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Robert Smithson

American Sculptor and Writer

Movements and Styles: Land Art, Post-Minimalism

Born: January 2, 1938 - Passaic, New Jersey

Died: July 20, 1973 - Amarillo, Texas

Robert Smithson Timeline

Important Art by Robert Smithson

The below artworks are the most important by Robert Smithson - that both overview the major creative periods, and highlight the greatest achievements by the artist.

Blind in the Valley of the Suicides (1962)
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Blind in the Valley of the Suicides (1962)

Artwork description & Analysis: Blind in the Valley of the Suicides depicts a human transforming into a tree and may have been inspired by Dante's Divine Comedy. It is one of a series of early drawings from 1960 to 1962 that explores the themes of vision and blindness. Smithson would continue to explore the theme of vision throughout his later work - particularly in pieces involving mirrors - but he soon abandoned figurative drawing. Works such as this belong to a part of his career in which he was preoccupied with imagery drawn from the repertoire of science fiction and Catholicism (his mother's religion).

Ink on paper - Estate of Robert Smithson, James Cohan Gallery, New York

Plunge (1966)
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Plunge (1966)

Artwork description & Analysis: Constructed when Smithson was still mostly confining himself to the studio, Plunge is in keeping with Minimalism's preoccupation with geometry, repetition, and industrial materials. And many critics who saw this work in Smithson's first solo show at the Dwan Gallery in 1966 identified him as a leading Minimalist. However, there is much in Plunge that departs from the aesthetic of mainstream Minimalists such as Donald Judd. In particular, the work is made of a series of stepped units that are positioned such that they slowly increase (or decrease) in size; this sense of progression is quite different from the kind of straightforward repetition employed by Judd's sculpture. While Judd's work is often quite frank about its scale and dimensions, the changing scale in Smithson's Plunge makes it strangely difficult to gauge the scale of its individual components, and this attempt to befuddle the viewer is typical of the latter's work.

Steel; 10 units with square surfaces - The Denver Art Museum

Chalk Mirror Displacement (1969)
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Chalk Mirror Displacement (1969)

Artwork description & Analysis: Smithson began making the Mirror Displacement series shortly after his Site/Non-Site works. While the Site pieces generally used material from outside the gallery - rocks, rubble - which was piled in low containers, the Mirror Displacements saw the materials simply dumped in heaps on the floor and divided up by mirrors. And while the Site pieces always contained a component situated in the gallery, the Mirror Displacement pieces were sometimes situated outside - as was this example, which was set up in Oxted Quarry in England. Smithson described the difference between the two kinds of work: "In other Non-sites, the container was rigid, the material amorphous. In this case, the container is amorphous, the mirror is the rigid thing." As in the Site series, Smithson was preoccupied with the way material, or another site, might be represented; might the materials in the Displacement be thought to "mirror" their presence elsewhere?

Six mirrors, chalk - Oxted Quarry, England

Asphalt Rundown (1969)
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Asphalt Rundown (1969)

Artwork description & Analysis: Smithson created Asphalt Rundown - the first monumental Earthwork that he made outside, to be seen outside - in a quarry on the outskirts of Rome. He loaded a dump truck with hot asphalt, and then had the truck discharge the contents down the sides of a quarry, so that the mixture cooled and hardened as it fell, ultimately seeming to fuse with the sides of the quarry. Smithson said his intention was to "root it in the contour of the land, so that it's permanently there and subject to the [sic] weathering." It demonstrates the importance of entropy in his thinking, since here gravity and loss of energy are integral to the creation of the work.

Asphalt - Rome, Italy

Spiral Jetty (1970)
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Spiral Jetty (1970)

Artwork description & Analysis: The northern section of the Great Salt Lake, where Smithson chose to site Spiral Jetty, was cut off from fresh water supplies when a nearby causeway was constructed by the Southern Pacific Railroad in 1959. This encouraged the water's unique red-violet coloration, because it produced a concentration of salt-tolerant bacteria and algae. Smithson particularly liked the combination of colors because it evoked a ruined and polluted sci-fi landscape. And, by inserting the Jetty into this damaged section, and using entirely natural materials native to the area, Smithson called attention to environmental blight. Nevertheless, he also sought to reference the importance of time in eroding and transforming our environment. The coiling structure of the piece was inspired by the growth patterns of crystals, yet it also resembles a primeval symbol, making the landscape seem ancient, even while it also looks futuristic.

Mud, precipitated salt crystals, rocks, water coil - Rozel Point, Great Salt Lake, Utah

Amarillo Ramp (1973)
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Amarillo Ramp (1973)

Artwork description & Analysis: While tragically, Smithson played no role in the actual construction of Amarillo Ramp, the posthumous piece is a fitting tribute to his life's work and artistic philosophy. The ramp has slowly eroded since its construction; thus, like all of Smithson's mature Earthworks, it will eventually succumb to the elements, much like natural landscapes themselves. The ramp was originally commissioned by Stanley Marsh, a local ranch owner, who also commissioned Ant Farm's Cadillac Ranch (1974) and several other sculptures located along his 200 square miles of land near Amarillo. Amarillo Ramp is comprised of a 140-foot diameter partial circle of rock, which ascends from level ground up to a height of 15 feet. At one time the ramp emerged from an artificial body of water called Tecovas Lake, which has since dried out.

Soil, rocks, sand - Tecovas Lake, 15 miles NW of Amarillo, Texas



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Robert Smithson Photo

Related Art and Artists

Rearrangeable Panels (1957-9)
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Rearrangeable Panels (1957-9)

Artist: Allan Kaprow

Artwork description & Analysis: This 1957 work represents a shift from the art object to the surrounding environment. Kaprow began to investigate the effect on space through the incorporation of three-dimensional and found objects into his work. Each time Rearrangeable Panels was exhibited, the curator or artist would be forced to make choices about how to configure the panels, foreshadowing Kaprow's use of audience participation. Kaprow challenges the notion of artistic authorship through this collaborative element of construction and in its unique response to each site in which it is placed.

Oil, leaves, plastic fruit, and mirror on canvas and wood, with light bulbs - Musee National d'art Moderne Centre Pompidou, Paris

Untitled (1984)
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Untitled (1984)

Artist: Donald Judd

Artwork description & Analysis: The 15 concrete works that run along the border of the Chinati's property were the first works to be installed at the museum and were cast over a four-year period from 1980 through 1984. Each unit has the same measurements -- 2.5 x 2.5 x 5 meters -- and thus is large enough to enter. Here, the notion that the environment is an integral aspect of the work is taken to another level, where each box is both a permeable space as well as a monolithic whole. The neutral color of the concrete combines with the earth tones of the Texas plain, and the industrial nature of the forms seem intrinsically related to the abandoned air force base on which they are placed. Inspired, as well, by the Missouri landscape in which the artist was raised, these structures grow naturally out of both Judd's Minimalist aesthetic and from his early childhood years. In this work, he has achieved a full integration of form and space, art and environment.

Concrete - Chinati Foundation, Marfa Texas

Stone Field Sculpture (1977)
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Stone Field Sculpture (1977)

Artist: Carl Andre

Artwork description & Analysis: This is Andre's only permanent public sculpture: it is sited in downtown Hartford, close to the Wadsworth Atheneum on a narrow, nondescript strip of grass between Center Church and its accompanying burial ground, and Gold Street. The work consists of thirty-six immense boulders, which were dug up at a local gravel pit and had been discarded by the quarry owners. Andre placed the largest stone (which weighs eleven tons) at the apex of the triangular plot, then set down the next two in a row running across the site, then the next three, continuing incrementally up to the eighth row, which is comprised of the smallest stones. While the sculpture is typical of Andre's fascination with sorting and arranging objects, it can also be read as a subtle meditation on the contrast between geological and human time.

Screen print on paper mounted on Sintra with hand painting - City of Hartford, Connecticut

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Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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