Mirror Man

By Slifkin, Robert | Art Journal, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview

Mirror Man


Slifkin, Robert, Art Journal


Mirror Man Jennifer L. Roberts. Mirror-Travels: Robert Smithson and History. New Haven: Yalo University Press, 2004. 176 pp., IO color ills., 71 b/w. $40.

Ron Graziani. Robert Smithson and the American Landscape. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004. 243 pp., 43 b/w ills. $75.

It is one of the great ironies of modern art that Robert Smithson's enormously influential earthwork Spiral Jetty (1970) is located miles from nowhere in Box Elder County, Utah, and until only recently was nearly invisible, submerged under the briny waters of the Great Salt Lake. And yet, it is also entirely appropriate. No other artist has been as closely associated with the postmodern critique of the autonomous work of art as Smithson. While ostensibly a material composite of rocks, dirt, salt, and water. Spiral Jetty's ultimate significance is formed from a constellation of texts, photographs, maps, and a film, as well as the object itself, all of which create further reverberations in the seemingly unrelated discourses of science, aesthetics, and history. Smithson's art of interrelation and displacement creates a particular challenge for the writer addressing his work. One is faced with a methodological choice: to analyze how Smithson's work defies any univocal and universal interpretation or to isolate one inflection from its many resonances and momentarily stabilize the seemingly endless chain of connotations produced by his art in the name of temporal and (as the artist was so instrumental in demonstrating) provisional semantic closure.

The first wave of Smithson scholarship, which gradually emerged after the artist's death in 1973, took the former path. Scholars found within Smithson's oeuvre the resurgence of allegory, the invasion of language into the visual arts, the diffusion of aesthetic practice beyond conventional institutions, and an exemplary manifestation of Georges Bataille's concept of the informe.1 All of these critical interventions shared a poststructuralist approach that celebrated the apparent multivalence engendered by his art. Yet today, with so much of Smithson's pioneering critique of modernist autonomy largely incorporated into mainstream art practice and criticism, this initial approach has lost some of its pertinence. Two recently published books and a large traveling exhibition provide an opportunity to reexamine the artist's career for an audience for whom the institutional critique of modern art is a given.2 Rather than exploring Smithson's project of allegorical impurity and semiotic indeterminacy, these recent additions to the growing body of criticism devoted to Smithson seek to invest his works with a content correlative to his structural innovations and, with varying degrees of success and commitment, attempt to historicize his resolutely contingent art. The authors of these books enter new variables into the artist's algorithmlike works to produce fresh and considerable results. If Smithson's art is allegorical in the terms made famous by Walter Benjamin, as first-wave scholar Craig Owens influentially argued, then these second-wave authors act as "interpretative artists" who have taken up the challenge of arranging the artist's various heaps of words and things into new and relevant constellations of meaning.5

Of these new books none is more adamant in revising the canonical account of Smithson than Mirror-Travels. As a scholar of American art, Jennifer Roberts brings an unorthodox set of preoccupations and a decidedly historical bent to her analysis. While some readers will surely shudder at her invocations of the transcontinental railroad and Thomas Cole's Course of Empire series (1836) in relation to such a cerebral and futuristic artist, this arguably unfashionable evidence situates Smithson within a new yet wholly relevant discourse and, more important, dislodges the overused narrative of Greenbergian modernism that has served as a theoretical foil (and sometimes straw man) in many postmodernist accounts of the artist's work. …

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