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Artists Robert Smithson
Robert Smithson Photo

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

Quotes

"By excluding technological processes from the making of art, we begin to discover other processes of a more fundamental order."
Robert Smithson
"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.'"
Robert Smithson
"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."
Robert Smithson
"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."
Robert Smithson
"Nobody wants to go on a vacation to a garbage dump."
Robert Smithson

"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 Signature

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.

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.

Biography

Robert Smithson Photo

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.

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Robert Smithson Biography Continues

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)
Artwork Images

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)
Artwork Images

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)
Artwork Images

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

More Robert Smithson Artwork and Analysis:



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Influences and Connections

Influences on Artist
Artists, Friends, Movements
Influenced by Artist
Artists, Friends, Movements
Robert Smithson
Interactive chart with Robert Smithson's main influences, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.
View Influences Chart

Artists

Allan KaprowAllan Kaprow
Donald JuddDonald Judd
William S. BurroughsWilliam S. Burroughs
J.G. BallardJ.G. Ballard

Personal Contacts

Virginia DwanVirginia Dwan
Carl AndreCarl Andre
Claes OldenburgClaes Oldenburg
Robert MorrisRobert Morris
Nancy HoltNancy Holt

Movements

Abstract ExpressionismAbstract Expressionism
MinimalismMinimalism
Conceptual ArtConceptual Art
HappeningsHappenings
Landscape ArchitectureLandscape Architecture

Influences on Artist
Robert Smithson
Robert Smithson
Years Worked: 1959 - 1973
Influenced by Artist

Artists

Walter de MariaWalter de Maria
Richard LongRichard Long
Hans HaackeHans Haacke
Michael HeizerMichael Heizer

Personal Contacts

Carl AndreCarl Andre
Claes OldenburgClaes Oldenburg
Robert MorrisRobert Morris
Richard SerraRichard Serra
Nancy HoltNancy Holt

Movements

Land ArtLand Art
Landscape ArchitectureLandscape Architecture
Conceptual ArtConceptual Art
Installation ArtInstallation Art

Useful Resources on Robert Smithson

Videos

Books

Websites

More

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

biography

Robert Smithson: Learning from New Jersey and Elsewhere

By Ann Reynolds

Earthwards: Robert Smithson and Art after Babel Recomended resource

By Gary Shapiro

Robert Smithson and the American Landscape

By Ron Graziani

More Interesting Books about Robert Smithson

articles/essays by Smithson

A Short Description of Two Mirrored Crystal Structures

From Unpublished Writings in Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings

Excerpt from "Some Void Thoughts On Museums"

From The Writings of Robert Smithson

A Provisional Theory of Non-Sites Recomended resource

From Unpublished Writings in Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings

Cultural Confinement

From The Writings of Robert Smithson

More Interesting Resources about Robert Smithson
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Cite this page

Content compiled and written by Justin Wolf

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

" Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Justin Wolf
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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