Robert Smithson: Learning from New Jersey and Elsewhere

Article excerpt

ANN REYNOLDS Robert Smithson: Learning from New Jersey and Elsewhere Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2003. 371 pp., 10 color ills., 81 b/w. $39.95

Common sense suggests that the mirror is a figure of plenitude. Standing before its reflective surface we are all tempted to proclaim (aloud or to ourselves): There I am! In recent art history this will-to-wholeness has spawned numerous abuses of Jacques Lacan's famous essay on the "mirror stage." Too often the psychoanalyst's complex theory of reflection and representation is reduced to simple identification, whereas the crux of his essay was to demonstrate the dispossession of the self in representation. Lacan's name is not mentioned in the pages of Ann Reynolds's book Robert Smithson: Learning from New Jersey and Elsewhere, but the mirror is. In fact, taking up a term that Smithson himself used, Reynolds interprets one of the most significant artistic oeuvres of the 1960s and early 1970s as enantiomorphic-that is, as characterized by mirror imaging. This trope turns out to be a powerful tool for making sense of Smithson's art, and particularly his mystifying early sculptures, but its significance reaches beyond formal analysis. For in the artist's heterogeneous practice, mirroring suggests loss and dislocation rather than identification and plenitude. Just as the right side of our bodies is never identical to the left, the relays of mirroring that Smithson establishes are often asymmetrical, and this disruption of the mimetic circuit may lead to the loss of the subject and object of reflection altogether. The artist implies as much in one of his better-known, though pointedly obscure, drawings, The Museum of the Void (1966-68), in which classical architectural forms reminiscent of traditional American museums frame nothing but a black hole.

Reynolds's book is a monograph, and it keeps very close to its individual subject (more on this later), but there is, nonetheless, a big idea that runs through the text-one that serves to balance out the misuses of Lacan's mirror stage in other art historical precincts. Namely, Reynolds demonstrates that we lose ourselves in our impulse to see. Some of the most important modernist art historians, including Jonathan Crary, Yve-Alain Bois, and Rosalind Krauss, have attended to how vision constitutes subjects historically, physiologically, and psychologically, but the case of Smithson puts extraordinary stress on the dislocation of both subject and object in vision. It is this paradoxical evaporation of the most solid of things-from one's own body to the urban sprawl of New Jersey's "edge city" and the vast Western desert of the United States-that gives Smithson's art its special vertigo. It is impressive that Reynolds produces her enantiomorphic readings largely from close analysis of the artist's works; she demonstrates that theory need not be limited to text but may elaborate itself just as powerfully through form.

In the course of her book, Reynolds traces the changing forms and functions of the enantiomorphic in Smithson's art from his early sculpture of the mid-1960s to his "masterpiece," The Spiral Jetty, completed in 1970, not long before his untimely death in 1973. In doing so she addresses one of the most recalcitrant historical riddles in the history of contemporary American art: namely, accounting for the shift, beginning in the late 1950s and accelerating throughout the 1960s, from the practices of midcentury modernist painting characterized by medium specificity and non-objective opticality to the array of intermedia, postmedia, or new media practices that succeeded them in the work of artists like Smithson, Bruce Nauman, and Joan Jonas, to name only a very few. For me the most impressive accomplishment of Reynolds's book is her persuasive demonstration that works like Smithson's Enantiomorphic Chambers of 1965 constitute a sculptural riposte to Greenbergian formalism. While Reynolds's discussion of Clement Greenberg feels a little stale, she enriches her account of the critic's aesthetic theory with a consideration of the vogue for Op art set off by William Seitz's notoriously popular exhibition The Responsive Eye in 1965, as well as a dense but useful analysis of art historian Ernst Gombrich's discussion of abstraction and optical illusion. …