Friday, January 28, 2011

Designer of the Month: Robert Smithson

Week 4: Earthworks, aka Land Art

So, let's finish the month with what Robert Smithson is best known for: his Earthworks. For the sake of argument, we're going to stick with the common-noun use of Earthwork today, but as mentioned before, these works are also commonly referred to as Land Art as well. With Smithson venturing further afield to create his sculptures, it shouldn't be surprising that his next step would be to abandon the mirrors altogether, sculpting the landscape itself.

 Robert Smithson, Asphalt Rundown, October, 1969. Rome, Italy. Courtesy of

The outskirts of Rome was the location of Smithson's first Earthwork, Asphalt Rundown (October, 1969).[1] For this work, Smithson had a dump truck release a load of asphalt down the walls of a quarry, with the asphalt becoming solid as it cooled.[2] While certainly not Smithson's most exciting work, his intention was to "root it to the contour of the land, so that it's permanently there and subject to the weathering," a statement that's good to keep in mind when thinking about Smithson's Earthworks in general.[3] In creating Asphalt Rundown, Smithson was not only attempting to manipulate the land, but unlike his earlier works, he was searching for permanence as well. In addition to earning the title of first Earthwork, Asphalt Rundown also had the distinction of being Smithson's move entirely outside of the gallery walls. Unlike his Nonsites, which were shown within a gallery space, and his Displacements, which made use of both an out and indoor environment, Smithson's Earthworks were known for being both monumental in scale, attempting to change the environment in a very noticeable manner and, as the name suggests, existing exclusively outdoors.

Robert Smithson, Spiral Jetty, 1970. Great Salt Lake, Utah. Photograph by George Steinmetz. Courtesy of the Dia Art Foundation.

After Asphalt Rundown, similar pieces followed. There was Concrete Pour (1969) and Glue Pour (1970), as well as Partially Buried Woodshed (1970), all of which look pretty much exactly the way the name suggests. But it was Smithson's iconic Spiral Jetty (1970), which used black basalt rock and earth from its site on the Great Salt Lake to create a coil 1,500 feet long and 15 feet wide, stretching into the water, that really caught people's imaginations.[4] As Ann Reynolds so expressively describes it in the book Robert Smithson Spiral Jetty: True Fictions, False Realities:
Out there, exquisitely extending from Rozel Point and then turning in on itself to a place that is both an ending and a beginning, Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty needs to refer to nothing outside itself; site and nonsite collapse into the vertiginous patterning of 'a strange footprint on the shores of the unknown.' And even the artist is startled to discover that this footprint 'is our own.' Yet, because of its location and physical fragility, few of us have actually experienced it in this way. Instead, we see it neatly framed as a striking still photographic image that is endlessly reproduced as the preferred symbol, elegant and concise, for 'earth art,' with its visual self-sufficiency still assumed to be intact.[5]
It's true that Spiral Jetty is a memorable image, but it's really the objects surrounding the work - the photographs, film and an essay - that made Spiral Jetty an accessible work. And that, to me, is what is so interesting about Smithson's Earthworks. Constructed outdoors, in locations that require time and effort to reach, the primary way that people know of these Earthworks is through the documentation that Smithson created alongside the work itself. In this way, Smithson's Earthworks have a great deal in common with his Displacements; although they were created on a far larger scale and meant to last, the materials surrounding the Earthwork are just as important as the work itself.

Robert Smithson, Amarillo Ramp, 1973. Tecovas Lake, Amarillo, Texas. Courtesy of the Dallas Contemporary blog.

After Spiral Jetty came Spiral Hill and Broken Circle (Summer, 1971), a duo of works in Emmen, The Netherlands, that are Smithson's most geographically accessible. These were followed by a series of plans to create Earthworks made in partnership with industry, utilizing abandoned mines as sites.[6] Unfortunately, none of plans would ever be realized, with the only record of them existing in the form of Smithson's drawings and writings, and his final Earthwork completed posthumously. Smithson was killed in a plane crash in 1973 while photographing the site for Amarillo Ramp (1973). This Texas Earthwork, one that Smithson had planned and received permission to build, was completed by the artists Nancy Holt (Smithson's wife), Richard Serra and Tony Shafrazi.[6] 

[1] Eugenie Tsai, "Robert Smithson: Plotting A Line From Passaic, New Jersey, To Amarillo, Texas," Robert Smithson, ed. Eugenie Tsai (Los Angeles: The Museum of Contemporary Art, 2004), 28.

[2] Ibid., 28.

[3] Ibid., 28.

[4] Dia Art Foundation online, "Robert Smithson: Spiral Jetty, Overview,", (accessed January 27, 2011).

[5] Ann Rynolds, "At the Jetty," Robert Smithson Spiral Jetty: True Fictions, False Realities, ed. Lynne Cooke and Karen Kelly, (New York: Dia Art Foundation, 2005), 73. 

[6] Eugenie Tsai, "Robert Smithson: Plotting A Line From Passaic, New Jersey, To Amarillo, Texas," Robert Smithson, ed. Eugenie Tsai (Los Angeles: The Museum of Contemporary Art, 2004), 30.

[7] Ibid., 31.

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