A Short Biography of Robert Smithson Part 2 of 3
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A Short Biography of Robert Smithson Part 2 of 3

In this series, we will try to learn who Robert Smithson is, why he is said to be such an important figure today, and what he choose to exploit in the medium known as land art (a variety of landscape art). We will proceed in three parts. In a first part (published several months ago), we have already had a brief look at Robert SmithsonÂ’s biography; now, in this second part, we will approach some of his ideas and works. In a third and final part, which will be released soon, we will try to assess Robert SmithsonÂ’s legacy in contemporary art.

This Factoidz article is the second element of a three-part series on the Americain land artist Robert Smithson. Below is a table of contents to allow readers to navigate between articles:

In this series, we will try to learn who Robert Smithson is, why he is said to be such an important figure today, and what he choose to exploit in the medium known as land art (a variety of landscape art). We will proceed in three parts. In a first part (published several months ago), we have already had a brief look at Robert Smithson’s biography; now, in this second part, we will approach some of his ideas and works. In a third and final part, which one can read here, we will try to assess Robert Smithson’s legacy in contemporary art.

PART II: Archetypes of Understanding

(a) Works

i. Sites and non-sites (1968)

For Robert Smithson, 2D drawings are at best simply an analogy of the object which the artist seeks to represent. He developed his non-sites as indoor "earthworks" which are both abstract and representative of an actual geographical site. These non-sites consist of objects which have a reality beyond the closed walls of the art exhibit. He scrupulously built his non-sites from materials extracted from the site, such as earth, stones, pebbles, debris, etc. and placed them in galleries along with maps of the sites or mirror formations which distorted the representations (order, displace, add, subtract). His goal was to create a dialectic between the indoors and the outdoors in land art, and to explore the homonyms of sight and site. According to his website, Smithson used natural sediments to "blur distinctions between outdoors and indoors".

ii. Displacements (1969)

"Displacements" should not be confused with non-sites. According to Smithson, they imply a completely different level of containment. One may understand displacements as reverse non-sites: while non-sites sought to manipulate site representations by bringing samples indoors, non-sites attempt to directly manipulate the viewer's representation of sites by placing mirrors and other elements directly into a natural geographic site. Hence, these "earthworks", which were difficult to witness, were site-specific and temporary.

iii. Earthworks (1970)

Earthworks are what Robert Smithson is usually known for. They are very large-scale sculptures, built on geographic sites and inseparable from them. One can understand Smithson's progression from his in-gallery non-sites to his gigantic site-specific earthworks. His earthworks are deliberately built on hard to reach, isolated sites, and present massive, archaic, archetypal, prehistoric motifs.According to Nancy Holt, Smithson's wife:

"In its scale of ideas, [Spiral Jetty, Smithson's greatest earthwork] embodies the spirit of some of the great monuments of past civilizations yet it is wholly contemporary in concept and execution."

(b) Notions

i. Cultural Confinement

Robert Smithson wrote extensively during his life, and developed notions which would continue to influence artists long after his death. Cultural confinement, for example, "takes place when a curator imposes his own limits on an art exhibition, rather than asking an artist to set his limits". In Smithson's view, museums and parks were akin to asylums, jails, and "graveyards above the ground". In his 1972 article entitled Cultural Confinement, Smithson explains:

"The parks that surround some museums isolate art into objects of formal delectation. Objects in a park suggest static repose rather than any ongoing dialectic. [...] Parks are idealizations of nature, but nature in fact is not a condition of the ideal."

ii. Entropy

Regarding entropy, Smithson explains in an interview that "everything is gradually wearing down. It is evolutionary". Smithson's childhood fascination for dinosaurs, volcanic conditions and wastelands resurfaces in his articles about entropy. As an artist, he took pleasure in watching hurricanes utterly destroy urban landscapes; hence, in his art, an "anticipation for disaster" and a "desire for something more tranquil" interact. In his work, decay and renewal, chaos and order are part of a majestic existential cycle. In his excellent documentary entitled Modern Art: Practices & Debates (available in 3 parts on Youtube), Paul Wood explains that:

"Erosion and subsidence are continually taking place, and as such are part of the work. Smithson was interested in [the] return to undifferentiated matter, a process he describes as entropy."

Smithson created a series of dynamic works, often referred to as "pour pieces" which have been described as "entropy made visible" (Holt).

(c) Art

i. Art in Land

Smithson's art underlines a fascinating parallel between the human condition and geology, evoking Sigmund Freud's notion of the 'sedimentation of the mind.' In this way, he exploited the dynamic aspect of land art. In the case of one of Smithson's earthworks entitled Broken Circle - Spiral Hill, Paul Wood explains:

"[...] human perception and human experience are "embodied". [...] We begin to experience Broken Circle - Spiral Hill only as we move through it and around it."

ii. Smithson and Modernist Art

By veering away from non-sites and into land art, Smithson ultimately abandoned modernism to focus on the spectator's experience of time, space and context. Smithson as highly critical of the autonomous art object. According to Wood:

"Modernist art seemed to [Smithson] to be too refined, too confined, by its preoccupations with autonomy. For him, art had to come from the abyss, which laid behind modern civilization."

To be continued…

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