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Robert Smithson (American, 1938–1973)

About this artist

Source: Oxford University Press

American sculptor and painter. He won a scholarship in 1953 to the Art Students League in New York, where he studied in the evenings for the next two years. In 1956 he studied briefly at the Brooklyn Museum School and in the following year began to paint in an Abstract Expressionist style. In 1959 he taught art at the Police Athletic League in New York and had his first one-man show at the Artists Gallery in New York. During a visit to Rome in 1961 Smithson became interested in European history and religion, especially Byzantine art. In his paintings of this period he fused an Abstract Expressionist style with mythological and religious subject-matter, as in Green Chimera with Stigmata (1961; see 1985 exh. cat., pl. 17). He continued to work primarily as a painter until he married the American sculptor Nancy Holt (b 1938) in 1963, but in 1964 he began to write and sculpt, producing what he considered to be his first mature works.

Smithson’s first sculptures had affinities with Minimalism, many of whose major practitioners he met in 1965. The Eliminator (1964; artist’s estate, see Hobbs, p. 57), for example, with its neon lights and mirrors, is slight in physical mass but creates a disproportionate sense of space by means of reflections. Mirrors were a common feature in these sculptures, in part as a subversively literal play on the idea of art mirroring reality. In Minimalist works such as Untitled (1963–4; artist’s estate, see 1982 exh. cat., p. 25), mirrors make the environment part of the sculpture. In 1966 Smithson produced a series of three works entitled Alogon (derived from the antithesis of the Greek word ‘Logos’), such as Alogon No. 1 (1966; New York, Whitney), each composed of a number of step structures arranged in order of decreasing size, conveying Smithson’s belief in the illogical and absurd nature of existence. Though each of the parts is static, their dynamic arrangement introduces tension into the work as a whole.

From 1966 Smithson made regular excursions to urban, industrial and quarry sites in New Jersey, and in 1968 he produced a series of Nonsite works that marked the beginning of his involvement in Land art. A Nonsite, Franklin, New Jersey (1968; Chicago, IL, Mus. Contemp. A.) is a typical example of these works. Next to an aerial photograph showing an area of land near the Franklin Furnace Mines cut into five trapeziums of decreasing size, he placed five wooden boxes of corresponding shape, each containing metal ore from that section of the site. The receding arrangement of the containers comprised a play on one-point perspective, paradoxically using a three-dimensional structure to represent a two-dimensional illusionistic scheme. The term ‘nonsite’ was in part a pun on ‘nonsight’: the viewer cannot see the actual site from which the ore originates, only selected photographic areas. Other Nonsites used maps instead of photographs, both being recurrent in Smithson’s art.

After the Nonsites Smithson developed his interest in land art by moving on to large-scale outdoor projects, usually referred to in his case as Earthworks. The best known of these is Spiral Jetty (1970; for illustration see Land art), a vast spiral made of earth, rock and salt crystals constructed at Rozel Point, a ten-acre area of Great Salt Lake, UT, leased by the artist. Set in the red water of the lake, the work was seen by Smithson as an image of creation and evolution and also as a consciously anachronistic allusion to monuments of past civilizations, such as the pyramids in Egypt. Spiral Jetty, like all such works, was documented in a film and in photographs, which, because of the remoteness of the location, remained the only way of seeing the work for most people, so enhancing its mythic status. Broken Circle/Spiral Hill (1971), erected in an old quarry at Emmen in the Netherlands, was Smithson’s only Earthwork to combine land reclamation and art; the relationship between a flat section of a circle with an imposing spiral hill reflected Smithson’s interest in dialectical opposites. Throughout his life Smithson wrote articles and essays on his art. He died in a plane crash while at work on another Earthwork, Amarillo Ramp (1973), in Amarillo, TX.


From Grove Art Online

© 2009 Oxford University Press

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