"Robert Smithson"

By Panero, James | New Criterion, September 2005 | Go to article overview

"Robert Smithson"


Panero, James, New Criterion


"Robert Smithson" Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. June 23-October 16, 2005

We'll always have Paris. To certain American artists emerging in the 1950s, that was the problem. The School of Paris was flowering on their New York doorsteps. And they wanted herbicide.

If American art in the first half of the twentieth century set its sights on mastering the School of Paris--the modernism of Cezanne and Matisse--then it wasn't long after that artists turned to the School of anti-Paris and its antimodernist dean, Duchamp. Soon enough the antimovement became a movement. The school of Duchamp became an MFA program. Even Hans Hofmann lost tenure.

That's getting ahead of things. The big question, at first, was who would be king of the heap, lord of the sewer. Johns and Rauschenberg made a go of it. Donald Judd squared off the corners. But it was Robert Smithson (1938-1973), the original Earth artist, who had the sense to truck the lot over state lines. When you're born in Passaic, New Jersey, waste management is in the blood.

The history of antimodernism is one of absence in absence--cycles of nothing. Smithson's life ended in an airplane crash at age 35. For a movement made out of what's not there, his absent career has become the art world's ultimate void, a Hallmark card to write in its x's and o's.

The cult of Smithson is now a generation in the making. A generation of artists and academics are considered part of it. So why is this retrospective, organized by Eugenie Tsai for the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, with stop-overs in Dallas and New York, only the second such show mounted since Smithson's untimely death? The answer, naturally, is there's no there there.

Had Smithson lived a longer life, we might better know if he could have maintained the antimodern stride he found for a short time from the mid-1960s until 1973. (Duchamp, after all, avoided the whole problem of a long career by taking up chess.) With Smithson, abridged, we see consistency personified: an artist always at his peak--or nadir. In appearance, a cross between Stephen King and an extra from Zabriskie Point, Smithson is ever the crystal-collecting Gauguin, a William Carlos Williams for the Dianetics set, the goth Beatnik in the Cedar Tavern. A skilled rhetorician, he mixed the jargon of science with the kitsch of science fiction so effortlessly that critics seemed to miss the underlying sentimentality in the treasure maps and Bmovies and Champollion-at-the-ruins poses of this avowedly unromantic artist. He once asked "who wants to be 'interested' in the condition of the artist's romantic ego?" How about anyone interested in Robert Smithson?

It was in his writing on art, more than in the flukey success of Spiral Jerry (1970), that Smithson demonstrated his innate talent. Compare Smithson's breezy narrative in "The Monuments of Passaic" (1967) with Judd's dull ruminations of the same time period and it's no surprise who got the most column length in Artforum.

Wall labels and more wall labels. That's what you find at a Smithson show. He excelled at the printed page. He fell short most everywhere else. In the plastic world he had little sense for form that did not serve a rhetorical end. Smithson's gallery-sized designs come off as either inert graphpaper doodles (Terminal [1966]) or space-age ashtrays (Four-Sided Vortex [1965]). His piles of mirrors or rocks or chalk or shells, like Mirror Displacement (Cayuga Salt Mine Project) (1969), are little more than geological updates on the Duchamp "Readymade"--not to mention curatorial nightmares. …

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