From the June/July 2014 Issue:

Art & Antiques: Robert Smithson in Wonderland

    By: John Zeaman |

An earthworks artist found curious paradoxes in his native state

Article Photo
enlarge | “Red Sandstone Corner Piece,” 1968. Mirrors and sandstone. From the Philadelphia Museum of Art ©Estate of Robert Smithson/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
Robert Smithson is best known for “Spiral Jetty,” a 15-foot-wide, 1,500-foot-long coil in the Great Salt Lake in Utah. It belongs to a kind of art known as earthworks—outdoor monuments reminiscent of those by ancient peoples, such as the Pyramids at Giza or the Great Serpent Mound in Ohio.

Smithson was from New Jersey. He was born in 1938 in Passaic and grew up in Clifton and Rutherford. Poet William Carlos Williams was his pediatrician. The state’s industrial and post-industrial landscapes, its swamps and refineries “embedded themselves in my consciousness at a very early age,” he wrote.

He died in 1973, when a small plane he was using to survey sites for his latest work, “Amarillo Ramp,” crashed in Texas. The work was later finished by his wife, artist Nancy Holt.

Article Photo
enlarge | “The Bridge Monument Showing Wooden Side-Walks” from “The Monuments of Passaic,” 1967. Six photographs and one Photostat. From The Museum of Contemporary Art, Oslo, Norway ©Estate of Robert Smithson/licensed by VAGA, New York Courtesy of James Cohan Gallery, New York/Shanghai
State of Influence
In recent years, scholars have been paying more attention to New Jersey’s role in shaping Smithson’s art. In 2002, author Ann Morris Reynolds came out with “Robert Smithson: Learning from New Jersey and Elsewhere.” This past winter, he was featured in a show at the Princeton University Art Museum about the state’s historic avant-garde, which borrowed one of Smithson’s terms for its title, “New Jersey as Non-Site.”

Most recently, the Montclair Art Museum opened “Robert Smithson’s New Jersey” (on view through June 22), with more than 60 of his Jersey-centric works. In the catalog, curator Phyllis Tuchman even finds a possible source of inspiration for Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty” in the helix at the Lincoln Tunnel.

Smithson left New Jersey for Manhattan as a young man, but came back to carry out quirky field trips. In his 1967 essay, “The Monuments of Passaic,” he describes banal places and objects in quasi-archeological and science-fiction-like terms. He stared at the flotsam and jetsam of the Passaic River, contemplated entropy in a sandbox and wondered whether Passaic had replaced Rome as “The Eternal City.”

Smithson’s adventures in the Garden State also took him to Franklin, Bayonne, “the charming Tudoroid town of Upper Montclair,” quarries near Paterson and Montclair, Edgewater and the environs of the old Palisades Amusement Park. He was drawn to the Pine Barrens and the New Jersey Meadowlands because they were desolate and “suggested prehistory” and, in the case of the Meadowlands, “a good location for a movie about life on Mars.”

He documented his expeditions with photographs and maps and displayed samples—limestone, concrete, sand and rocks—in fabricated metal containers. He liked the philosophical inversion in this. “Instead of putting a work of art on some land,” he wrote, “some land is put into the work of art.” In Smithson’s dichotomy, there are the “sites”—the places he visited—and then there are the gallery displays about them, which he called “non-sites.”

Article Photo
enlarge | “A Nonsite (Franklin, New Jersey),” 1968. Painted wood bins, limestone, gelatin-silver prints and typescript on paper with graphite and transfer letters, mounted on mat board. From the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago Photo by James Isberner/Image courtesy of James Cohan Gallery, New York/Shanghai/Art/©Estate of Robert Smithson/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
Landscapes & Displacement
He also did projects he called “mirror displacements,” in which he put mirrors in landscapes and photographed them. Reading the rationales for these works is like going through Alice’s looking glass. He said putting mirrors into landscapes was like painting, but with real light on a real landscape.

His interest in landscape drew Smithson to the landscaped parks of Frederick Law Olmsted. These he considered conceptual works of art because they mimicked the pastoral landscape. Three years before he died, he drew a sketch of a project in which a cookie-cutter-like piece of Central Park would be assembled on a barge and towed around Manhattan Island.

In the Alice-in-Wonderland world of Robert Smith­son, such a project resonated in multiple ways. He was interested in artificiality, and this would be an artificial model of a place that was itself an artificial model. He liked the idea of displacement, of taking things out of context, as with the rocks he brought from the outside world into the gallery. He was interested also in the tension between center places and peripheral places—as with New York City and the suburban landscape of New Jersey. His “Floating Island” would move a piece of land from the center of Manhattan and displace it to the water that surrounded the island.

Were these profound philosophical ideas or conceptual games? Who can say? Belief in conceptual art is akin to religious faith, and Smithson has many believers within the art world today. In 2005, more than 30 years after his death, a prospective show at the Whitney Museum prompted a group of people including Smithson’s widow to make “Floating Island” a reality.

A barge was loaded with tons of soil and adorned with turf, rocks, shrubs and trees similar to those found in Central Park. It was launched from Staten Island near the Bayonne Bridge and for several weeks a tugboat towed it around Manhattan, where, of course, it could also be seen from such strange peripheral places as the waterfront towns and the Palisades of Robert Smithson’s native New Jersey.

Columnist John Zeaman is a freelance art critic who writes regularly for The Record and Star-Ledger newspapers. His reviews of exhibits in New Jersey have garnered awards from the New Jersey Press Association, the Society of Professional Journalists (New Jersey chapter) and the Manhattan-based Society of Silurians, the nation’s oldest press club. He is the author of Dog Walks Man, (Lyons Press, September 2010) about art, landscape and dog walking.