Robert Smithson Life and Art Periods

"I am for an art that takes into account the direct effect of the elements as they exist from day to day apart from representation."

ROBERT SMITHSON SYNOPSIS

Although Robert Smithson died at the age of only 35, his short career has inspired more young artists than most among the generation that emerged in the 1960s. A formidable writer and critic as well as an artist, his interests ranged from Catholicism to mineralogy to science fiction. His earliest pieces were paintings and collages, but he soon came to focus on sculpture; he responded to the Minimalism and Conceptualism of the early 1960s and he started to expand his work out of galleries and into the landscape. In 1970, he produced the Earthwork, or Land art, for which he is best known, Spiral Jetty, a remarkable coil of rock composed in the colored waters of the shore of the Great Salt Lake in Utah. In 1973, he died in an aircraft accident when he was surveying the site for another Earthwork in Texas.

ROBERT SMITHSON KEY IDEAS

Smithson is one of the most influential artists of the diverse generation that emerged in the wake of Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism, known as the Post-Minimalists. Although inspired by Minimalism's use of industrial materials and interest in the viewer's experience of the space around the art object (as much as the object itself), the Post-Minimalists sought to abandon even more aspects of traditional sculpture. Smithson's approaches are typical of this group; he constructed sculptures from scattered materials, he found ways to confuse the viewer's understanding of sculpture (often by using mirrors or confusing scales), and his work sometimes referred to sites and objects outside of the gallery, leading the viewer to question where the art object really resided.
Much of Smithson's output was shaped by his interest in the concept of entropy, the second law of thermodynamics that predicts the eventual exhaustion and collapse of any given system. His interest in geology and mineralogy confirmed this law to him, since in rocks and rubble he saw evidence of how the earth slows and cools. But the idea also informed his outlook on culture and civilization more generally; his famous essay Entropy and the New Monuments (1969) draws analogies between the quarries and the strip malls and tract housing of New Jersey, suggesting that ultimately the later will also perish and return to rubble.
Smithson's concepts of Site and Nonsite - the former being a location outside the gallery, the latter being a body of objects and documentation inside the gallery - were important contributions to the body of ideas surrounding Land art in the 1960s. His discussion of monuments and ruins in his writing also helped many to think about the purpose art might have in the landscape, after the demise of the tradition of commemorative public sculpture.
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ROBERT SMITHSON BIOGRAPHY

Childhood

Robert Smithson expressed a profound interest in the arts from an early age. While still attending high school in Clifton, New Jersey, during the mid 1950s, he attended art classes on the side in New York City. For two years, he was enrolled at The Art Students League in New York and, for a briefer period, at The Brooklyn Museum School.

Through his studies and training, Smithson became fascinated with the Abstract Expressionists, in particular with David Smith, Tony Smith, Jackson Pollock, and Morris Louis. Later in his career, Smithson said that he found David Smith's sculpture particularly captivating for its use of unnatural materials (i.e. steel) that were altered by time and natural elements (i.e. rust, decay, and discoloring). Several years before Smithson expressed any interest in Minimalism, Conceptual art, and working with the natural environment, the young artist was drawing, painting, and making collages.

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Early Training

In the late 1950s, Smithson was noticed by art dealer Virginia Dwan and granted his first solo show at the Artists' Gallery in 1959. At this time, Smithson's paintings, drawings, and collages (he had yet to begin sculpting) drew in part on Abstract Expressionism; his works were multimedia, but were still two-dimensional artworks made using gouache, crayon, pencil, and photography.

Through his connection with Dwan, Smithson was introduced to several key artists and sculptors who were pioneering the Minimalist art movement of the early-1960s, including Carl Andre, Donald Judd, Robert Morris, Claes Oldenburg, and Smithson's soon-to-be wife, Nancy Holt. Holt and Smithson married in 1963. The formation of these friendships would mark a significant turning point in Smithson's career.

The collages he produced in the early-1960s, including Untitled (Tear) (1961-63), Untitled (Conch Shell, Spaceship and World Land Mass) (1961-63), and Algae (c. 1962), were still very much in keeping with an abstract and expressionist aesthetic, but they clearly suggest the artist's growing fascination with the earth as an inspirational resource and his concern with themes of permanence, natural and unnatural materials, and site-specific art.

By 1964, Smithson had taken up sculpture, inspired in large part by the Minimalism that was coming into vogue. It was clear from the beginning, however, that Smithson was not entirely comfortable confining himself and his work to the studio. Throughout the mid-1960s, he made several trips to New Jersey to visit quarries and industrial wastelands. He also paid several visits to the American West and Southwest, sparking in him an interest in deserts and sprawling tracts of land that appear unblemished by human intervention.

Mature Period

Smithson's sculptures of the mid 1960s maintain a strong resemblance to the Minimalist installations of Donald Judd, Carl Andre, Sol LeWitt, and Robert Morris. Painted steel works such as Plunge (1966), Alogon #2 (1966), and Terminal (1966), employed industrial materials, geometric forms, and a restricted palette. They were built indoors and intended for indoor display.

Robert Smithson Biography

By 1967, Smithson was focused on two peculiar forms of sculpture, Sites and Non-sites, using mirrors and natural materials to create a new form of three-dimensional work. For his Sites projects, Smithson made several trips to New Jersey, Mexico, England, and West Germany, among other places, often accompanied by his wife Nancy Holt and dealer Virginia Dwan. While at these chosen sites (barren wastelands, salt flats, and wooded areas), Smithson placed a series of mirrors in natural settings and photographed the newly altered landscapes. The results created an effect of beauty and unease at having inserted such blatantly unnatural materials into an untouched setting.

For his Non-sites, Smithson situated mirrored surfaces into the corner or center of a room, in effect creating virtual doorways. Contrasting with these mirrors were the natural materials Smithson had scavenged from his trips, including mica, essen soil, red sandstone, limestone, sand, gravel, and other materials. Many of these Non-site projects would directly mirror his Sites, as in the case of Chalk Mirror Displacement (1969), a single work located in two different locales: its original quarry site in Oxted, England (Site), and later in the gallery space (Non-site). What made the Sites/Non-sites such a unique artistic endeavor was that Smithson was first altering the landscape, and then bringing the exhibition materials from the site in the gallery.

Simultaneous with Smithson's production of Sites/Non-sites, the artist was also creating a series of works called Photo-Markers (1968), which were in many ways the direct opposite of Sites/Non-sites. Photo-Markers also explored the effects of human intervention into the natural landscape, but applied a very different methodology. Smithson would photograph specific sites, enlarge the images, and place these enlargements into the physical landscapes they depicted. He then re-photographed the landscapes, creating an odd juxtaposition of the natural and the reproduced in the same shot - as if nature were referencing itself.

Smithson's first fully-fledged Earthworks were little more than preliminary sketches: site-specific proposals that existed only on paper. Throughout 1969 and 1970, he created a large number of drawings depicting projects that would soon come to fruition - and a few that would not. Early Earthworks, such as Asphalt Rundown (1969) and Glue Pour (1969), were inspired in part by his interest in entropy and abstraction, since the dumped and cooled materials created hardened abstract forms that resulted from their loss of heat. They were also demonstrations of Smithson's growing fascination with industrial areas and human neglect of wastelands.

His grandest achievement and most famous work was Spiral Jetty (1970). After much searching, Smithson purchased a plot of land on the northern shore of the Great Salt Lake, Utah, and inserted into the violet-red water a massive spiral constructed of some 6650 tons of earth. The Jetty, unlike previous Earthworks, maintained a harmony with its natural environment; it is an unnatural extension of the natural landscape, albeit one that, according to Smithson "[had been] disrupted by industry, reckless urbanization, or nature's own devastation." In subsequent years, Smithson embarked on other Earthworks projects that were in keeping with this artistic philosophy. In 1971, he completed Broken Circle/Spiral Hill, located in a quarry near Emmen, Holland, after which he returned to the United States to undertake what would be his last project, one Smithson himself would never realize.

Late Years and Death

Robert Smithson Photo

In the summer of 1973 Smithson was traveling in a small airplane to survey the site for his newest project, called Amarillo Ramp. The plane crashed, killing him, the pilot, and the photographer who was accompanying them. Even though Smithson was robbed of the opportunity to build Amarillo Ramp, the project was completed shortly after his death by his widow Nancy Holt, Richard Serra, and others.

Writings

In addition to being an artist, Smithson was also an accomplished critic, essayist, and theoretician. Writing for the publications Artforum and Arts Magazine, mostly between the years 1967 and 1970, he developed intriguing theories involving the convergence of earth, language, and art. In a September 1968 Artforum piece entitled A Sedimentation of the Mind: Earth Projects he wrote, "Embedded in the sediment is a text that contains limits and boundaries which evade the rational order, and social structures which confine art. In order to read the rocks we must become conscious of geologic time, and of the layers of prehistorical material that is entombed in the Earth's crust."

The above text is indicative of a constant theme in Smithson's writings and art: time. Throughout his career, he became increasingly fascinated with the element of time and with humankind's repeated attempts to control it. These attempts, according to Smithson, were foolish. He viewed any attempt to control time as tantamount to devaluing it altogether and defrauding the earth of its essential right to exist. He also presented this theme in his 1970 Earthwork Partially Buried Woodshed, located in Kent, Ohio, which consisted of a woodshed partially buried under 20 truckloads of earth. This piece was "built" to illustrate the effects of geologic time and its eventual consumption of all man-made endeavors. Incidentally, other major works, such as Spiral Jetty, would eventually be consumed (temporarily) by the waters that surrounded them.

ROBERT SMITHSON LEGACY

Robert Smithson not only coined the term "Land art," he gave birth to the movement itself. Interestingly, Smithson's death could be said to have accelerated the Land art movement. Inspiring a new generation of artists to leave the studio altogether and create art out in the open, the movement represented a unique convergence of installation, Conceptual art, and environmental awareness. Adding a strange twist to the world of popular art, most of Smithson's works were designed to be consumed by time and nature; thus they were constructed to have a finite life span. Predating Smithson's arrival into the art world, artists hoped to immortalize themselves by creating works that would easily outlast the span of human life. Smithson, in a sense, sought the opposite. His incursions into wastelands and no-man's lands were dialectical attempts to show nature's fragility in the industrial world and its powerful ability to defend itself against such incursions.

Original content written by Justin Wolf
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ROBERT SMITHSON QUOTES

"By excluding technological processes from the making of art, we begin to discover other processes of a more fundamental order."

"Deliverance from the confines of the studio frees the artist to a degree from the snares of craft and the bondage of creativity. Such a condition exists without any appeal to 'nature.'"

"The strata of the Earth is a jumbled museum. Embedded in the sediment is a text that contains limits and boundaries which evade the rational order, and social structures which confine art."

"For too long the artist has been estranged from his own 'time.' Critics, by focusing on the 'art object,' deprive the artist of any existence in the world of both mind and matter."

"I am for an art that takes into account the direct effect of the elements as they exist from day to day apart from representation."

"Nobody wants to go on a vacation to a garbage dump."

Robert Smithson

Robert Smithson Influences

Interactive chart with Robert Smithson's main influencers, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.

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Allan Kaprow
Allan Kaprow
Allan Kaprow was an American painter, collagist, assemblagist and performance artist. Kaprow was best known for trailblazing the artistic concept "happenings," which were experiential artistic events rather than single works of art.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Allan Kaprow
Donald Judd
Donald Judd
Donald Judd was an early and influential Minimalist artist who made large-scale geometric objects, often of industrial materials and serially arranged on the floor or wall. He helped found the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas, where many key works of Minimalism are installed.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Donald Judd
William S. Burroughs
William S. Burroughs
William S. Burroughs was an American novelist, poet, spoken-word performer, painter and essayist. Widely considered one of the twentieth century's most influential literary figures, Burroughs wrote in almost a surreal but highly personal and autobiographical style that readers found both disturbing and appealing. His most celebrated work is the 1959 novel Naked Lunch.

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J.G. Ballard
J.G. Ballard
J.G. Ballard was a twentieth-century English novelist and short story writer. Ballard was considered part of the "new wave" movement of modern science fiction, which began in the 1960s with writers such as Ray Bradbury and John Brunner. Among Ballard's more famous works are Crash (1973) and Empire of the Sun (1984).

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Virginia Dwan
Virginia Dwan
Virginia Dwan was a prominent art dealer and Los Angeles gallery owner who played a key role in promoting several high-profile artists of the mid to late twentieth century. Working alongside the likes of Andre, Reinhardt, Guston, de Maria and Smithson, Dwan's interests and dealings spanned many different movements, including Minimalism, Neo-Expressionism and Land art.

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Carl Andre
Carl Andre
Carl Andre is an American Minimalist whose prominence rose in the late 1960s with a series of large public artworks and sculpture. His linear sculpture was included in the famed 1966 Primary Structures group exhibition at the Jewish Museum.
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Claes Oldenburg
Claes Oldenburg
The Swedish-American artist and architect Claes Oldenburg, an early figure in New York happenings and Pop art, is best known for his floppy sculptures and larger-than-life public works of consumer goods, musical instruments, and everyday objects.

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Robert Morris
Robert Morris
Robert Morris is an American artist whose early L-beam and column sculptures were key works in Minimalism. His work also includes felt and fabric pieces, performance, body art, and earthworks, often with an emphasis on process and theatricality.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Robert Morris
Nancy Holt
Nancy Holt
Nancy Holt is a twentieth-century American artist best known for working with Installation, Land art and large-scale public sculpture. After being widowed to Robert Smithson in 1973, Holt and artist-friend Richard Serra undertook the construction of Smithson's final yet incompleted work, Amarillo Ramp. Holt remains a key historical figure for the postmodern movement of Land art/Earthworks.

Modern Art Information Nancy Holt
Abstract Expressionism
Abstract Expressionism
A tendency among New York painters of the late 1940s and '50s, all of whom were committed to an expressive art of profound emotion and universal themes. The movement embraced the gestural abstraction of Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, and the color field painting of Mark Rothko and others. It blended elements of Surrealism and abstract art in an effort to create a new style fitted to the postwar mood of anxiety and trauma.
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Minimalism
Minimalism
Minimalism emerged as a movement in New York in the 1960s, its leading figures creating objects which blurred the boundaries between painting and sculpture, and were characterized by unitary, geometric forms and industrial materials. Emphasizing cool anonymity over the passionate expression of the previous generation of painters, the Minimalists attempted to avoid metaphorical associations, symbolism, and suggestions of spiritual transcendence.
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Conceptual Art
Conceptual Art
Conceptual art describes an influential movement that first emerged in the mid-1960s and prized ideas over the formal or visual components of traditional works of art. The artists often challenged old concepts such as beauty and quality; they also questioned the conventional means by which the public consumed art; and they rejected the conventional art object in favor of diverse mediums, ranging from maps and diagrams to texts and videos.
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Happenings
Happenings
The term "happening" was coined by artist Allan Kaprow in 1957 to decribe a series of multi-media artworks on display in a single locale. In general, a happening is an art event, often staged or pre-scripted, that requires active participation from an audience to come to full fruition. This relatively new form of artistic media could be called participatory.
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Landscape Architecture
Landscape Architecture
Lanscape Architecture refers to the design and manipulation of physical outdoor spaces intended for public use. Practitioners of landscape architecture often set out to affect socio-behavioral characteristics by altering the natural environment, or in some cases infusing it with outside elements, as found in Earth/Land art.

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Walter de Maria
Walter de Maria
Walter de Maria is an American sculptor, composer and multi-media artist. His works have been characterized as Minimalist, Installation, Land art, Neo-Dada, and Conceptualist. De Maria's best known work is The Lightning Field (1977), consisting of 400 lightning rods situated on a field in New Mexico.

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Richard Long
Richard Long
Richard Long is a British painter, sculptor, photographer and Land artist. Much of his work is considered a response to the natural environments he enters, incorporating mixed-media and various non-art elements such as landscape, rock, maps and text. In this respect, Long's work has been classified by some as Environmental art, rather than the dated Land art.

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Hans Haacke
Hans Haacke
Hans Haacke is a German-American conceptual artist and painter based in New York City. Haacke's work, which includes forays into Land art and Installation, is often characterized by its convergence of physical and biological systems; in other words, works of art which rely on natural forces (wind, water, earth) to achieve their effect.

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Michael Heizer
Michael Heizer
Michael Heizer is an American artist who specializes in Land art installation, Conceptual art and and large public sculptures. Heizer's most celebrated pieces are Earthworks that rely on the alteration but ultimate preservation of the natural landscape, such as Double Negative (1969), in which Heizer cut a 1500-foot long trench into a mesa in the Nevada desert. Much of Heizer's work has also been inspired by Native American art and iconography.

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Richard Serra
Richard Serra
Richard Serra is an American Process and Minimalist artist. His sculptures have ranged from hurled drips of molten lead to gigantic steel pieces installed in public places.
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Land Art
Land Art
Land art, or Earth art, a term coined by artist Robert Smithson, refers to artworks from the 1960s and '70s that employed land and other natural elements. It is typical of a time when artists rejected the traditional art object, expanded definitions of sculpture, and sought to move art outside the conventional art world structure of galleries and museums.

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Installation Art
Installation Art
Installation art is a genre of contemporary art-making in which two- and three-dimensional materials are used to transform a particular site. Installations may include sculptural, found, sound-based, and performance elements, and can be permanent or ephemeral.

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Post-Minimalism
Post-Minimalism
Post-Minimalism refers to a range of art practices that emerged in the wake of Minimalism in the late 1960s, such as Body art, Performance, Process art, Site-Specific art, and aspects of Conceptual art. Some artists created art objects that do not have the representational function of traditional sculpture, objects that often have a strong material presence; others reacted against Minimalism's impersonality, and reintroduced emotionally expressive qualities.
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David Smith
David Smith
David Smith was an American artist who combined Surrealism and formal abstraction in his sculptures. His early works, small and with a craft-like aesthetic, give way later on to giant constructions of welded and burnished steel.
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Tony Smith
Tony Smith
Tony Smith was a twentieth-century American sculptor and visual artist. Smith's body of work is closely aligned with the Minimalist movement, despite having close personal ties with the Abstract Expressionists Rothko, Pollock, Newman and Still. Heavily influenced by his one-time employer Frank Lloyd Wright, Smith's sculptures were comprised of modular block formations, designed to physically alter the space in which they existed. He is considered one of the key originators of the Minimalist sculpture movement.

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Jackson Pollock
Jackson Pollock
Jackson Pollock was the most well-known Abstract Expressionist and the key example of Action Painting. His work ranges from Jungian scenes of primitive rites to the purely abstract "drip paintings" of his later career.
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Morris Louis
Morris Louis
Morris Louis was an American painter and an original member of the so-called Washington Color School. Along with Noland, Frankenthaler and others, Louis pioneered the color-field school of painting, using a technique of soaking heavy oil paints into unprimed canvases. Louis's paintings in part inspired his friend Clement Greenberg to dub the second-generation Abstract Expressionism artists Post-painterly abstraction.
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Sol LeWitt
Sol LeWitt
Sol LeWitt was an American artist commonly associated with the Minimalist and Conceptual movements. He rose to prominence in the 1960s with the likes of Rauschenberg, Johns and Stella, and his work was included in the famous 1966 exhibit Primary Structures at the Jewish Museum. LeWitt's art often employed simple geometric forms and archetypal symbols, and he worked in a variety of media but was most interested in the idea behind the artwork.
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Blind in the Valley of the Suicides
Robert Smithson: Blind in the Valley of the Suicides
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Title: 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
Robert Smithson: Plunge
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Title: 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
Robert Smithson: Chalk Mirror Displacement
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Title: 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
Robert Smithson: Asphalt Rundown
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Title: 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
Robert Smithson: Spiral Jetty
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Title: Spiral Jetty (April 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
Robert Smithson: Amarillo Ramp
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Title: 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

Bibliography
The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing this page. These also suggests some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.