Robert Smithson exhibit honors his classic phase, but peeks at his start
The Robert Smithson retrospective on view at the Whitney, which originated at L.A.’s Museum of Contemporary Art, thoughtfully presents the singular intelligence of the artist ’s radical vision. The exhibition features a representative selection of his sculptures, photographs, diagrams, and unrealized projects. Importantly, several films he made are on continuous view. All are worth watching from start to finish, including a quirky slide lecture about a damp and rotting hotel in Mexico.
It is widely known that geological history and photographic technologies became important tools as Smithson investigated the subject of an artist’s coexistence with industrialization. Almost unknown are the drawings and paintings he made before his work found mature expression around 1964.
The curators rightly felt that the relationship of these early works to Smithson’s better-known oeuvre would be of interest. Religious themes, motifs from popular culture, and surrealist -style gore, not to mention prancing Art Deco-like nude figures, all speak of an early preoccupation with the body. After 1964, the figure disappears as subject matter, but enters the work as Smithson himself begins to interact with landscapes ranging from New Jersey and Ohio to Rome and Holland. The truly cosmological dimension of his artistic practice comes to light through the inclusion of these emotional youthful works alongside the rocks, maps, films, and mirrors of his mature period.
Smithson is justly famous for creating a signature earthwork of the 1970s entitled “Spiral Jetty.” After staking out its form in shallow waters off the coast of the Great Salt Lake of Utah like a surveyor, he built this coiling path of black basalt rocks with the help of professionals operating an industrial dump truck and plow. He simultaneously arranged for the construction to be filmed on land and by helicopter. This footage was later incorporated in a science fiction-like film also entitled “Spiral Jetty” that has acquired almost legendary status in the art world today.
Renewed interest in Smithson’s work is no doubt due to the earth’s own response to ‘Spiral Jetty.’ For a period of several years, the jetty was submerged, then resurfaced in surprising form––as the lake receded, the rocks arose from their saline bath encrusted with brilliant white salt crystals. The artist never saw this come to pass; he died in 1973 while surveying the site of a new earthwork in Texas. But chances are he expected something like it–– he had that kind of mind.
Smithson’s theories entwining art and earthly forces have reached payola if not apotheosis in the salted “Spiral Jetty.” The salt literally crystallizes Smithson’s preoccupation with time’s passage and earth’s natural processes. It validates the foresight he brought to the planning of his earthworks and their aftermath. At the same time, it unleashes a paradox he might have enjoyed: Can it still be said to be the work of an artist, now that Earth has worked on it too? Smithson’s sense of humor is nerdy but droll.
The passage of 30 years has enhanced “Spiral Jetty”’s visual aspect as well as its meaning, especially at a time when other earthworks from the 1960s and 1970s are crumbling. The coil’s otherworldly apparition is striking, even in black and white newspaper ads. That most viewers would experience “Spiral Jetty” as a photograph, vicariously at a location remote from Utah, was also anticipated by the artist.
Smithson was born in Passaic, New Jersey, in 1938. Considered to be one of the central artists of the Minimalist movement, this show demonstrates that his foresight––in hindsight—was remarkable. Young enough to present himself to the company of artists and poets at the Cedar Bar during the 1950s, he intuited that the scale of their ambitions required nothing less than an engagement with Earth itself.
He now appears to be a transitional figure who was three––or more––decades ahead of his time. At the end of “Spiral Jetty,” the film, there’s a long aerial shot of Smithson running the length of the coil while the noisy chopper chases him. We may not have caught up with him yet.