In this ongoing series, writers are invited to discuss a contemporary work that has special significance for them.
One Saturday in September 1967, Robert Smithson, equipped with a Kodak Instamatic and a copy of Brian Aldiss' science-fiction novel Earthworks, took a No. 30 bus out of Port Authority, bound for Passaic, New Jersey. Passaic is, to put it mildly, an unprepossessing burg, a transit corridor between Smithson's two childhood homes, Rutherford and Clifton. Famously, Smithson had been assisted into the world by Rutherford's kindly pediatrician-poet, Dr. William Carlos Williams, author of the epic Paterson, which ponders the Passaic River, its falls, its power, its prehistory and history, and the social, economic, and spiritual consequences of that history. Smithson was on his way to consider the further corruption of those consequences.
He got off the bus just past the bridge that leads into town from Highway 3. He had found his first monument, the bridge itself. "Noonday sunshine cinema-ized the site, "he wrote in his account, originally published in this magazine, "turning the bridge and the river into an over-exposed picture. Photographing it with my Instamatic 400 was like photographing a photograph. . . . When I walked on the bridge, it was as though I was walking on an enormous photograph that was made of wood and steel, and underneath the river existed as an enormous movie film that snowed nothing but a continuous blank." He found other monuments: a parking lot, a sandbox, the concrete abutments of a highway-in-progress, a pumping derrick partly supported by pontoons, and a set of six pipes - which he viewed as a horizontal fountain - that pumped water from a pond into the river. These last two monuments were locked in some occult bond: "It was as though the pipe [attached to the derrick] was secretly sodomizing some hidden technological orifice, and causing a monstrous sexual organ (the fountain) to have an orgasm."
Smithson's text reads like a parody of the journals of nineteenth-century explorers. The Instamatic photographs, meanwhile, a bunch of plain pictures of ugly industrial remnants in a blank landscape, forecast the sculptural work of the following decade, by Smithson and such others as Richard Serra, Carl Andre, Michael Heizer. The sandbox could be a Judd; the pipes a Robert Morris. The fact that Smithson had bought Earthworks ("about a soil shortage, and . . . the manufacture of artificial soil") at the bus terminal before leaving is preposterously apt. It is as if an entire style - two styles, if you count the mock-scientific, mock-documentary aspect of conceptualism - was born in the course of a seemingly desultory stroll that afternoon.
I absorbed all this stuff as a teenager, maybe by osmosis. In the late '60s I commuted every day by train from my parents' house in suburban New Jersey to high school in Manhattan, passing through the no-man's-land of salt marshes and coke-smelting plants and dead-refrigerator dumps that stretched east from Newark almost to Hoboken. …