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Robert Smithson
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Wikipedia About Robert Smithson

Robert Smithson (January 2, 1938–July 20, 1973) was an American artist famous for his land art. Full Wikipedia Article

essay Robert Smithson, Walker Art Center Collections, 2005

Part postmodern cynic, part Beat wanderer, Robert Smithson attempted to comprehend the world in geological time, as a system verging on dissolution, dereliction, and decay and over which man seeks sovereignty in vain. Through his engagement with maps and minerals, prehistory and archaeology, and culminating in his most iconic work, Spiral Jetty (1970), in the Great Salt Lake of Utah, Smithson’s art unfolds like the fascinated narrative of a shamanic journey. Coming to prominence in the mid-1960s, the artist produced a uniquely influential body of work and writings that elucidate an art strategy straddling both Conceptual and environmental, Minimalist and activist concerns while becoming increasingly hostile to curators and museums’ “cultural confinement” of his art.1 Smithson was killed in a plane crash while surveying the site for his posthumously completed Amarillo Ramp in 1973; yet he still looms over the field of contemporary art with a charismatic presence.

A major piece by the artist in the Walker Art Center’s collection, Leaning Strata (1968), dates from an early phase in his mature work when he was still producing what has often been characterized as self-contained geometric sculptures.2 As evidenced by correspondence and works on paper in the collection, Smithson’s inclusion in the Walker exhibition 6 artists 6 exhibitions came at a pivotal point in the development of his practice, as he was departing from Minimalist-looking series toward “indoor earthworks” that included actual rocks and minerals.

Two months before the Walker show, Smithson had held his second solo exhibition at the Dwan Gallery in New York, showing a series of affiliated sculptures, including Leaning Strata, executed in white metal, fiberglass, or plastic.3 Oriented around invisible points in space, each is made up of compound geometric wedges that are stacked into structures resembling immaculate fun-house staircases or crystalline geological formations. Leaning Strata was planned out in a series of working drawings that conflate two schematic systems of spatial representation—a cartographic projection and a perspectival grid. Smithson mentioned Leaning Strata in a letter to then–Walker Director Martin Friedman on May 30, 1968: “I plan to travel throughout the west this summer looking for sites with interesting rock and mineral deposits, such as volcanic cinders, fragments from lava flows, obsidian (black volcanic glass), broken granite, different types of sandstone, fossil agglomerates, shale, limestone, all kinds of pulverized rock. This geologic or anti-geologic sense has always been in my work to a certain degree. From the ‘Tar pit and gravel’ model of 1966 [Tar Pool and Gravel Pit, 1966] to the stratigraphic Leaning Strata. Geologic time has a way of diminishing ‘art history’ to a mere trace.”4

Though Leaning Strata was not included in 6 artists 6 exhibitions, works on paper in the collection reveal that Smithson had considered a number of different options for the installation. In what would have been an elaboration on Pointless Vanishing Point (1968), he had contemplated the fabrication of a series of sequentially smaller three-dimensional works painted in progressively lighter shades of “an evanescent greenish-blue.” However, on a picture-postcard of the moon from the Hayden Planetarium, New York City, he wrote that he had “decided to make only the largest unit of the 5 units (the 8-foot one), and it will be white.”5

Smithson did create his second “non-site,” Non-Site #2, for the Walker presentation, though this piece was later destroyed at the artist’s suggestion.6 As in related work, a dialogue was activated between an outdoor location many miles away (the Site, on this occasion an area close to the Lincoln Tunnel exit near Weehawken, New Jersey) and an “artificial topographical structure” in a gallery (the Non-Site).7 Smithson drew on top of a map of the area, dividing it into twelve pie-slice segments that themselves corresponded to a flattened-out projection of the Earth’s hemisphere. This companion map (Entropic Pole, 1967) was reflected in the three-dimensional iteration: nine feet in diameter, Non-Site #2 was specially fabricated by Walker staff and took the form of twelve analogous white wedges with mirror strips that indicated lines of longitude.

  1. Robert Smithson, “Cultural Confinement” (1972), in Jack Flam, ed., Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings (Berkeley, Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1996), 154–156.

  2. Smithson would, however, retroactively dispute that works from this period were self-contained, commenting of a related work, Gyrostasis (1968), “GYROSTAsIS is relational, and should not be considered as an isolated object.” Robert Smithson, “Gyrostasis” (1970), in Flam, Collected Writings, 136.

  3. The Walker’s 6 artists 6 exhibitions included one piece from the March 1968 Dwan Gallery show, Pointless Vanishing Point (1968), as well as Vortex (1967), Alogon #2 (1966), Mirage #1 (1967), and Non-Site #2 (1968). The other artists in the show were Larry Bell, Chryssa, Will Insley, Robert Irwin, and Robert Whitman. See 6 artists 6 exhibitions, exh. cat. (Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 1968). The main space at the Dwan Gallery show included Leaning Strata, Shift, Sinistral Spiral, Gyrostasis, and Pointless Vanishing Point. See Ann Reynolds, Robert Smithson: Learning from New Jersey and Elsewhere (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2003), 125–127.

  4. Letter from Robert Smithson to Martin Friedman, May 30, 1968 (Walker Art Center Archives).

  5. Postcard from Robert Smithson to Martin Friedman, n.d., postmarked February 1968 (Walker Art Center Archives).

  6. Robert Hobbs speculates that “probably the reason he had this piece destroyed is that it appeared too decorative and abstract and was not a totally satisfactory mirroring of the site.” Robert Hobbs, Robert Smithson: Sculpture, exh. cat. (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1981), 104. However, in subsequent correspondence with Martin Friedman, Smithson only mentions that Non-Site #2 could be destroyed, as he agreed it was not needed for the tour of 6 artists 6 exhibitions to the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, in September 1968. Letter from Martin Friedman to Robert Smithson, May 24, 1968; letter from Robert Smithson to Martin Friedman, May 30, 1968 (Walker Art Center Archives).

  7. Letter from Robert Smithson to Martin Friedman, May 30, 1968 (Walker Art Center Archives).

Andrews, Max. “Robert Smithson.” In Bits & Pieces Put Together to Present a Semblance of a Whole: Walker Art Center Collections, edited by Joan Rothfuss and Elizabeth Carpenter. Minneapolis, MN: Walker Art Center, 2005.

© 2005 Walker Art Center