Robert Smithson

Eyridiki Sellou | Feb 26, 2023

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Robert Smithson (January 2, 1938 - July 20, 1973) was an American artist representative, among others, of Minimal Art and one of the founders of Land Art.

Author of numerous critical and theoretical texts widely distributed by American art magazines (sometimes in collaboration, with Mel Bochner for example), the printed medium gives him the opportunity to develop the discursive, speculative and documentary aspects of his work.

Land art emerged in the 1960s, when the environmental movement in the United States was in full swing.

Childhood and studies

Smithson was born in Passaic, New Jersey. His father, originally a mechanic, became vice president of a loan company. His paternal great-grandfather, a staffer, had made decorations in the New York subway system, the American Museum of Natural History, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and a hundred churches. His maternal grandfather was a wheelwright. He spent his childhood until the age of nine in Rutherford, New Jersey, 20 km from New York. In Rutherford, poet and physician William Carlos Williams was Smithson's pediatrician. He wrote the epic poem Paterson, published from 1946 to '58; these writings would have a lasting impact on Smithson, who was 20 years old in '58.

By the time he was nine years old, his family had moved to the Allwood section of Clifton, New Jersey. At a young age he had a passion for natural history and regularly visited the American Museum of Natural History. He studied painting and drawing at the Art Students League of New York from 1955 to 1956, and then briefly at the Brooklyn Museum School.


He then turned to abstract painting. He sees himself mainly as a painter at this time and his first exhibited works have a wide range of influences, including science fiction, Catholic art and Pop art . In 1961, spends three months in Rome, for a solo exhibition, and reads a lot (Jung, Freud, the vorticist Wyndham Lewis, T. E. Hulme, as well as T.S. Eliot, Nightwood by Djuna Barnes, and Nacked lunch by William Burroughs). In 62 he proceeds to "a kind of writing by collage", according to his own words. He made drawings and collage works incorporating images from natural history, science fiction films, classical art, religious iconography, and pornography, including "homoerotic cuts from beefcake magazines. Paintings from 1959 to 1962 explore "mythical religious archetypes" and are also inspired by Dante's Divine Comedy, such as the 1959 paintings of The Wall of Dis and The Inferno, Purgatory and Paradise, which correspond to the three-part structure of the Divine Comedy.

While working at an insurance company (Lederle Labs in Pearl River), and with an interest in the arts and sciences, Nancy Holt married him in 1963. They both made many trips to their native New Jersey. He devoted himself to sculpture, "a kind of crystalline plastic work," influenced in part by crystallography, in search of "structures derived from a reflection on the inherent qualities of materials.

If Smithson's interest in science fiction literature has often been mentioned, it is more precisely the work of J.G. Ballard that often seems very close to Smithson's. J.G. Ballard became famous in the early 1960s with the publication of four catastrophe novels in which the Earth, as we know it, is destroyed by wind, flood, drought and crystallization, respectively. Among them: The Burning World, 1964, renamed in 1965: The Drought, and in 1966: The Crystal World (Smithson will publish an article, The Crystal Land, in 1966, exploring a career with Donald Judd). As for Brian Aldiss, he published in 1965 Earthworks (novel) (in 1966 by Doubleday) to which Smithson alludes at the very beginning of "The Monuments of Passaic". In Entropy and the New Monuments (1966), Smithson quotes Keith Laumer from The Other Side of Time (1965). He mentions, from the very first words, after a significant excerpt from John Taine, that science fiction suggests, in its architectural ideas, a new form of monumentality that is comparable to the works of Donald Judd, Robert Morris, Sol LeWitt, Dan Flavin, and some of the artists of the "Park Place Group" ... all the way to Larry Bell.

After a break with the art world, Smithson re-emerged in 1964 as a proponent of the Minimalist movement. His new work abandoned the preoccupation with the body that was common in his earlier work and he began to use glass plates and neon lighting tubes to explore visual refraction and mirrors. His wall sculpture Enantiomorphic Chambers, 1965 was made of steel and mirrors and created the optical effect of an "unnecessary vanishing point"; he took, of himself, a photo looking at this sculpture in which he appears, on one mirror, in profile and on the other in front. Crystalline structures and the concept of entropy interested him and led to a large number of sculptures made during this period, including Alogon 2 (1966) composed of ten units, whose title refers to the Greek word for an irrational and unnameable number.

Smithson then embarked on a more methodical exploration of New Jersey's mineral wealth and abandoned mine sites. It was in 1965, sometimes with Donal Judd and Nancy Holt (The Crystal Land, in Harper's Bazaar, May 1966), sometimes with the whole gang of his artist friends. He talks about the rich geology of the area, including a large block of lava containing small quartz crystals, and then moves on to the view from the quarry over the suburbs of New York, which he sees as a geological landscape of concrete, with a crystalline "je-ne-sais-quoi": the store windows, and so on. Smithson's interest in entropy led him to write about a future in which "the universe will exhaust itself in total sameness." His ideas about entropy also touched on culture, "urban sprawl and the infinite number of housing units built during the post-war boom contributed to the architecture of entropy." In Passaic he refers to downtown as "a chain of additions disguised as stores". He describes this urban sprawl as

In 1966, he was a consulting artist on an architectural project for the new Dallas-Fort Worth airport. He designed a series of earthworks as part of an "aerial art".

In 1966, Smithson and Mel Bochner, who had already published critical essays on art, produced an eight-page artwork, The Domain of the Big Dipper, which they passed off as a study of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. The pages were covered with images and text (50% approx.). Smithson's two pages were composed with four very strong symmetry effects. It was a radically new way of presenting a work of art, without going through the galleries that were already asking to send them slides of their work. They were then fed with the most diverse publications, and in particular with the most abstruse books of mathematics; it was according to Mel Bochner "their layouts and their diagrams which piqued our curiosity and which we cannibalized".

Smithson then got closer to artists of Minimal art - Donald Judd published "Specific Objects" in 1965 - or to the artists represented in the 1966 exhibition Primary Structures (en) like Robert Morris and Sol LeWitt. His essay Entropy and the New Monuments was published at the same time as Primary Structures - The Declaration of a New Attitude by Bochner. They are the only two to praise the exhibition. Smithson published "A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic" in Artforum in December 1967.

In 1967, Smithson began exploring industrial areas around New Jersey and was fascinated by the sight of dump trucks digging up tons of dirt and rocks, which he described in an essay as the equivalent of ancient monuments. This led to the "non-sites" series in which soil and rocks collected from a specific area are installed in the gallery as sculptures, often combined with mirrors or glass. Works from this period include Eight-Part Piece (Cayuga Salt Mine Project) (1969) and Map of Broken Clear Glass (Atlantis) (1969). In September 1968, Smithson published the essay "A Sedimentation of the Mind: Land Projects" in Artforum, which promoted the first wave of Land Art artists. In 1969, he began to produce Land art works to further develop concepts from his readings of William S. Burroughs, J.G. Ballard and George Kubler. The travels he undertook were central to his practice as an artist and his "off-site" sculptures often included maps and aerial photographs of a given location, as well as geological artifacts moved from these sites. Among these trips, several site-specific works were produced, including Mirror Displacements, a series of photographs illustrating his essay "Incidents of Mirror Travels in the Yucatan" (1969).

In a text that accompanied the making of Spiral Jetty, "Arts of the Environment". He expresses himself as follows: "It is the art (non-site) that contains the site, not the site that serves as the medium for the art.  The non-site is a container that contains another container - in this case, the room. The plot or the garden are also containers." "Is the site a reflection of the non-site (the mirror), or is it the opposite?". The text, photos, and film that accompanied the creation of Spiral Jetty, these "non-sites," documented the work but were also an integral part of it.

Smithson produced theoretical and critical writings in addition to visual art. In addition to essays, his writings included visual text formats such as the two-dimensional paper work A Heap of Language, which tended to show how text could become art. In his essay "Incidents of Mirror Travels in the Yucatan," Smithson documents a series of temporary sculptures made with mirrors at particular locations around the Yucatan Peninsula. Part travelogue and part critical rumination, the article highlights Smithson's concern with duration (which expresses an idea of time) as a cornerstone of his work.

Other theoretical writings explore the relationship between an artwork and its environment, from which he developed his concept of "sites" and "non-sites." A "site" is a work located in a specific outdoor location, while a "non-site" is a work that can be exhibited in any appropriate space, such as an art gallery. Spiral Jetty is an example of a site-specific work, while Smithson's off-site works often consist of photographs of a particular location, often displayed alongside materials (such as stones or dirt) taken from that location.

As a writer, Smithson was interested in the application of dialectical method and mathematical impersonality to art, which he described in essays and reviews for Arts Magazine and Artforum. For a time he was better known as a critic than as an artist. Some of Smithson's later writings took up concepts of eighteenth and nineteenth century landscape architecture that influenced the crucial explorations in the form of earthworks that characterized his later work. He eventually joined the Dwan Gallery, whose owner, Virginia Dwan, was an enthusiastic supporter of his work.

Smithson's interest in duration is developed in his writings in part by reviving ideas of the picturesque. His essay Frederick Law Olmsted and the Dialectical Landscape was written in 1973, after Smithson attended an exhibition curated by Elizabeth Barlow Rogers at the Whitney Museum titled "Frederick New Olmsted in New York" that presented the cultural and temporal context in the late nineteenth century for his design of Central Park. In examining photographs of the landscape dedicated to Central Park, Smithson discovered the barren landscape that had been degraded by humans before Olmsted built the complex "naturalistic" landscape, and which was particularly visible to New Yorkers in the 1970s. Smithson wished to challenge the widespread conception of Central Park as an outdated nineteenth-century picturesque aesthetic in landscape architecture, one that maintained a static relationship in the ever-changing urban fabric of New York City. By studying the writings of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century scenic treatise writers Gilpin, Price, Knight, and Whately, Smithson resolves issues of site specificity and human intervention as dialectically related layers of landscape, as a multiplicity of possible experiences, and as a value related to the deformations manifested in the scenic landscape. Smithson also notes in this essay that what distinguishes the picturesque is that it is based on an actual landscape. For Smithson, a park exists as "a process of continuous relationships existing in a physical region." Smithson was interested in Central Park as a landscape that, by the 1970s, had altered and thus evolved like Olmsted's creation in its time from the previous landscape, again testifying to the fate of all human intervention.

Although Smithson did not find "beauty" in the evidence of abuse and neglect inflicted on the landscape, he saw the state of affairs as demonstrating the constant transformation of the relationship between man and landscape. He asserted that the "best sites" for land art "are those that have been disturbed by industry, over-urbanization, or natural disasters." Smithson was particularly interested in the notion of industrial disintegration in terms of the dynamic anti-aesthetic relationships he saw in the picturesque landscape. With his proposal to transform the dredging of The Pond in Central Park into "process art," Smithson sought to integrate himself into the dynamic evolution of the park. Whereas in the early eighteenth century, certain formal features of the pastoral landscape and the sublime, such as an "opening in the ground" (a cave) or a pile of rocks, if encountered in the course of a "leveling improvement" operation, as Price envisioned, would have been flattened and the area put into a more aesthetic form. For Smithson, it was not necessary for the disturbance to become a visual aspect of a landscape; in his anti-formalist logic, the scar produced by time and covered by natural or human intervention was even more important. He saw parallels to Olmsted's Central Park as a "sylvan" green layer laid over the "worn" landscape that preceded his Central Park. In order to defend himself against claims that he and other Land-artists "cut up the earth like army engineers," Smithson, in his own essay, asserts that this type of view "does not recognize the possibility of direct organic manipulation of the earth..." and "turns its back on the contradictions that inhabit our landscapes."

The first earthwork to be funded by a city or institution was Grand Rapids Project in 1973: Robert Morris proposed to redesign an abandoned hill. Since then, many state organizations have shown a growing interest in this art. According to Smithson, artists have not only the ability but also the social obligation to contribute to the restoration of the landscape. This was a new idea, although environmentalists had already raised awareness of these issues. It wasn't until 1977 that the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act was enacted, regarding abandoned sites on former Appalachian mine sites.


On July 20, 1973, Smithson died in a plane crash in Texas while taking photographs of his work Amarillo Ramp, under construction. The latter was completed in less than a month by his partner Nancy Holt with the help of Richard Serra and Tony Shafrazi.

Despite an early death that prevented him from completing several important projects he was working on, Smithson quickly established himself in the history of Land Art through a few major achievements, few in number but whose aura is considerable. This is undoubtedly one of the reasons why the artist still has fervent emulators today among contemporary artists, all over the world.

In recent years, many artists have paid tribute to him, including Tacita Dean, Sam Durant and Renee Green, but also Lee Ranaldo, Vik Muniz, Mike Nelson and, among many others, Nikolaj Recke and The Bruce High Quality Foundation. In 2011, an exhibition entitled "The Smithson Effect", which included most of the artists mentioned above, was organized by the Utah Museum of Fine Arts.

Robert Smithson's estate is administered by the James Cohan Gallery.

Achievements and texts : chronology

This work was created in 1969 with a truck loaded with asphalt that traveled to the outskirts of Rome and then unloaded its contents from the top of a hill, thus giving importance to the qualities of a material that interested him greatly: asphalt. For Smithson, asphalt represented a kind of trap for capturing energy and, therefore, roads and highways with this material were transformed into a place of passage, an entropic path that allows a continuous flow of people and machines. There is also a direct relationship to Jackson Pollock's dripping in his paintings, because the painterly dripping of this painter took him to his extreme point of monumentality. Smithson seeks disintegration, sliding, flowing, avalanche, flood. The landscape is always entropic for him because his interest is fixed on the location of abandoned and desolate industrial areas. He is particularly interested in underground or open-cast mines and quarries. The different materials used are mud, manure, asphalt, concrete and ice because they are very slow in flowing, resist easy streaks and soft, spongy stains (which give the idea of laziness) typical of New York paintings in the 1960s.

Boisé partiellement enterré

Done at Kent State University in Ohio, January 1970. Twenty truckloads of dirt were dumped on an abandoned shack until the center beam gave way under the weight of the dirt. The idea is that nature takes back its rights in a complete way on man, on his constructions by the destruction of something human. Smithson's idea was to subject an existing hill to the pressure of a mudflow, but as it was below ten degrees Celsius the experiment failed. The work has since been demolished, leaving behind only a few concrete remains.

Spiral Jetty

Spiral Jetty was established as early as April 1970 in Great Salt Lake, Utah. It used 292 self-propelled ten-wheelers (from Parsons Asphalt Inc. of Ogden) that carried the load to the lake. 625 people moved 6,783 tons of material. Caterpillar Model 955s laid the dumped rock and packed it into Smithson's guidelines. It was 500 meters (1,500 feet) from the top of the ridge to the end of the loop and about 5 meters (15 feet) wide. The fill was provided by 3,500 yards of large basal stones (black) and soil, ripped from the site, to make the dike. The form of the work was influenced by the site; the spiral shape of the pier was derived from the local topography, in relation to a mythical whirlpool in the center of the lake. The spiral also reflects the circular formation of the (white) salt crystals that cover the rocks. As it fades on the beach, it will no longer be visible in about ten years.

Smithson was initially attracted to the site because of the red color of the salt lake, caused by microbacteria. It was engulfed by a sudden rise in water in 1972. The work was thus transformed by its environment, reflecting Smithson's fascination with entropy, the inevitable transformation at work by the forces of nature. From time to time, Spiral Jetty emerges from the water, this monumental structure a testament to the dominance of nature over man.

Broken Circle

This work was made in the Netherlands, in Emmen in 1971. It was commissioned for the temporary international exhibition "Sonsbeek 71". Smithson realized that it was best not to disturb agriculture in such a densely populated country, so he had his work built on a disused quarry. This corresponds to his penchant for entropic locations.

While working to level the ground, Smithson removes a huge boulder. He first plans to get rid of it because it is an unwanted focal point to the work. But the undertaking proves complicated by the mass of the boulder. It was only later that Smithson decided to keep the rock, which gave the work a temporal dimension since it was a witness to a remote age of the earth. Moreover, it contributes to the coincidence of the work with its environment, since primitive tombs, called "Hun beds", are found in the region, built with such rocks.

Broken Circle is a positive earth advance, rotating clockwise. The Broken Circle is a kind of impossibility since the sky is reflected on the earth. Smithson is fascinated by mirrors, their doubling and redoubling.

The work refers to the dikes built by the Dutch and should correspond to the site and its inclusion in the country and its memory. Indeed, in 1953, Holland, whose flat country is located on the delta of three rivers, was hit hard by a tidal wave and a storm, killing nearly 1,800 people and covering 150,000 hectares of land. The "Delta Plan" was implemented to rebuild the dikes and protect the country.

Smithson shows great interest in problems of scale. Broken Circle, as well as Spiral Hill, or Spiral Jetty before it, require an overhanging viewpoint to be seen as a whole. "Size determines an object, but scale determines art (...) Scale depends on one's ability to be aware of perceptual realities. When one refuses to release the scale of the size, one remains with an object or a language which appears certain. For me scale works through uncertainty." (Smithson). Note the interplay between Broken Circle, invisible from a distance to those on its level, and the elevation of Spiral Hill.

Although it was originally built to be temporary, the local population demanded that it become permanent. Smithson wrote a series of recommendations to ensure that his work would properly stand the test of time. However, it is no longer in the shape it once was. The water of the lake more or less covers the pier, while Spiral Hill is covered with evergreens.

Spiral Hill

It is a parody of the Tower of Babel. It was made in Emmen, in the summer of 1971, at the same time as Broken Circle, to which it is intimately linked. It is 23 meters in diameter at its base. The main materials of which it is made are: earth, black topsoil and white sand for the spiral path. The earth, the main material, is chosen for its archaic symbolic charge. "Also the return to the nourishing earth indicates the resurgence of a very archaic feeling." Robert Smithson

Amarillo Ramp

The shape is that of a snake biting its own tail, the shape of a closed circle. It was his wife who finished this work because Robert Smithson died in a plane crash in Texas.

Floating Island

Floating Island, to travel around Manhattan Island, 2005


Writings of the artist:


  1. Robert Smithson
  2. Robert Smithson
  3. La majuscule est de rigueur car il s'agit de nommer un mouvement artistique et non d'évoquer une forme d'art qui serait minimale.
  4. Robert Smithson, 1996
  5. Par exemple Lynn Townsend White, jr donne, en 1966, une conférence sur les racines historiques de la crise écologique (The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis), avant de la publier en 1967 dans la revue Science.
  6. ^ Paul, Serge (December 20, 2021). "Robert Smithson: Birth of an Artist". Linea (Art Students League of New York). Retrieved January 3, 2022.
  7. ^ Chilvers, Ian & Glaves-Smith, John eds., Dictionary of Modern and Contemporary Art , Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009. p. 664
  8. ^ a b Tsai, Eugenie (1991). Robert Smithson Unearthed: Drawings, Collages, Writings. New York: Columbia University Press. ISBN 0-231-07259-7.
  9. Harald Szeemann (Kurator): Live in your head. When Attitudes Become Form. Works-Concepts-Processes-Situations-Information. Wenn Attitüden Form werden. Werke-Konzepte-Vorgänge-Situationen-Information, Ausstellungskatalog, Kunsthalle Bern, 1969. Darin: ungezähltes Blatt (2 Seiten): SMITHSON, Robert: Einzelausstellungen, Gruppenausstellungen, Eigene Schriften, Zeitschriften: Jahre 1966–1969
  10. Im Orig. zwei weitere Abb. – Passaic war S.s Geburtsort
  11. a b Encyclopædia Britannica (angol nyelven). (Hozzáférés: 2017. október 9.)

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