Robert Smithson did not go to college. As a New Jersey teenager, he commuted to some classes at Manhattan's Art Students League and the Brooklyn Museum, but after high school he did not enroll in art school. He joined the Army Reserves instead, then bummed around the United States and Mexico. Today, when it is unlikely that an artist would emerge into prominence without a university degree or the network of affiliations developed in art school, Smithson's lack of formal training as an artist manages to startle.
The surprise is even greater when measured against a claim in the catalog to the much-anticipated retrospective of Smithson's powerful work, which opened Sunday at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Whether one agrees with the assertion that "no other postwar American artist can be said to be as influential" as he, the effect his art and writing have had on art in the last 30 years is immense.
That influence partly extends to his important peers. Smithson (1938-73), whose death in a plane crash at age 35 stunned the art world, was a pivotal member of a generation that included Richard Serra, Eva Hesse and Carl Andre. Yet, recently emerged artists such as Sam Durant, Renee Green, Tacita Dean and Matthew Coolidge (with the collective known as the Center for Land Use Interpretation), all of whom were too young to have witnessed Smithson's brief but blazing evolution first-hand, have also built on his precedent.
I mention this aspect of Smithson's biography for a particular reason, which has to do with his work. He's widely revered as a pioneer of Earthworks (or Land Art), in which sculptural manipulation of the wilderness landscape creates art with imperceptible boundaries and that cannot be contained within a museum or gallery. But the retrospective shows something slightly different. Above all else, Smithson's art privileges perceptual experience. Literate, astute in its knowledge of complex scientific and mathematical theorems, shrewd and often witty, his work nevertheless positions itself as a catalyst to a fascinating perceptual experience.
The move away from the gallery and into the landscape was important, because a sludge of expectations, habits, rules and assumptions had settled around vanguard American art.
Smithson was enamored of Abstract Expressionist painting of the 1940s and 1950s, and the work by which he's known today drank deeply from the well of Jackson Pollock. But the exceptional creative ferment of the 1960s was partly fueled by an aesthetic sense of dull conformity, coupled with the social and political constraint of the era.
Smithson's genius was to make liberating objects (and environments) that busted up those impediments, while also directly asserting the awesome power of inertia.
The exhibition, organized and artfully installed by guest curator Eugenie Tsai with MOCA curator Connie Butler, includes a strong selection of 10 of Smithson's gallery pieces from 1968 and 1969 -- the famous "nonsites" and "mirror displacements." Sand, stones, shells, cinders, rock salt and other natural materials gathered from outdoor sites -- often remote and desolate or evocative of industrial slag -- are stacked in steel bins, paired with topographical maps and piled around sheets of mirror, holding them in precarious geometric configurations. Widely shown and discussed, and seen by many more people than the Earthworks Smithson made in remote corners of Utah, Texas and elsewhere, they remain a signal achievement.
The show's revelation, however, is the painted metal and mirrored wall reliefs. They date from just before the potent nonsites and the classic Earthworks -- such as 1970's famous "Spiral Jetty," a 1,500-foot coil of rock in the apocalyptic environment of Great Salt Lake. Although I've seen most of the painted reliefs and floor sculptures before, I was unprepared for how fresh and invigorating they look here.
They radiate a colorful whimsy that is frankly Pop. Take the untitled 1964 relief whose metal frame unfolds across the wall like an enormous pleated fan (it's more than 6 feet wide). The frame is painted golden yellow, while the mirrored panels are a bright teal-blue. The long, skinny, four-sided pyramids in Day-Glo hues jut out from the wall, like disco decor. The relief might be abstract, but the vibrant color is as striking as a glamorous portrait of Marilyn Monroe by Smithson's friend Andy Warhol.
The sculpture is Minimalist bling-bling. Its faceted form recalls a crystal, but the emphasis on industrial manufacture and unnatural color means we've entered the land of rhinestones, not diamonds.
Stand before the mirrored relief and a strange thing happens. The mirrors don't reflect you.
Angled, the mirrors instead reflect the ceiling, floor and surrounding gallery walls, sucking the space of your peripheral vision into your direct line of sight. The flat plane of the wall on which the mirrored relief hangs seems to splinter and dissolve.
In the vaporous drip-paintings that Smithson loved, Pollock invented "all-over composition," in which shapes are dispersed equally across the surface plane. In Smithson's relief, the all-over composition goes even further, expanding outside the frame to encompass the entire environment within which the work of art is installed. There is no center and no periphery to this composition -- just a continuous, fractured field, through which your surreptitiously heightened perceptions move. You find yourself acutely aware of exploring your relationship to a physical object, experienced in real time and tangible space.
With Monroe, Warhol converted Picasso's and De Kooning's voluptuous paintings of women into an all-American Pop icon. Smithson's faceted reliefs did the same for Modern art's obsession with crystalline form. For 50 years, the luminous, transparent crystal had represented Modern utopian ideals of clarity, purity and essential truth. Smithson's achievement arose from submitting the European-inspired rhetoric of New York School paintings and sculpture to the vernacular of American life.
Hey -- he was a kid from New Jersey, after all. There would be no glittery Manhattan without the grim industrial landscape of the Garden State.
"A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic," a breathtaking (and funny) 1967 essay with pictures that Smithson produced for Artforum magazine, chronicles a journey home to his birthplace. The monuments he encountered there included an old trestle bridge, pipes spewing sewage into a river, a rusted oil derrick, concrete highway abutments and a used-car lot -- all jauntily described.
"Has Passaic replaced Rome as the Eternal City?" he wrote, like some self-appointed aristocrat taking a New World Grand Tour.
Ashes to ashes and dust to dust. If Passaic is the site of the inglorious ruins produced by industrial society, to which everything eventually returns, then New York is its nonsite, a boxed landscape where cultural representations of the world are gathered in art galleries and museums. The sculptural nonsites and mirror displacements that Smithson began to make brought this poetic meditation to a ringing climax.
One small disappointment with the MOCA retrospective is that the first and last nonsites he made are not included, so the trajectory of this pivotal body of work is incomplete.
Smithson's mature career was brief -- barely nine years, from 1964 to 1973 -- but his fecund brain produced a lot of work in the form of drawings, photographs, project proposals and films. Three-quarters of the 160 objects on view are works on paper.
A second fascinating aspect of the show is the inclusion of rarely seen paintings and drawings that date from even earlier than the reliefs, before 1964. Artistically they're prosaic, but here they provide an unexpected insight into his later, more influential work.
They include a number of Expressionist images related to the life of Jesus and St. John the Baptist (Smithson was raised Catholic). The curators have installed them near the middle of the show, in a gallery that also includes drawings of his most prominent Earthworks. The juxtaposition is a shock.
A lot has been written about the artist's attraction to spirals, pyramids, mounds, ziggurats and other primal forms associated with antiquity. Until now, though, I had never connected those Earthworks' forms to anything like these drawings and paintings. Religious iconography such as "Man of Sorrow" or "Jesus Mocked" is concerned with archetypal states of being. So, in a secular way, is Abstract Expressionist painting. The primal forms of Smithson's Earthworks gain new resonance.
Not to mention the pleated yellow frame of that bling-bling wall relief, which suddenly recalls the gilded corona of a Baroque altarpiece.
Wandering in the desert, where the greatest Earthworks are often found, does have a certain biblical elan. For the exhibition, Smithson's widow, sculptor Nancy Holt, has just completed a wonderful Super-8 film (begun in 1968) in which the two young artists joined fellow sculptor Michael Heizer on a desert romp about 65 miles north of Bishop, Calif., in the ancient landscape around Mono Lake. Cinders from the site, one of the oldest lakes in North America, were used to make a nonsite in the show.
Forget about divine revelations, though. The vibrant immediacy of vernacular experience is, as always, more to the point.
The lush soundtrack features a romantic score by Michel Legrand, cribbed from "Bay of Angels," a 1963 Jacques Demy film starring a bleached-blond Jeanne Moreau. That movie tells the story of a gambler who coaxes a friend to a Cote d'Azur casino, where he meets a Monroe-type movie star. Their love affair plays out against the volatile spinning of the roulette wheel.
The Mono Lake trio are fresh from the gambling palaces of Las Vegas. They cavort along the edge of the saltwater, chasing swarms of flies. Smithson's voice-over narration about the ravaged site sounds suitably authoritative, but it actually comes from a local tourist brochure. History bleeds into mythology.
Almost a century before, in the decades when continental expansion was coming to an end, artists ventured into Yosemite Valley just west of Mono Lake, naturalizing in their paintings a rapacious doctrine of Manifest Destiny. Think of Yosemite as the glittering Manhattan to Mono Lake's grim New Jersey. Smithson's Western wilderness hasn't a trace of Utopia, but it sure looks like a lot of fun.
Where: Museum of Contemporary Art, 250 S. Grand Ave.
When: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays and Fridays, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursdays, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays.
Ends: Dec. 13
Price: General admission, $8
Contact: (213) 626-6222