by John Rapko
Around 1980 I walked into the Berkeley Art Museum and was confronted by a few small piles of sand with upright mirrors stuck in them. What was I looking at? The wall label told me these were pieces by Robert Smithson that he called “mirror displacements.” What were those? I had three pieces of knowledge, or fragments of learned opinion, that seemed relevant. I knew that Smithson was a prominent contemporary artist known for his spectacular earthwork in the Great Salt Lake called Spiral Jetty. I knew that contemporary art presented challenges to perception, understanding and appreciation in ways unprecedented in the entire history of art. I also knew that part of these challenges stemmed from the fact that a great deal of contemporary visual art was not part of the traditional artistic genres of drawing, painting, and sculpture; instead, there were installations and performances, videos and happenings, earthworks and assemblages. None of that took me very far in understanding, or even knowing how to view, these piles of sand.
Robert Smithson’s journey is one of the great intellectual adventures of contemporary art. One starts with Smithson, the earth artist, the maker of Spiral Jetty and other earthworks around 1970. But the 1970s and the 1980s revealed Smithson as having three different identities that made unparalleled contributions to the visual arts. Smithson was also a significant theorist proposing novel conceptions of advanced art whose originality centered around two points. First, he introduced the problematic idea that entropy — which he understood as a movement from order to disorder, tension to relaxation and dynamism to equilibrium — was an element of artworks, and its acknowledged presence was part of what made an artwork good. Second, and more importantly, he introduced a novel conception of contemporary artwork as a “dialectic of site and non-site” where “site” designated a place from which materials were extracted from their context and then taken to a different location, the “non-site” (typically a gallery or museum) where the materials are arranged and displayed. Other elements, such as drawings, photographs and films, could become additional elements of the dialectic and exhibited at the non-site. The difference between these two conceptions of site adds a further dimension: At the site, one sees materials in their context; at the non-site, one is blind to the materials’ original context, which must then be inferred without direct perceptual experience.
A third identity was Smithson, the sculptor. A groundbreaking show in 1980 of these works from the mid-1960s revealed something more than the eccentric Minimalism for which they had been half-remembered. Unlike a typical Minimalist foregrounding of hard surfaces and instantly apprehended forms laid out in lines or grids, Smithson’s works suggested worlds of archetypes, especially spirals evocative of crystals and galaxies, as if these medium-sized artifacts simultaneously revealed the micro-structures underlying them and the macro-structures encompassing them. An early sculpture, The Eliminator (1964), consisted of a mirrored corner, with four neon squiggles bisecting that corner, pulsing on and off. The piece changes appearance with every shift in the viewer’s position, but from most angles, the mirrors reflect the neon and each other out into infinity. There’s no “right” place to stand and no way to grasp it fully. Smithson characterized it as “a clock that doesn’t keep time, but loses it” and then goes on to stipulate its significance: “The intervals between the flashes of neon are void intervals” or what George Kubler calls “the rupture between past and future.” The Eliminator “orders negative time as it avoids historical space.” As became typical with Smithson, the roles of artist and theorist intersected. However, the theory does not illuminate the work as much as it poses further questions, including questions about the theory’s intelligibility.
He made many of the works that followed of steel or glass, with sheets stacked or arranged in ways suggestive of crystalline faceting and accretion. By 1968, with Smithson working under his new conception of the dialectic of site and non-site, such works were mostly replaced with ordered arrays of open trapezoidal boxes that contained the raw materials—dirt, gravel, rocks—of a site; he also at that time made a number of what he called “mirror-displacements,” some of which had so puzzled me initially. After 1969, with the making of Spiral Jetty, Smithson largely abandoned any sculpture for work outside of galleries and museums.
A fourth identity is surprising and seemingly impossible to reconcile with the other three: Smithson, the religious painter. In the mid-1970s, a show of Smithson’s drawings circulated in the U. S., followed by a gallery show in 1985 of early paintings made in New York City. They revealed that from the late 1950s to the early 1960s, when Smithson was in his early-to-mid 20s, he was primarily a Christian painter of savage and intricate paintings of Jesus, which looked like the works of a German Expressionist overcome by the spirit of John of Patmos, the author of the Book of the Apocalypse. It was easy to dismiss these works as juvenilia, artifacts of an exploratory apprenticeship that became mere biographical curios once the artist blossomed into his mature work. (One thinks of the paintings Claude Monet made under the shadow of his mentor Eugene Boudin, which were then relegated to prehistory as Monet worked out Impressionism over a summer painting Bain à la Grenouillère.) Yet there are peculiar continuities between the early religious works and Smithson’s sculptures and earthworks: the insistence upon a few colors, white, black, and especially red. There are spirals painted on the crucified Jesus’ hands.
Thus, by 1990, another question arose: What connection, if any, was there among the four identities? Were they a discontinuous sequence with a parallel theoretical track running alongside? Several scholars, notably Thomas Crow, explored the possibility that Smithson never left the concerns first evinced in the religious paintings. Smithson’s life, the life out of which these identities emerged and mingled, now has a worthy telling in Suzaan Boettger’s new biography, Inside the Spiral: The Passions of Robert Smithson. Is there another living person as well-prepared and placed to write Smithson’s biography? I doubt that there is. (Born in Berkeley, Boettger was a Bay Area resident for three decades and a contributor to Artforum, San Francisco Focus, San Francisco Bay Guardian and Artweek before relocating to New York in 1985.) She has studied Smithson’s work for decades, has interviewed many people who worked with him, including his wife, Nancy Holt (publisher of his essays), and previously authored what is in my reading, the definitive study of the early works of American Land Art, Earthworks: Art and the Landscape of the Sixties (2003). She knows everything worth knowing about Smithson and conveys it with clarity. But the book exhibits two additional virtues that make it something anyone interested in contemporary visual art’s foundations will want to read. First, she is an art historian gifted with an unusually acute interest in and perception of detail, an ability often exercised in relation to, say, Bellini and Michelangelo, but very rarely by critics and historians of contemporary art. Her powers of description and evocation are particularly revelatory in her accounts of Smithson’s religious paintings, making those passages required reading for anyone wishing to engage with Smithson. It is a rare achievement to invite the reader into a process of looking that combines careful scrutiny while maintaining the sense of indeterminacy and multivalence of an artwork. Second, she is the master of Smithson’s intellectual grounding in several difficult and perhaps currently neglected books. Smithson was a voracious reader,
and his artworks, his writings, and reports of his conversations show that his key ideas and conceptions arose mainly as part of his response to Carl Jung, G. K. Chesterton’s theological works, the writings of art historians Hans Sedlmayr and George Kubler, the literary historian Wylie Sypher, and the psychoanalytically inclined art theoretician Anton Ehrenzweig. At every relevant point in the book, Boettger supplies the quotes and glosses required for understanding Smithson’s novel conceptions. This, too, is a worthy contribution to the study of Smithson and the formation of distinct concepts of contemporary visual art. Of particular importance for Boettger’s account are Jung and Ehrenzweig. Jung provided Smithson with a kind of dictionary of existential resonance for his motifs, forms, and colors: the sun as the symbol of the unity and divinity of the self; the spiral as path, labyrinth, and way towards psychic integration; red as passion, fire, blood, and activity. Ehrenzweig describes the latent content of artworks as processes of integration and disintegration, life and death and re-birth: things that stimulated Smithson’s fertile re-conceptualization of contemporary artworks as instantiating a “dialectic,” wherein the viewer physically, perceptually, and imaginatively, shifts from presence to absence to presence, and across the scale from microscopic to cosmic.
Smithson’s life, which ended at 35 in 1973 in a small plane crash while surveying the early stages of his earthwork, Amarillo Ramp, was not more or less interesting than the lives of countless other artists of his era. An only child, he grew up in Rutherford, New Jersey. In high school, he began drawing, painting, and making woodcuts. At 16, he was admitted to classes at the Art Students League in Manhattan, where his teacher, John Groth, proclaimed him “one of three students in my ten years at the League whose work and talent give real promise of future success.”1 After high school and a short stint in the United States Army Reserves, he moved to New York City and had his first solo show of 16 oil paintings in 1959. These, along with drawings, collages and watercolors he made over the next few years, exhibit an “x-ray” style reminiscent of Australian Aboriginal works, seen in how they show something of the figures’ interiors, as vehemently drawn skeletal fragments. Much of this work is explicitly Christian in subject matter, with abundant renderings of the suffering and crucified Jesus. Boettger presents a great deal of evidence that Smithson was passionately religious –in his art, thinking, reading and practice. Drawing from Smithson’s documented reading and book collection, Boettger offers several detailed explications of these works. Here and later in the book, she demonstrates how Smithson mobilized Jung’s theory of archetypes (primordial and trans-personal symbols of the human psyche) and his utilization of alchemy as models for artistic creativity. This discussion of Smithson’s early life and Christian work takes up more than a third of the book. Consequently, I often wondered whether it was longer than these topics warranted. Boettger makes the case that these inquiries laid the foundation for his later sculptures and earthworks.
Boettger also introduces a jaw-dropper: Smithson was a “replacement child,” that is, a child born to replace a sibling who died young. Smithson’s brother Harold died of leukemia at age nine; Robert was conceived approximately a week after the first anniversary of Harold’s death. By far, the most remarkable aspect of Boettger’s book is the emphasis she places on this; not only does she summarize the clinical literature on replacement children, but she also invokes Smithson’s presumed struggle with his status to explain the tectonic shifts in Smithson’s art and his major pieces. In discussing the style of the religious works, she quotes from one of Smithson’s revealing letters to his first dealer, George Lester: “I painted ikons bleeding from every stroke.”2 Boettger cites in this connection a description of children dying from leukemia who are bleeding from all parts of their bodies. The mottled skin of Smithson’s Christ figures likewise evokes the hemorrhaging symptomatic of leukemia.
Boettger proceeds through the book’s second half detailing the chronology of Smithson’s life, with most of it rightly devoted to his artworks and writings. Around 1963 the explicit religious content of his paintings faded, replaced by drawings and collages, frequently with manifestly homoerotic imagery. At the time, some of Smithson’s friends considered him gay; others considered him bisexual; some thought him intensely though merely curious, while others, including Holt, denied or ignored all this. Figuration and homoeroticism vanished in 1964 when he suddenly shifted to sculpture, a phase that culminated with a trip to the Yucatán Peninsula, yielding the most direct application of his new conception of the dialectic between site and non-site. In 1969 he abandoned sculpture for earthworks, the pursuit of which led him to scout locations across North America and even The Netherlands.
Boettger discusses more than a dozen of Smithson’s works in depth, and her accounts significantly contribute to our understanding of his work. Much of it inevitably centers on Spiral Jetty, a subject to which she devotes two chapters that display her unique understanding. Her interpretation is wide-ranging and intricate but also paradigmatic of her explanatory style, marshaling a range of biographical information to explain what motivated Smithson to choose that site and then create the spiral-shaped form. She emphasizes Smithson’s excitement at finding a place where the water was strongly tinged with red algae. The spiral form, Boettger writes, suggests itself as “as [something] either centripetal or centrifugal…at once a condensation and an expansion of his previous work”3. She interprets the work’s central characteristics of redness and spiral form in terms of the theological and alchemical concepts she laid out earlier in the book in the discussion of Smithson’s paintings. Finally, at the most basic level of explanation, Boettger invokes the dead brother Harold, who assumes something akin to the narrative voice in Samuel Beckett’s novella The Unnamable, with Harold addressing Robert: “My appearances elsewhere having been put in by other parties.”4 The film that Smithson made of Spiral Jetty ends with him running out to its end, which Boettger treats as a piece of alchemical symbolism invoking “the impossible search for one’s birth”5 In Boettger’s account, Spiral Jetty isn’t just the most iconic of contemporary visual artworks, it’s also a piece of alchemy, a theological mystery — an abyss leading into the mystery of the self.
As I read the book, I wondered, with increasing intensity, about Boettger’s understanding of an artist biography. It seems to be an example of Jean-Paul Sartre’s later philosophical biography, which ascribes a “fundamental project” to an artist, something the artist pursues throughout life in various unforeseeable circumstances. So I was not surprised that she quotes Sartre on this very point, that human beings ceaselessly repeat themselves as they innovate and invent themselves. I wonder whether such a conception of biography, whether in Sartre’s hands or Boettger’s, adequately addresses how socialization and contingencies make up so much of life. In any case, this book represents a significant contribution to the understanding of contemporary art and unquestionably deepens our knowledge of Smithson’s foundational ideas and artworks.
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About the author: John Rapko is a philosopher of art and art critic based in Berkeley, California. He is the author of two books in Spanish on the philosophy of contemporary art: Logro, Fracaso, Aspiracíon: Tres Intentos de Entender el Arte Contemporáneo [Success, Failure, Aspiraton: Three Attempts to Understand Contemporary Art] (2014); and Retorno a la oscuridad. Tres conferencias sobre la filosofía del arte contemporáneo [Return to Darkness. Three Lectures on the Philosophy of Contemporary Art] (2023). He has taught philosophy, art theory, and art history at the University of California at Berkeley, Stanford University, California College of the Arts, the College of Marin, and elsewhere. His academic writing has appeared in the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, the British Journal of Aesthetics, and the Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews. Currently, he is at work on a philosophical account of the contemporary visual arts for publication in English, as well as a series of studies on experimental poetics in literature, music, and the visual arts.
Samuel Beckett, The Unnamable (New York: Grove Press, 1958).
Suzaan Boettger, Earthworks: Art and Landscape of the Sixties (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002).
Boettger, Inside the Spiral: The Passions of Robert Smithson (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2023).
Thomas Crow, No Idols: The Missing Theology of Art (Sydney: Power Publications, 2017).
Anton Ehrenzweig, The Hidden Order of Art (1967).
Jack Flam (ed), Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996).
Carl Jung, Psychology and Alchemy (New York: Pantheon, 1953).
Carl Jung, Psyche & Symbol: A Selection from the Writings of C. G. Jung (Garden City, N. Y.: Doubleday, 1958).
George Kubler, The Shape of Time: Remarks on the History of Things (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1962).
Hans Sedlmayr, Art in Crisis: The Lost Center (London: Hollis & Carter, 1957).
Wylie Sypher, Loss of the Self in Modern Literature and Art (New York: Vintage, 1964).
- Boettger, p. 20.
- Boettger. p. 52.
- Boettger, p. 257
- Boettger, p. 278
- Boettger, p. 288