The catalogue cover for “Robert Smithson,” at the Whitney Museum of American Art, shows some graph paper on which Smithson scribbled a diagram of his various ideas and plans. It’s an informal map of his sensibility, and, as a cover, very unusual. It isn’t colorful and won’t attract many buyers. But the choice is apt. In our culture, Smithson (1938–1973) is a kind of map-making explorer—a man of the modern frontier. His Spiral Jetty of 1970 in Utah’s Great Salt Lake remains the best-known example of what’s sometimes called Earth art. But his achievement adds up to more than that iconic work. He’s as important for his fertile play with ideas as for the art he produced. He reminds me of those visionary architects who don’t get most of their buildings built. A man of possibilities.
The current retrospective—originally organized by Eugenie Tsai for the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles—is a thorough and conscientious accounting of this artist’s brief career. (Smithson died at 35 in a plane crash.) It obviously cannot include the art he created outdoors, such as Spiral Jetty, but it contains a strong selection of his drawings, movies, language pieces, and earthworks designed for display in galleries. As a young artist, Smithson developed a warm expressionist sensibility, one colored by religious feeling and the vast scale of religious space. But then he came of age in the cool, rarefied milieu of Minimalism. The tension was fruitful: If he soon abandoned the more sentimental aspects of expressionist art, he also never became a card-carrying Minimalist. In certain ways, he’s that style’s greatest critic—the anti-Judd.
Smithson mounted a fierce attack upon art’s pristine white room. He disliked both the mandarin ironies of Duchamp—who was a kind of god in the sixties and seventies—and the clean-as-a-machine theories of many of his own contemporaries. Meaning, he thought, should not be isolated or made precious. Truth was plural, messy, impure, changing. It was found in the complex sediment of thought. It accreted over time: The geological became his presiding symbol. (“I’m not a reductive artist,” he said. “I’m a generative artist.”) This perspective led to thinking outside the box—literally. His art erupted from the gallery and museum into the landscape. Characteristically, the pieces he made outside art’s walls have complex, even contradictory meanings. Spiral Jetty seems romantic and detached, ancient and modern, symbolic and factual, eternal and changeable. “I don’t think the world proceeds logically,” he said. “I think it’s dialectical.”
Smithson brought his critique of the museum into the museum proper. He would extract pieces from a particular place (such as rocks or shells) and then create piles parsed by mirrors or dominated by containers. On the one hand, such works are alienating: The bits of landscape, torn from their context, appear sliced and diced in the isolating museum. On the other, they can be sensual, evocative, and full of perceptual play—especially the mirror pieces. They provoke a viewer to dream of the full landscape, and when reflected in the glass, he or she even becomes a figure in an imagined land. In Smithson’s arrangements, the mirrors themselves often look transparent, creating the illusion that we can see through our reflections. Not surprisingly, an artist with this philosophical bent was fascinated by language. He treated words as something earthy, a layered deposit from which he could excavate meanings.
Although Smithson was not religious, he did not abandon the idea of transcendence. Something in him wanted to escape limitations. Geological time could dwarf human history; the structure of a crystal had a beauty more ancient than art’s forms. Next September, the Whitney and an organization called Minetta Brook will present one of Smithson’s unrealized proposals, based upon a drawing called Floating Island to Travel Around Manhattan Island. A tug will pull what looks like a chunk of Central Park (itself a kind of island) around Manhattan. The idea is whimsical, of course, but also telling. In Smithson’s universe, nothing is solitary, isolated, or fixed. Even the islands move.