Progression of Art
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
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
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
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
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
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