Bradford Graves

Robert Smithson

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Robert Smithson

A Geometric Configuration

"My work is impure; it is digged with matter. I'm for a weighty

ponderous art. There is no escape from matter. There is no

escape from the physical nor is there any escape from the

mind. The two are in a constant collision course. You might

say that my work is like an artistic disaster. It is a quiet

catastrophe of mind and matter." 41

By the mid 1960's, as the anti-war movement began to be felt

through all facets of the American society, it affected the role

of the artist and his society. The statement made through art

didn't become politicized such as with the Mexican Revolutionary muralists. Rather, is was the

questioning of social roles, the way artists handle their work in a consuming society. Art objects for

sale in a market equipped with distributors, magazines, dealers, museums, collectors, critics,

historians, etc.

Three thousand years of the art object and how it was put to use. Three thousand years of Kings,

Popes, the Burghers, social causes, problems, greeting cards, government, and that new power, the


As a result, an art developed that had very little to do with the aesthetics that art history and criticism

were built upon. Suddenly there was art that didn't look like art. It had been a long time in coming,

dating back to the end of World War I in the Dada movement, and continued by Marcel Duchamp.

The new art was called Minimal. I wouldn't include Pop Art, since the format it took was still

recognizable as art, only the subject matter had changed. The intent can be found in the title, a

reduction in form until it reached a point where it just didn't look like sculpture, or painting, although

here I will be concerned only with sculpture.

As interest in the art object lessened, there developed a new interest in the process of making art, the

artists' perceptions and plans, and even a preoccupation with the artist himself rather than with the art

object which indeed had ceased to be an 'object'.

Everybody as usual underestimated the flexibility of the art market. Our society seems well able to

incorporate any protest. The two concepts - - minimal and conceptual -- because art movements and

attached themselves with ease to the three thousand years of occidental art.

The questioning goes on and there are a few that continue to pursue new directions. One direction has

been the 'earth works.' A new direction, but it seems to pre-date all our concepts of western art.

Rather than abstracting concepts and materials, the work is in natural environments and part of the

work is involved with geological changes. The man who worked out his own destiny in this way,

contained all the contradictions and confusion of our society, and whose work expressed innocence,

was Robert Smithson. This section is devoted to his work.

"Actually, it is the mistakes we make that result in something. There is no point in trying to come up

with the right answers because it is inevitably wrong. An art against itself is a good possibility, an art

that always returns to essential contradictions. I'm sick of positivists, ontological hopes, and that sort

of thing, even ontological despairs. Both are impossible." 42

Robert Smithson's long walk began in 1966 with a piece called "Tar Pool and Gravel Pit." An apt

beginning as it had references to the tar pools of California where skeletal remains of dinosaurs were

found. Geological processes were the subject as the tar cools and flattens into a sticky deposit.

The tar pool was shown in a gallery in isolation from other geological processes. This began the

concept of "non-sites" due to the neutral environment of the gallery. The quality of neutrality was

sometimes increased by the insertion of mirrors so that material became pure illusion.

Another aspect of "non-site" work was the used of maps that pushed abstraction further than the

mirrors. Maps were substituted for material. Maps were cut up, re-positioned, and overlapped, and

became his most "finished" works. If you have a love of maps, as I do, finding magic there, you can't

help from being awakened to new ways of reviewing a map as perspectives push, recede, and blend

into each other.

In 1966 Smithson was a consultant for an architectural-engineering firm competing for the Dallas, Fort

Worth Airport. The project would have allowed Smithson to realize his work outside of the art world and

the concept "site work" came into being -- work that would take place in its natural setting. The project

fell through for Smithson but he began to look for other possibilities.

Smithson listed the variables between "site" and "non-site."43

He chose for his first site work the Yucatan, and brought an element from his non-site work mirrors. It involved the placement of mirrors.

"Reflections fall into mirrors without logic and in so doing invalidate every rational assertion." 44  It was the last time Smithson used mirrors in

site work, although he continued it during 'non-site' work. Perhaps it brought into the work too many contradictions as numbers 4 and 7 point out

from his chart on this page.

The same year (1969), Smithson worked his first earth work free of artificial qualities. The "Asphalt Rundown" involved the flow and displacement

of material. Asphalt was poured from a truck and allowed to run down an incline.

Judging from color photos, Smithson must have been aware of the resulting color combination. It brings to mind something Smithson said in 1966.

"Instead of using a paintbrush to make his art, Robert Morris would like to use a bulldozer." 45 The dump truck had become the paint brush

allowing the pigment to cascade down the "canvas." A very "painterly" earthwork.

"Partially Buried Woodshed," 1970, continued the flowing principle. It was a work pure in intent. No mirrors and no aesthetics, only the force of

nature. Earth was allowed to accumulate around and on top of a wood shed until the roof beam broke. At that point it ended. "The slow flowage

makes one conscious of the turbidity of thinking. Slump, debris slides, avalanches, all take place within the cracking limits of the brain."46

The "Spiral Jetty," 1970, at the Great Salt Lake is Smithson's best known work. Composed of a spiral starting on the edge of the lake and spiraling

out counter clockwise into the lake, it exists on many levels, visual and psychological; it remains open to all interpretations. The lake was chosen

because of its physical properties, notably a high density of salt that gives it a reddish color and which crystallizes on the border of the lake and

the work itself. The color of the water changes as it moves into the spiral, and the rocks composing the spiral change colors on the edges. There

are also legends about the lake, that it was once part of an ocean and contained whirlpools. The Spiral is a mystery containing no past, present, or

future and seems to lead to the oceanic. A spiral that escapes all systems of thought aesthetics, art history, or philosophy.

A pair of earth works made in Holland that work as a unit are " Broken Circle and Spiral Hill," 1971, which involved opposites. Broken Hill = Earth/

Water and Spiral Hill = Earth/Air. The broken circle lays flat on the horizon while the spiral is on an incline.

Smithson did not live to see the completion of his last work, "Amarillo Ramp." The plane he was riding in as they mapped out the work from the air

stalled and crashed, killing all aboard. The work was completed by his wife, Nancy Holt, and his close friends Richard Serra and Shafrazi. It has

been questioned by some as to whether it can be considered Smithson's work, but all of them, especially Nancy Holt, have been very involved

with him during the planning stages, understood his work and what he wanted to achieve. Smithson also allowed chance to play a part in his work,

always open to suggestions and changes. The ramp is sited on a private ranch in the panhandle region of Texas, and is composed of rocks in

sharp contrast to the lake and the surrounding desert. The lake it sits upon is man made for purposes of irrigation so that the water level changes

affecting the ramp's slant as it cuts across the low, flat horizon.

"As long as art is thought of as creation, it will be the same old study. Here we go again, creating objects, creating systems, building a better

tomorrow. I posit that there is no tomorrow, nothing but a gap, a yawning gap. That seems sort of tragic, but what immediately relieves it is irony,

which gives you a sense of humor. It is that cosmic sense of humor that makes it all tolerable. Everything just vanishes. The sites are receding

into non-sites, and the non-sites are receding back to the sites. It is always back and forth, to and fro. Discovering places for the first time, then

not knowing them."47

Why is Robert Smithson so important? I can only answer for myself. Stones, contradictions, and an ability to maintain humor through it all. He had

a love of stones in all their multi-textures, colors and forms. He knew them well, how they [...] but I'm also a robber of stones - cutting, banging,

stacking, pushing them to their breaking point - I put them in unnatural change and how minerals can work on them. I share that love, settings.

Smithson allowed them to continue their changes; I try to arrest that, fix them down but at the same time free them from their environment.

Smithson could live the social and artistic contradictions we are all faced with. All his works are open, none of them based on any closed system

of thought. His minimal work in contrast to other minimalists was based on geometric forms that could either expand or contract. If he resorted to

mirrors, it was to enhance that openness.

This vision was maintained in his earth works. To quote the front-end loader operator working on Amarillo Ramp, a man from the area who had

worked his whole life doing construction jobs, "It was like going into outer space. You're going up all the time and just come to an end there, where

you don't know where you go from there."48

More contradictions in his acceptance of site and non-site. He could abstract material in neutral environments, usually the most artificial rooms

that don't partake of life. Galleries and museums. Later he substituted the photographic image for materials all the while admitting that

photographs steal away the spirit of the work.

He created the most public art - yet it is the least accessible to the public because of its location.

His humor could envision a nature tableau being pulled around Manhattan by a tug boat. He could wed the image of rotting bananas to the music

of Captain Beefheart's "I love you, ya big dummy." Up-side down trees in Florida?

He could live with it all. The build up and decay of matter, the natural and unnatural, progress increases waste, the falling apart of his own work.

Put his ideas, opinions, dreams into an art most free of ego. Ultimately, it's walking into the Spiral Jetty, a walk made difficult by Smithson,

spiraling into oneself, or you can turn around walking against the clock - time out into the universe.

"All those guide books are of no use.

You must travel at random, like the first

Mayans, you risk getting lost in the thickets,

but that is the only way to make art." 49

-Robert Smithson

>> Next

41. Lippard, Lucy. Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object. Praeger: New York. 1973. p. 89

44. Smithson, Robert. "Incidents of Mirror-Travel in the Yucatan. Artforum, September, 1969 p. 30

45. Smithson, Robert. "Towards the Development of an Air Terminal" Artforum, Summer, 1967. p. 38

46. Lippard, Lucy, Six Years: p. 56

49. Smithson, Robert. "Incidents of Mirror-Travel in the Yucatan", Artforum, New York, September, 1969, p. 30


A Legacy Carved in Stone



Taking the Side of Things

Omphalos and Lapis Manalis



The Stones of Camus

Twentieth Century Stone Sculpture

Richardson 's Original Monster Rock


Robert Smithson

The Moon Gets its Rocks off on Earth

In Praise of Limestone

Essay by Laura Welikson








Brad's Writings 

Selected Essays





open limits

closed limits


series of points

an array of matter


outer coordinates

inner coordinates





indeterminate certainty

determinate certainty


scattered information

contained information








someplace (physical)

no place (abstraction)