Robert Smithson remains one of the most influential and original artists whose voice has had a major impact on artists of his generation, and continues to do so today. His complex ideas took root in many forms: drawings, projects and proposals, sculpture, earthworks, films and critical writings. Smithson's provocative and seminal works, made in the mid-sixties to early seventies, redefined the language of sculpture.
He was one of the founders of the art form known as earthworks or land art, and is most well known for the Spiral Jetty, 1970, located in the Great Salt Lake, Utah. This monumental earthwork was inspired in part when Smithson saw the Great Serpent Mound, a Pre-Columbian Indian monument in southwestern Ohio. The earthworks were a radical departure from making formal objects situated in a gallery setting. The Spiral Jetty embodied one of his goals which was to place work in the land rather than situated on the land. Smithson's earthworks defined an entirely original notion of landscape. Dissatisfied with the status quo, Smithson did not limit himself to any one form or style of art. He moved beyond modernism's hermetic tendencies by abandoning formalism, rules and traditional art materials. Smithson's oeuvre, as an artist and writer, defied convention and produced works that could not be easily categorized. He utilized non-traditional art materials such as language, mirrors, maps, dump trucks, abandoned quarries, hotels, contractors, and earth to produce his radical sculptures, photographs, films, and earthworks.
Beginning in 1964, he emerged with minimal-like structures that veered away from minimalism's closed systems. Robert Hobbs stated "Smithson was not strictly a minimalist. He used the vocabulary of minimalism... clean geometric forms, industrially fabricated parts, the look of objectivity.. as a way of pointing out the weaknesses of systems and networks," (Robert Smithson: Sculpture, Robert Hobbs, Cornell University Press, 1981). One such work that exemplifies these early investigations is Enantiamorphic Chambers, a wall work that structurally has two identical chambers that incorporate mirrors. Smithson has said of this piece "If art is about vision, can it also be about non-vision...it's form is a bi-polar notion that comes out of crystal structures...two separate things that relate to each other. ...in Enantiamorphic Chambers, there is...the indication of a kind of dialectical thinking that would emerge later very strongly in the Nonsites."
Importantly, Smithson stated when interviewed by Paul Cummings that "Enantiamorphic Chambers freed me from all these preoccupation's with history; I was dealing with grids and planes..empty surfaces. The crystalline forms suggested mapping".
Embodied in all of Smithson's endeavors was his interest in entropy, mapping, paradox, language, landscape, popular culture, anthropology, and natural history. This is evident in works he created such as Heap of Language, King Kong Meets the Gem of Egypt, Enantiamorphic Chambers, A Nonsite - Pine Barren's New Jersey, Yucatan Mirror Displacements, Partially Buried Woodshed, Asphalt Rundown and Spiral Jetty.
Entropy, was a theme that consistently ran throughout Smithson's art and writings. He explored his ideas involving decay and renewal, chaos and order with what came to be known as his Nonsites and Earthworks. Smithson spoke at great length in interviews and essays on entropy and his notion of time. In Entropy and the New Monuments he wrote "...the urban sprawl, and the infinite number, of housing developments of the postwar boom have contributed to the architecture of entropy" and that "entropy is a condition that is moving toward a gradual equilibrium". Partially Buried Woodshed, 1970, Kent State University, Kent State, was a piece Smithson created on site during an invitational arts festival. He located an abandoned woodshed and poured earth on to the structure until it cracked. This work is a prime example of Smithson's visualization of entropy and time, leaving it to be "subject to weathering, which should be considered part of the piece". This quote is from a statement Smithson signed when he donated the work to Kent State University.
Smithson developed a significant body of work that engaged complexity and oppositions: nature/culture (Aerial Map-Proposal for Dallas - Fort Worth Airport), language as material (Heap of Language), space and time (Spiral Jetty Film), monuments and the anti-monument (earthworks such as the Spiral Jetty), displacement and landmark (Map of Broken Glass, Atlantis). Mirrors were major elements in Smithson's early structures and continued to play a major role in his later Nonsites and Displacements, begun in 1968. He said, "mirror in a sense is both the physical mirror and the reflection" it is "a concept and abstraction"... a displacement "of properties".
A Nonsite - Pine Barrens, New Jersey, winter, was Smithson's first Nonsite. It was constructed in 1968, in a remote area of southern New Jersey. On looking for sites he stated "I began in a very primitive way;..started taking trips in 1965; certain sites would appeal to me more--sites that had been in some way disrupted...pulverized. I was really looking for a denaturalization rather than built up scenic beauty...when you take a trip you need precise data& I would often use quadrangle maps; mapping followed traveling" (from Discussions with Heizer, Oppenheim, Smithson, The Writings of Robert Smithson). Smithson's Nonsites were radical in both idea and construction. The nonsite was map, a 'landmarker'. These pieces were constructed primarily from natural materials he chose from remote, unpopulated areas, or the ruins of collapsed buildings. The materials from this site were brought into the gallery, placed in constructed bins, with maps or situated within mirror formations.
The Nonsites, created a dialectic between the outdoors and indoors, and were examples of Smithson's explorations into sight and its simile - site, displacement and location. Literal and allegorical, the Nonsites confounded the illusion of materiality and order. The mirrors functioned to order and displace, to add and subtract, while the sediments, displaced from its original site, blur distinctions between outdoors and indoors as well as refer the viewer back to the site where the materials were originally collected. Lawrence Alloway has stated in his essay Sites/Nonsites, from the book The Writings of Robert Smithson, "the relation of a Nonsite to the Site is also like that of language to the world: it is a signifier and the Site is that which is signified".
Conceptually the Displacements differ from the Nonsites. Displacements were works that incorporated mirrors or structures made from natural elements temporarily sited in the land, such as Yucatan Mirror Displacements, 1969, Mirror Displacements (Brambles), England, 1969. These works were never intended to be permanent pieces as Smithson had said in Fragments of a Conversation , "I don't leave the mirrors there. I pick them up. It's different from the site/nonsite...It's another level of process that I'mexploring. A different level of containment".
Smithson developed a wide variety of photographic works - none of which dealt with traditional composition or conventional image making. One such work, Spiral Jetty Film Stills, 1970, is a three-paneled composite photowork of black and white images that were taken during the making of the Spiral Jetty. Other photographic works incorporated collage with text or maps. Smithson also produced a unique body of photographs that were based on his Displacement pieces called Slideworks, the format of which is 35mm slide transparencies. These photographs are simultaneously artwork and document and are not a formal rendering of the landscape in traditional photographic terms. Like the materials in the Nonsites, the images themselves become displacements. Oolite Island, Sunken Island, both 1971, Yucatan Mirror Displacements 1-9, 1969 and Hotel Palenque, 1969-72 are some examples of Smithson's Slideworks.
In 1970 Smithson moved his work outside of the gallery walls to concentrate entirely on earthworks such as the Spiral Jetty, Partially Buried Woodshed, Amarillo Ramp. At this time a small group of artists were engaged in reformulating their ideas of art in relationship to the land. These endeavors in the land enabled Smithson to explore chaos and order-how natural forces such as wind, rain, heat and cold, would effect the work over time. Nancy Holt, Smithson's wife and an artist in her own right, has said of the Spiral Jetty... "In its scale and ideas, this sculpture embodies the spirit of some of the great monuments of past civilizations yet it is wholly contemporary in concept and execution".
The earthworks enabled Smithson to deal with his concerns regarding art in the land, while simultaneously producing an artform that was non-commercial, existing outside of the traditional viewing spaces. It could not be owned or seen easily. The earthworks, with the exception of Emmen Hill / Broken Circle, which was constructed in a public area in Holland, are known by most only through photographs. After Smithson's plane crashed while photographing the site for Amarillo Ramp, Philip Leider, who published Smithson's writings in Artforum, stated that "Smithson died in the midst of a meditation on nature and art as original as any since Cezanne".
The rich legacy of Smithson's contributions as a writer and artist remains an unending source of inspiration. Lawrence Alloway notes in his essay Site/Nonsite, 1981, that when Smithson wrote A Sedimentation of the Mind, he (Smithson) "explicitly aligns geological change with the process of thought....landscape, then becomes analogous to the human condition or at least of our communications" and that Smithson in his writings and in his work "acknowledged complexity and contradiction as a working condition".
Smithson's influence on future generations is unquestioned, as is evidenced by the number of continuing essays, new publications, and numerous exhibitions both group and solo currently planned for the artist.