in which Smithson describes filming the sequence: ‘For my film (a film is a spiral made up of frames) I would have myself filmed from a helicopter (from the Greek helix, helikos meaning spiral) directly overhead in order to get scale in terms of erratic steps.’ As we read this, things seem to be coming together, to be cohering and in doing so to be extracting some kind of sense from the work. What we are witnessing, however, is more a case of what Smithson called elsewhere a ‘sedimentation of the mind’. It is a principle demonstrated time and again in his writings whereby otherwise arbitrary and disconnected images and ideas settle down one upon the other to produce, however transiently, something of substance. Recognising the indispensability of these writings to an understanding of his work, the IVAM catalogue reproduces several of Smithson’s major essays. Falling into and spinning away from an imagined thematic centre they follow an unplottable, continually dislocated trajectory. Never advancing logical, reasoned argument, they zigzag between topics, juxtaposing anecdotal description with scientific fact, jumbling together disparate quotes and constantly shifting focus in a way that fractures time and scale. They are eclectic and driven, at times self-possessed to the point of arrogance, and at others gauche, but always compelling reading.

In the early works, Smithson’s interest in his artistic precursors, notably the Abstract Expressionists, is seen to combine with a personal compendium of preoccupations—myth; science fiction; teratology; a sense of time which extends into the distant past as well as the future; an interest in layering and stratification as a geological palpable record of that timescale; a concern with seeing; eyes and the colour red. All of these things were to inform his work throughout his career. The Eye of Blood (1961) projects us forward a decade to the Spiral Jetty, to Smithson’s liking for the colour of the Great Salt Lake imparted by the red algae in the water and to his emphasis of both this and the form of the jetty by manoeuvring the helicopter in order to film the sun’s blinding reflection at the very centre of the spiral. ‘Chemically Speaking, our blood is analogous in composition to the primordial seas,’ he was to write of that scramble to the end of the jetty, and when he arrived there: ‘I thought of Jackson Pollock’s Eyes in the Heat (1946).’ Presumably Smithson saw the painting on his trip to Europe for a one person show at the George Lester Gallery in Rome in 1961. Whatever the case, one is taken back by the remark to the 1963 collage Tears in which disembodied eyes punctuate the narrow space above a highly figured ‘landscape’. The semantically ambiguous word ‘tear’ drips from the corner of each eye. The showing of the early paintings at Diane Brown, New York in 1985 forced a reckoning with Smithson’s interest in Abstract Expressionism and, through that, in European culture. Seeing these works here, in close proximity to later ideas and projects, one agrees with Paul Wood’s view of their importance:

There is relatively little in the Site/Non-Sites and Mirror Displacements to account for the peculiar mix of the symbolic and the literal, the mythic and the material in Spiral Jetty or Broken Circle/Spiral Hill. The language of the writings alone is not enough to secure the iconography. This, it would seem, derives from a conscious re-engagement with the early paintings; on a par with the engagement of those paintings themselves with Pollock’s example.2

The mythic as an area of concern in Abstract Expressionism was something which Smithson felt had hitherto been suppressed in the formalist criticism of Greenberg and others. For him, too, addressing modernism through figures such as T.S. Eliot meant a confrontation with Catholicism, an alternative approach to engagement with the world that Smithson would never entirely relinquish. Even at his funeral, Philip Leider was to read from ‘Ash Wednesday’.3 ‘This is the land. We have our inheritance.’ But by the time modernism is discussed at any length in his writings, it is already at the service of Smithson’s prototypically post-modern cultural vision. His text, ‘Ultramoderne’ concerns itself not with ‘high’ modern culture, but with the more demotic architectural forms of American Art Deco, the glass, steel and concrete fantasy structures of Manhattan. ‘On top of some of the ultratowers we discover ziggurats or models of “cosmic mountains”. The heavy leaden memories of monolithic civilisations are placed out of sight, in the aerial regions that few look at. A miniature Aztec ziggurat might be poised on the edge of an escarpment.’ We see this sentiment illustrated three years later in drawings like Surd Deposit and Entropic Steps. ‘Ultramoderne’ charts how the window of the 30s has been transformed in the 60s into a mirror:

The mirror promises so much and gives so little, it is a pool of swarming ideas or neoplatonic archetypes and repulsive to the realist.

As he was to observe on his Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey, made shortly after writing ‘Ultramoderne’, the thing about mirrors is that you never know which side of them you are on. The insubstantiality of their images disturbs and fractures the surrounding reality.

The sculptures of the mid-60s, while looking somewhat akin to Minimalism, were never quite in tune with it. Writing on Smithson’s 1966 show at the Dwan Gallery, New York, Toby Mussman noted that the stepped increase in size between the elements of sculptures like Alogon #2 and Plunge, strongly implied the possibility of infinite extension, thus giving the impression that the works were in a significant manner incomplete.4 In a similar vein, Lizzie Borden wrote shortly after his death that: ‘Although Smithson’s early pieces (such as Enantiomorphic Chambers, Cryosphere, Plunge) shared the label of ‘Primary Structures’, his art resisted substantive form and conceptualized definition. He tried to give intransigent materials the power of growth, change and transcendence in the imagination.‘5 ‘Entropy and the New Monuments’ is a clear exposition of Smithson’s position vis-a-vis the Minimalists of the time, and gives a very different slant on the kinds of issues that are familiarly called up in discussion of that work. The repetitiveness of serial production that one sees behind both Judd and Warhol is indeed markedly different from the ‘timelessness’ championed by a figure like Michael Fried, but Smithson explains it as an endless present rather than a mechanistically-derived extensiveness. Smithson saw Duchamp as the guarantor of mechanistic views of contemporary culture and thus retained a certain scepticism towards him.6 Contrarily, however, Mussman relates Smithson’s interest in mirrors to Duchamp’s Large Glass, particularly Duchamp’s idea of that work’s ‘incompleteness’: a delay in glass.

In ‘Sedimentation of the Mind: Earth Projects’, Smithson treated the space/time dialectic explicitly in the context of his view of the work of art. By seeing the work of art almost exclusively as an ‘art object’, critics ‘deprive the artist of any existence in the world of both mind and matter’. Talking in terms of objects is to impose the semblance of an order onto the changing face of the world. Discrete existences, beginnings and endings are nothing but ‘convenient fictions’ which divert us from the uncertainties and disintegrations of reality. By contrast, ‘when a thing is seen through the consciousness of temporality, it is changed into something that is nothing’. Just as when, with Enantiomorphic Chambers (1965) and the Alogons (1966), Smithson had demonstrated an oblique relationship with Minimalism, his conception of ‘temporality’ here offers an individual version of the impulses that shaped art at the end of the 60s. This ‘nothing’ is not merely the dematerialisation associated with conceptualism. The ‘mechanistic’ qualities which led to Smithson’s suspicion of Duchamp were characteristic of much that he saw in American art of the 60s - ‘I want to be a machine’ (Warhol), and ‘The idea is the machine that makes the art’ (LeWitt) - and anyway, ‘the whole conceptual situation seems rather lightweight compared to Duchamp’.7 What Smithson seems to be calling for is a way of seeing: ‘A great artist can make art by simply casting a glance’. Even Lucy Lippard, the charter of dematerialisation, had difficulty assimilating this:

‘Once I called Smithson an important artist whose art is not important, because I liked his ideas and writings so much more than his sculpture. This statement was based on an object focus which he himself understandably rejected…‘8

Smithson’s lack of sympathy with art’s status as a collection of distinct objects worked at the theoretical level as an expression of dissatisfaction with fashionable contemporary accounts of art which relied on the idea of the gestalt, an easily graspable abstract pattern through which reality could be apprehended. Lizzie Borden saw Smithson’s elaboration of this idea as paradigmatic of the changed involvement of space and time in the art of the 70s. Smithson’s own awareness of the importance of this change can be seen in the earliest of his major published essays, ‘Entropy and the New Monuments’:

Flavin makes ‘instant monuments’; parts for Monument 7 for V Tatlin were purchased at the Radar Fluorescent Company. The ‘instant’ makes Flavin’s work a part of time rather than space.

Time becomes a place minus motion. If time is a place, then innumerable places are possible. Flavin turns gallery space into gallery time. Time breaks down into many times. Rather than saying ‘What time is it?’, we should say, ‘Where is the time?’

Compare this with Kurt Vonnegut’s description in Slaughterhouse Five of Billy Pilgrim’s ability to shift backwards and forwards in time because a temporal disjunction was effectively brought about by a spatial leap. Smithson makes this same point about unboundedness in considering language, a realm which he saw as thoroughly interpenetrating that of matter:

‘Words and rocks contain a language that follows a syntax of splits and ruptures. Look at any word long enough and you will see it open up into a series of faults, into a terrain of particles each containing its own void. This discomforting language of fragmentation offers no easy gestalt solution; the certainties of didactic discourse are hurled into the erosion of the poetic principle.‘9

And at the beginning of his essay on the Mexican Mirror Displacements, ‘Incidents of Mirror Travel in the Yucatan’, Smithson describes the ‘historical’ incident depicted on the cover of his tourist guide: the first meeting between the Mayans and Spanish in 1517 at which the Mayan’s exclamations to one another about the Spanish language (Uy u tan a kin pech - listen how they talk) were taken by the Spaniards to be a naming of the place in which they found themselves (Yucatan Campeche). For all this, Smithson never lost sight of the fact that dealing with art was in a significant sense about the finding and defining of limits.

Yet, if art is art it must have limits. How can one contain this ‘oceanic’ site? I have developed the Non-Site which in a physical way contains the disruption of the site. The container is in a sense a fragment itself, something that could be called a three-dimensional map. Without appeal to ‘gestalts’ or ‘anti-form’, it actually exists as a fragment of a greater fragmentation. It is a three-dimensional perspective that has broken away from the whole, while containing the lack of its own containment.10

In some sense, Anti-Form can be seen not as a return to Abstract Expressionism after Minimalism, but as an attempt to rescue the movement from the formalism of Greenberg’s view of it. Smithson contributes to this in ‘Sedimentation of the Mind’: ‘Deposits of paint cause layers and crusts that suggest nothing ‘formal’ but rather a physical metaphor without realism or naturalism.’ Peter Halley considered Smithson’s relationship to Abstract Expressionism at length in his catalogue essay for the 1985 Diane Brown exhibition:

This early work reveals that Smithson’s work, like that of the other Post-Minimalists, came out of Abstract Expressionism and a re-examination of certain aspects of European modernism, such as Surrealism; that from the beginning his work was based on an interest in the intuitive, the archaic, and even the mystical; and that, like the other Post-Minimalists, his work was based on a re-introduction of the role of drawing and line into the artmaking process.

The pivotal moment in Smithson’s career is that period in 1969-70 when he made the ‘pours’ - Glue Pour, Concrete Pour, and Asphalt Rundown - and Partially Buried Woodshed, a work whose ‘completion’ upon the cracking of its overloaded roof beam marked nothing more than the beginning of another process. With these works, he moved from the nonsites and mirror displacements to large-scale earthworks no longer dependent upon the gallery. The room in ‘Entropic Landscape’ which covers this period also showed Smithson’s slides of the Hotel Palenque. These were taken during his journey in Yucatan and express with beautiful clarity the characteristics of his vision. The images show a building caught up in two simultaneous and conflicting processes. Props, unfinished surfaces, stacks of builder’s supplies, and so on, suggest a building in the process of construction, and yet other slides, and sometimes other areas of the same slide, detail an advancing state of dilapidation and of sinking back into the surrounding landscape. Faded paint, piles of rubble, pitted plasterwork, a fault line in a brick wall patched up with mortar, all indicate a falling away. Even the tangle of steel reinforcing rods which protrude from the side of the building are ambivalent, intimating both that the structure is incomplete and that they stand revealed as the result of some violent destructive force. Through the sequencing of the slides these two vectors - the constructive, ordering impulse and the ultimately overwhelming entropic tendency - are played off against one another, each, at different times, seeming to take precedence before yielding to the other. In A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey, Smithson looks at a new highway being built: ‘It was hard to tell the new highway from the old road; they were both confounded into a unitary chaos.’

The later earthworks thoroughly opposed the notion that Smithson’s decision to work in the landscape issued from some kind of environmentalist idealism. Following Smithson’s death, Nancy Holt, Tony Shafrazi and Richard Serra completed the project following the staking out that had already been done. Tecovas Lake, where the work is sited, is an artificial reservoir, part of a larger irrigation system. Coplans describes how Holt, Shafrazi and Serra prepared the terrain for construction: ‘Their first problem was how to begin work. They could not find the drain to the dam which they knew existed, even though they searched for hours in the muddy water. To pump the lake dry would have taken three weeks, so they cut the dike and emptied the lake, according to Serra’s report, completely changing the place. The mud lay several feet deep, like a quagmire. The lake bed quickly became covered with crabs, crayfish and sandabs dying in the sun.’ Such violent incursion into the ‘natural order’ might seem unconscionable, but the idea that such an order were achievable, preservable or even possible in the first place is the illusion that Smithson’s combative aesthetics attempts to dispel. In ‘Frederick Law Olmsted and the Dialectical Landscape’, his last major published essay, he quotes Uvedale Price:

The side of a smooth green hill, torn by floods, may at first very properly be called deformed; and on the same principle, though not with the same impression, as a gash on a living animal. When a rawness of such a gash in the ground is softened, and in part concealed and ornamented by the effects of time, and the progress of vegetation, deformity, by this usual process, is converted into picturesqueness; and this is the case with quarries, gravel pits, etc., which at first are deformities, and which in their most picturesque state, are often considered as such by a levelling improver.

Smithson adopts Price’s ‘picturesque’ as the basis for his theory of the dialectic inherent in our relationship to nature. If the ‘beautiful’ and the ‘sublime’ provide thesis and antithesis, then the picturesque is the synthesis, ‘which is on close examination related to chance and change in the material order of nature’. There was doubtless a deliberate irony in this acknowledgement of a figure like Price whose Enlightenment aesthetic views stand at the base of the modernism from which Smithson was trying to distance himself. In ‘Sedimentation of the Mind’, Smithson quotes a fragment of Heraclitus: ‘The most beautiful world is like a heap of rubble tossed down in confusion.’ Heraclitus’ belief in the identity of opposites fits with Smithson’s vision. It keyed, too, with Eliot, who begins the ‘Four Quartets’ with two fragments, the second of which offers the opinion that ‘the path up and down is one and the same’.

1. John Coplans, ‘The Amarillo Ramp’, Artforum, April 1974

2. Paul Wood, Robert Smithson-Early Work, Arts, March 1989

3. Philip Leider, ‘For Robert Smithson’, Art in America, Nov/Dec 1973

4. Toby Mussman, ‘Literalness and the Infinite’, in Battcock (ed.), Minimal Art, 1968 pp.236-250

5. Lizzie Borden, ‘The New Dialectic’, Artforum, March 1974

6. See Moira Roth, ‘Robert Smithson on Duchamp, An Interview’, Artforum, October 1973

7. ibid., Roth

8. Lucy Lippard, ‘Two’, Studio International, October 1973

9. ‘A Sedimentation of Mind: Earth Projects’, Artforum, September 1968. This and other texts by Smithson are collected in Nancy Holt (ed), The Writings of Robert Smithson, New York University Press, 1979. Smithson’s major essays are reprinted in the catalogue to ‘Entropic Landscape’.

10. ibid., Smithson

11. Op cit., Coplans

Michael Archer

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Issue 11, June-August 1993

by Michael Archer

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