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Robert Smithson Photo

Robert Smithson

American Sculptor and Writer

Born: January 2, 1938 - Passaic, New Jersey
Died: July 20, 1973 - Amarillo, Texas
Movements and Styles:
Earth Art
,
Post-Minimalism
,
Conceptual Art
"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."
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Robert Smithson Signature
"By excluding technological processes from the making of art, we begin to discover other processes of a more fundamental order."
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Robert Smithson Signature
"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 "Painting, sculpture and architecture are finished, but the art habit continues." condition exists without any appeal to 'nature.'"
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Robert Smithson Signature
"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."
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Robert Smithson Signature
"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."
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Robert Smithson Signature
"Nobody wants to go on a vacation to a garbage dump."
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Robert Smithson Signature

Summary of Robert Smithson

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.

Accomplishments

  • 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 of Robert Smithson

Robert Smithson Photo

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.



Progression of Art

1962

Blind in the Valley of the Suicides

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

1966

Plunge

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

1969

Chalk Mirror Displacement

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

1969

Asphalt Rundown

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)
1970

Spiral Jetty

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

1973

Amarillo Ramp

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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Content compiled and written by Justin Wolf

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

"Robert Smithson 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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First published on 01 Aug 2012. Updated and modified regularly
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