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September 12 - December 13, 2004 at the Museum of Contemporary Art [MOCA], Downtown

by Betty Ann Brown

Seen retrospectively, Robert Smithson holds up as a provocative earthwork sculptor and insightful writer on the arts. Smithson occupied a pivotal position in the 1960s-1970s transition from Modernism to Postmodernism. The exhibition begins with student drawings and paintings of the 1950s--interesting only for their insight into the artist's teenage concerns--and continues through his conceptual works in the 1960s, including the remarkable mirror pieces, such as the Yucatan Mirror Displacements (1-9) (1969) displayed in the form of nine cibacrhome prints taken from the slides that originally documented the piece. Smithson's best-known works--his mammoth earth displacements-- are represented by prepatory drawings, documenting photographs, and films. Smithson created several of the films with his partner Nancy Holt, who was instrumental in promoting the artist after his death. But his art is not without problems in its conceptualization.

One of the ongoing strategies of Postmodern cultural production has been deconstruction of the binary categories reified in Modern art. This approach was not initiated by Postmodernists: it had been anticipated by several Dada and Surrealist artists, especially Marcel Duchamp, who has been hailed as the progenitor of many Postmodern processes.

Minimalism was historically situated so as to straddle the Modern and Postmodern eras. It makes sense, then, that Smithson, who began his career making minimalist sculpture, would end up consciously challenging dualities treated reverentially in the Modernist context, such as culture/nature, signified/signifier, image/text, and entropy/dynamism. That his work continues to appeal, more than thirty years after his tragic death in an airplane accident (in 1973 at age 35), in part emanates from this break.

Smithson’s sculptures from the mid-1960s are primary form structures created from slick industrial materials. By the end of the decade, he was juxtaposing manufactured surfaces and containers with the stuff of nature: dust, salt, caulk, crushed shells. He termed such displacements of nature’s components into gallery spaces “nonsites.” Although initially rectilinear in configuration, by the early 1970s, Smithson’s nonsites employed circles, curves and spirals.

"Partially Buried Woodshed," 1970,
one woodshed and twenty truck-
loads of earth, 18'6" x 10'2" x 45'.

"Spiral Jetty," 1970, black rock/
salt crystals/earth/red algae
/water, 3 x 15 x 1500 feet.

"Ruin of Map Hipparchus (100 B.C.) in
Oswego Lake Quadrangle (1954-55),"
1967, map collage, 13 x 18".

“Spiral of Cinnabar,” 1970, graphite
on paper, 18 7/8 x 23 1/2”.

By that time, the artist was also creating earthworks--actual sites on the surface of the planet. His first two were immense paintings on the earth. Asphalt Rundown (1969) in Italy was a smear of asphalt down an incline. Glue Pour (also 1969) in Canada was just what the title describes: a large spill of glue over rough dirt. Partially Buried Woodshed (1970) for Kent, Ohio involved piling dirt onto an old shack until it collapsed into decay.

Smithson’s last four earthworks are his signature pieces. Spiral Jetty (1970), Broken Circle (1971), Spiral -Hill (1971) and Amarillo Ramp (1973) are, as their names suggest, curving geometric forms writ large on the earth. These are visually arresting pieces, working their poetic magic on most viewers by virtue of their stunning scale combined with the awesome conceptual reach that lay behind their inception. They are so large as to humble the viewer who has direct experience with them. (Which, of course, most of us do not--Smithson depended on film and photography to document and circulate images of his earthworks.)

The artist did not configure his earthworks in a void. Smithson was inspired to begin Spiral Jetty after seeing the Native American earthwork “Serpent Mound” in Ohio. Like Picasso, Matisse and other Eurocentric Modernists, Smithson was drawn to the art of the Other, to what the previous generation of Europeans had called “primitive art.” Like them, he took a “primitive” structure out of cultural context, neglecting its complex significance to its makers, and appropriated it as his own. In doing so, he was--however inadvertently--colluding with the historical subjugation of the non-European Other that characterized European colonial practices.

Rather than seeking to invent “original” forms (as Modernism strove to do), Postmodernism eclectically mines all kinds of cultural histories for its hybrid combinations. In doing so, these histories are often emptied of political specificity and applied as decorative equivalences. Such a practice may well seem liberating from the purview of privilege. But we must ask: Do the oppressed see it as innocent? Or does it effectively deny the histories of colonial domination and oppression? In the end, we must interrogate the politics of representation engaged by Smithson's appropriation of Native American ritual forms for his personal fame and profit.