I think of the Spiral Jetty (1970), Robert Smithson’s most well known, and perhaps, most iconic work, waiting for its temporal demise. For 40 years the jetty has sat in a dead sea, a sea that has begun to reclaim the its structural rock and sand, quietly, through day and night, storms, cold and heat, uncaring, just simply waiting. Smithson never intended for the site to be preserved because the site, and the work itself, is part of the same conceptual landscape. In other words, the site, the sea, the artwork and the artist himself are all part of a singular concept that we refer to as nature.
Smithson created his work guided by the ideas of nature, entropy and temporal space. He was redefining what one might consider art to be, and challenging the modern concept that art is a commodity, ever ready to be consumed rather than enjoyed, or more accurately, experienced. Artwork is ‘best’ when it is unified with nature. Smithson considered the museum and gallery system not just outdated, but restrictive to the artist as a creative. “Museums, like asylums and jails, have wards and cells…in other words, neutral rooms called galleries.” Smithson was acutely aware that traditional concepts and artistic consumerism had to be challenged. Ironically, he challenged those notions by placing some of his own work in a gallery setting, but always with the outside world in mind. He almost always included a map. No single artist has questioned what it means to truly define art the way Robert Smithson did, and a definition of art must take into account its place in time and space, its relation to the outside world and its inevitable demise into a state of entropic equilibrium.
Early in his career (until 1964 approximately) Smithson considered himself a painter. He was influenced, as many young artists are, by the great Masters for their aesthetical style, the tenants of Modernism, Abstract Expressionism and psychoanalysis, a common theme in abstract art. He traveled to Europe, visited the museums, toured the Roman ruins, but perhaps most importantly, he began a transition away from classical notions of art. He started to question the idealistic view that many artists strive for in their work. The Roman architecture in Vatican City, the cathedrals of the Byzantine period, the Mona Lisa…all of these works are monumental, and attempt to encompass an idealized view of the natural world. Art often tends to be idealized. Taking a picture of a beautiful sunset, ‘holding onto the moment or remembering the good old days,’ are simply mechanistic ways to avoid the natural world. Instead, Smithson began looking at classical art as an exhausted approach. The most revolutionary art of the 1960’s was, arguably, conceptual Minimalist work. Minimalist sculpture called attention to itself, to the materials it used and the process. This transition shaped Smithson’s thinking and led to the most productive period of his short life. His work, his writing and his life were influenced by scientific and philosophical concepts. It becomes necessary to understand those concepts to comprehend his work fully.
Smithson looked at everything, not just art, in the context of its temporal place in the universe. In other words, if one is “estranged from his own time,” than a system outside of his control is determining his future. Smithson thought it wise for the keen artist to be aware of this, otherwise risk the commoditization of his work. Museums and galleries socially construct art movements and styles. We rarely think of art as an intrinsic part of nature, and of the same natural sphere as a mountain or an oil tanker. Rather, we place it in an isolated system of constructed places and times, thus alienating the artist from his work and his process. Materials themselves are classified and critiqued, steel versus the rust on it from oxidation, for example. Why is one surface valued more than the other? “Why steel is valued over rust is a technological value, not an artistic one.” This discussion of art value is a common theme among Smithson’s writings, which reflects his studies of philosophy…in this case the essay by Walter Benjamin: Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. By placing value on certain art works, the gallery system is effectively devaluing others. This value placement is a function of time. Antiquity versus contemporary, Modern versus Post-Modern or gallery versus installation, or site-specific works, are just a few methodological constructs used to separate the artist from his craft. In effect, the critic and the gallery’s control over the temporal environment, in which art exists, effectually devalues it while simultaneously seeking a way to make a commodity out of it.
The late 20th century art world was dominated by the Modernist aesthetic, championed by the intellectual critic Clement Greenberg. Greenberg’s essays, Modernist Painting and Avant-Garde and Kitsch, laid the foundation for the accepted aesthetical style in painting, primarily, but Modernism influenced all arts. Even contemporary art is constrained, some might argue, by the abstract expressionist style of painters like Pollock and Rothko. Smithson was one of, if not the first, artist to turn this system against itself, or to put it another way, “[Smithson] must conform to the norms of avant-garde modernity to break [himself] apart, [he] must rely on the institutions of modernity to render [himself] under a different gestalt.” Smithson was well aware, as every artist should be, of his time and place, his work’s relation to the current systemic classifications of art and his place in the constructed gallery and museum system. Rather than working an art piece specifically for a museum or gallery, Smithson would bring his installation into the space itself. In effect, he posed a series of questions: What is nature’s place within art? Is nature something other than art? It is not, Smithson would argue, and by presenting his work in a gallery setting he made that position apparent. He called these works ‘nonsites,’ in that the pieces themselves were not tied to any particular place (they could have been displayed anywhere), although that notion was questioned as well considering the earth (soil) present in the work was often from a specific location. I recall seeing the Smithson retrospective at MOCA in 2004. His ‘nonsite’ work, Essen Soil and Mirrors (1969), was laid across the gallery floor. The soil simply sat there on the floor, the same floor that patrons try so hard not to contaminate with food or drinks. The presentation of his ‘nonsite’ was intensely ironic, and Smithson loved irony. His writing used ironic subtext to question the Modernist and Western notions of the gallery system. Why should art be imprisoned there…but then again why not? They are all one in the same, the gallery, the art and the artist…all are restrained by the thermodynamic force of entropy.
It is virtually impossible to analyze Smithson’s work without taking into account the concept of entropy. Entropy is a property of thermodynamics. Generally speaking, it addresses the mathematical calculations of energy transference, and the breakdown of ordered matter into chaos or disorder. Smithson was fascinated with the entropic aspects of art, his own as well as others, and it functioned in some form or fashion throughout every aspect of his work. As the shift from painting, and Abstract Expressionism particularly, gave way to Pop Art and Minimalism, an emphasis on materials became a primary aspect of artwork. Smithson’s essay, Entropy and the New Monuments (1966), addresses these shifts by analyzing Minimalist artists, architecture and installation work. The sculptures, or ‘monuments,’ “bring to mind the Ice Age rather than the Golden age.” In other words, the perception of art was changing with the monuments Minimalism created. Art doesn’t evoke a sense of nostalgia or celebration any longer; rather art is functioning as, “what [Dan] Flavin called, inactive history.” Because of the nature of the new materials, plastics, fluorescent gasses, metals, etc, art is now eliminating time as a function of the work. That is to say, a painting of a great King evokes its place in time and space (the Middle Ages, for example), whereas a Flavin light installation encompasses all time. “Time breaks down into many times. Time as decay or biological evolution is eliminated.”
The conceptual notions of entropy are extremely dense. Even Smithson himself admitted that entropy, as it relates to art, is not easily grasped, in part, because so many artists are fighting against it. Abstraction, for example, is seen as “[ruling] in a void, pretending to be free of time.” Abstraction is essentially trying to overcome entropy, whether abstract artists are aware of it or not. Time is the overarching determinant for entropy. Artists can choose to fight it or embrace it, but either way, time will always win. Smithson uses the story of Humpty Dumpty to make the concept less opaque. “Perhaps a nice succinct definition of entropy would be [the tale of] Humpty Dumpty…all the King’s horses and all the King’s men couldn’t put Humpty Dumpty back together again. [Entropy is] a condition that’s irreversible.” In other words, over time all systems, whether open or closed, will begin to break apart and reach a state of equilibrium. Everything will become the same eventually, whether one is talking about art, people or planets. Keeping these thermodynamic concepts in mind, Smithson begins approaching his own artwork in a new way.
Smithson always considered his work as it related to the world around it. His approach was dialectical, rather than abstract or transcendental. His nonsites, for example, though they often existed within a gallery, always pointed to somewhere outside of the gallery walls. They functioned as “maps that pointed to sites in the world outside the gallery.” His nonsite, Palisade Edge Water New Jersey (1968) was an installation of rocks that “Smithson extracted from the area of an abandoned trolley system in his native New Jersey, placing the pieces in an open-slatted aluminum bin that echoes the pattern of rail tracks.” This installation pinpoints an exact location, but not necessarily an exact time. Like the work of his Minimalist counterparts, Smithson was creating work not constrained by temporal consideration. His nonsites also functioned to question the gallery system, effectively breaking down the barrier those closed systems created. Rather than an isolated object, such as Duchamp’s Urinal (1917), Smithson’s nonsites existed outside of the gallery walls, while simultaneously being present within them. The material was brought in as an installation, from a particular place, but entropy informs the viewer that that material will eventually break apart, as will all matter, and become part of the same system. In other words, it is irrelevant whether the nonsites exist in a gallery or not. The point Smithson was making, I believe, was an ironic statement about the gallery structure as it exists, and its function in constraining artists.
There is always a bond between the artist and the natural terrain in Smithson’s work. He rarely, if ever, selected a location by putting a pin in a map. Even if his scouting a location had begun that way, he always allowed the terrain to guide him. Ironically it was more of an existential exercise than Smithson ever admitted. He was often attracted to industrial sites or waste dumps. He considered manmade sites to be part of the natural landscape much in the same way a traveler would admire the Rocky Mountains. There was an underpinning transcendental philosophy to his selection of site-specific work. Again, it is ironic that Smithson would take a transcendental approach with his methodology, particularly considering he rejected such notions in every interview, but as Angela Miller contends in her article, “[the] Spiral Jetty in relation to the history of westward expansion, embodied in the Golden Spike [at Promontory Point] deserves to become a classroom standard.” Smithson was certainly aware of the significance of his chosen site for, what has now become, his most iconic work.
The Spiral Jetty is located in an extremely remote area of Utah, at Rozel Point on the northeastern shore of the Great Salt Lake. One could not pick a point further from a known gallery or museum, and the site was chosen, in part, for that purpose. Spiral Jetty was constructed over a two-week period and Smithson oversaw the entire project. In an interview he was asked if it was important for people to visit the site, or any of his other site-specific pieces:
"Yeah, but that’s very unlikely that they will. It’s strange because I always have people telling me how interested they are in the sites, and yet they never go there. A few people have. It’s possible for people to visit the sites. It would be good if they did because then they would be confronted with the intangibility of something that appears to be very tangible. Most people come to it with some idea of reality. Everybody’s convinced that they know what reality is, so that they bring their own concept of reality and start looking at the work in terms of their own reality, which is inevitably wrong. So they never contend with the reality that is outside their reality, which might be no reality at all. The reality principle, in a sense, is what keeps everybody from confronting their own fears about the ground they happen to be standing on."
It would be inaccurate to consider Smithson’s work confrontational, but it is certainly inquisitive. It asks something challenging of the viewer, rather than sitting empty in space and time, as an object. Objects, in general, he considered to be semantic constructs rather than tangible matter. He constantly questioned reality and perception. Smithson admired conceptual minimalism because the work required the viewers to question their own existence, particularly in relation to the outside world, but Smithson’s own work takes that notion to a completely different level. Viewers are required to question not just their existence, but also their reality, and as a logical result, question their own mortality as well. The questions that Smithson’s work confronts can evoke a certain fear, perhaps even negativity. Smithson’s art dealer and friend, Virginia Dwan, spoke about Smithson’s relationship to negative energy and bleak landscapes: “Wastelands of sand and snow, CITGO stations with their pyramidal logos, swamps, cemeteries, brick factories, diners and ruins of an industrial age were interpreted and enhanced by Smithson. The negative became a positive, or rather, what was previously designated as above the positive/negative value-judgment ratio was now seen to have a counterpart in the negative underworld.” Although Dwan is reaching a bit, her quote illustrates that Smithson’s permanent outlook was neither positive nor negative, real or fake, rather his ideas were grounded in a system of scientific inquiry. His art and writing were tools that challenged perception and the status quo.
Conceptual art is challenging and, I’d argue, Smithson’s work may be the most intellectually challenging art of the 20th century. It asks questions without providing answers, it presents thought provoking analysis and it tackles concepts that are unyielding in their density. Robert Smithson was rare in that he was very prolific in several mediums. He created art, operated as an art critic, wrote about his own work in exquisite detail, presented his theoretical concepts, wrote poetry and engaged in many interviews. One could make a strong argument that he was one of the more accessible conceptual artists of the 20th century, in that he never created work in a vacuum. His art was almost always in tandem with his analysis and thought. He changed the ideas of historical relevance in art by analyzing art’s temporal constraints. He challenged the structures of museums, art movements, commoditization of art, and historical constructs.
Very few scholars or artists have had such an impact in the contemporary art world. Smithson was able to effectively challenge the gallery system, not just through his writing, but in the way he presented his own work. Galleries and museums were simply an intrinsic part of art culture, and remain so, but Smithson illustrated ways that the gallery system inhibits an artist. He called the galleries “asylums,” and referred to the curators as “wardens.” He wrote this tongue in cheek of course, in an ironic style, but it confronted enormous issues that exist within the modern system. He was effectively able to address economic concerns, within the art world, but using a unique and scientific analysis. Entropy, Smithson’s most obsessive topic, informs us that any closed system will eventually break apart and reach a state of equilibrium, generally much quicker than an open system. Although Smithson wasn’t a proponent of systems in general, he considered them a semantic argument much the same way that he did objects, there is no system more closed than that of the gallery. It’d be wise for museum boards and gallery directors to consider this, even if it is unlikely that they will. Whether they do or do not one thing is for certain, time will always win.
Charles Harrison and Paul Wood, Art in Theory (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2003), 970.
Nancy Holt, The Writings of Robert Smithson (New York: New York University Press, 1979), 144-145.
Jack D. Flam, Robert Smithson, the Collected Writings (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1996), 106.
Daniel Herwitz and Gary Shapiro, Earthwards: Robert Smithson and Art After Babel (The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism: 78, no.1, 1998), 79.
Hyperphysics: Georgia State University, “Entropy as Time’s Arrow,” (2015): http://hyperphysics.phy-astr.gsu.edu/hbase/therm/entrop.html
Whitney Museum of Contemporary Art, “Robert Smithson Nonsite, Palisades-Edgewater, N.J.” (2005): http://collection.whitney.org/object/5560
Angela Miller, Review of Mirror-Travels: Robert Smithson and History (American Art Journal: 45, no. 3, 2005), 29.
Alexander Alberro and Patricia Norvell, Recording Conceptual Art (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2001), 129.
Virginia Dwan, Reflections on Robert Smithson (Art Journal: 42, no. 3, 1982), 233.