Decades After His Premature Death, Robert Smithson, the Artist Who Gave Us the Grandeur of ‘Spiral Jetty,’ Exposes His Raunchy Roots


A high school teacher once told a young Robert Smithson, “The only people who become artists are cripples and women.” This did not discourage the prodigy from Passaic, New Jersey, who was born in 1938 and died 35 years later in a plane crash while he was surveying a site for one of his land-art pieces.

Only the off-kilter beauty of the projects he actually completed during his short life surpasses Smithson’s visionary concepts about what constitutes a work of art. The artist is world-renowned for Spiral Jetty (1970), which is simultaneously gargantuan (1,500 feet long, 15 feet wide) and ephemeral. Constructed in Utah’s Great Salt Lake during a drought, the dirt and basalt causeway originally stood out as a dark swirl in water made reddish by local algae. When the lake rose again to normal levels, the jetty was submerged for decades, but it has resurfaced during dry periods, ghostly white from encrusted salt crystals. Galaxies sometimes form spirals, and the artist John Coplans, who visited the remote desert site with Smithson, noted, “A spiral vectors outward and simultaneously shrinks inward — a shape that circuitously defines itself by entwining space without sealing it off. One enters the Spiral Jetty backward in time, bearing to the left, counterclockwise, and comes out forward in time, bearing right, clockwise.”

Cosmic questions of space and time were ever-present in Smithson’s work, and the rakish collages in “Pop,” an exhibition on view through mid-January at James Cohan’s Grand Street location, constitute the aesthetic loam in which his earthworks germinated. Created between 1962 and 1965, these works are ripe manifestations of an age when the macho splatterings of the abstract expressionists had fractured into Johns’s deadpan objects, Rauschenberg’s ebullient constructions, Warhol’s poignant graphics, and the bursting buds of minimalism and conceptualism. In Smithson’s mash-ups of noir gangsters, battling dinosaurs, lascivious models, and the other louche characters orbiting his abstract color fields, you can feel an artist in a hurry. These exuberant experiments in form, subject, and composition acknowledge art history (as in a pencil sketch after Giorgione’s Sleeping Venus that is enveloped in jagged, psychedelically hued bursts) but also impatiently seek to discover their own epoch’s masterpieces. Text emerges organically in a penciled phone cord spelling out “hello” and, more blatantly, where buxom lasses and well-hung gents surround a “MOTEL” sign fashioned from colored pencil on graph paper. Despite the chauvinism that penetrated even the most radical social movements of the time, Smithson cast less of a male gaze than an equal-opportunity one, cribbing both beefcake and cheesecake poses from Times Square’s porn emporiums.

In these spray-painted grids and painstakingly outlined blobs, you can sense the fastidious planning that would go into Smithson’s colossal earthworks.

In the spray-painted grids and painstakingly outlined blobs delineated in these collages, you can sense the fastidious planning that would later go into Smithson’s colossal earthworks, as well as his acceptance that such massive projects would necessarily be rough around the edges. Much of the action occurs at the margins of these works on paper: naked bodies surrounding stark patterns or globular abstractions, as if Smithson had an inkling that he was going to break the boundaries of the frame and indeed bust out of the gallery setting altogether.

He was an eclectic reader, consuming sci-fi fantasies and the works of literary luminaries like Nabokov at an equal clip. He was as thrilled to meet Hubert Selby Jr., author of the scabrous Last Exit to Brooklyn, at the Cedar Tavern, as he was to cross paths with Franz Kline, one of the abstract expressionists who made the Greenwich Village watering hole a landmark of American art. The uninhibited, scrambled narratives in this show — 1964’s Untitled [Venus with lightning bolts] includes a flying pistol, a nude motorcyclist, and winged men and women wrestling or chatting on the phone — radiate the same free-spirited inquisitiveness found in Smithson’s seminal theoretical essays. His 1967 Artforum article, “A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey,” includes this specter of anthropomorphized industry: “On the river bank was an artificial crater that contained a pale limpid pond of water, and from the side of the crater protruded six large pipes that gushed the water of the pond into the river. This constituted a monumental fountain that suggested six horizontal smokestacks that seemed to be flooding the river with liquid smoke. The great pipe was in some enigmatic way connected with the infernal fountain. It was as though the pipe was secretly sodomizing some hidden technological orifice, and causing a monstrous sexual organ (the fountain) to have an orgasm.”

One of the most elaborate pieces in the show, The Machine Taking a Wife (1964), features a photo of a woman’s nude torso wired to a phallic glass tube and some sort of generator. This totemic Plexiglas construction looks back through art history at Duchamp and at Picabia‘s sexualized machines while also presaging David Salle’s striated nudes, but Smithson’s streetwise wit is his alone. In Untitled [Eye mouth finger penis] (1963), stroke-book models of both genders are constrained by angular outlines even as their come-hither postures promise carnal abandon. In another essay, “Entropy and the New Monuments,” Smithson celebrates grindhouse influences: “The movies give a ritual pattern to the lives of many artists, and this induces a kind of ‘low-budget’ mysticism, which keeps them in a perpetual trance. The ‘blood and guts’ of horror movies provides for their ‘organic needs.’ Serious movies are too heavy on ‘values,’ and so are dismissed by the more perceptive artists. Such artists have X-ray eyes, and can see through all of that cloddish substance that passes for ‘the deep and profound’ these days.”

Like the underground filmmaker Jack Smith (whose Flaming Creatures was slapped with an obscenity rap in 1963), Smithson unabashedly reveled in the human form. What is so retrospectively fascinating about these pop-oriented collages is that they can be read as signposts on Smithson’s journey to those expansive essays and grand earthworks, as in the garish blobs on paper here that were later transmuted into the raffish abstraction Smithson created by dumping asphalt down a hillside in Italy. It was his drive to dispense with boundaries of all kinds — as illustrated in these unbridled juxtapositions of flesh and fantasy — that continues to welcome viewers into his splendid visions, both in the mind and on the earth.

Robert Smithson: Pop
James Cohan
291 Grand Street
Through January 17, 2016 

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