Robert Smithson

From Academic Kids

Missing image
Smithson's Spiral Jetty set in Great Salt Lake, Utah. Created 1970

Robert Smithson (1938 - 1973) was an American artist famous for his land art.

Smithson was born in New Jersey and studied painting and drawing in New York City at the Art Students League. His early exhibited works were influenced by science fiction and Pop Art using collage. In the early 1960s Smithson began to hang out at the Dwan Gallery where he associated with Nancy Holt (who he married), Robert Morris and Sol Lewitt and emerged in 1964 as a proponent of minimal, his works using glass sheet and neon to explore visual refraction and mirroring. Smithson was interested in applying mathematical impersonality to art that he outlined in essays and reviews for Arts Magazine and Artforum and for a period was better known as a critic than as an artist.

In 1967 Smithson began exploring industrial areas around New Jersey and was fascinated by the sight of dumper trucks excavating tons of earth and rock that he described in an essay as the equivalents of the monuments of antiquity. This resulted in the series of 'Non-sites' in which earth and rocks collected from a specific area are installed in the gallery as sculptures, often combined with mirrors or glass. In September 1968 Smithson published the essay 'A Sedimentation of the Mind: Earth Projects' in Artforum that promoted the work of the first wave of land art artist and in 1969 began producing land art pieces to further explore concepts of entropy gained from his readings of William S. Burroughs and J.G. Ballard. In 1970 at Kent State University Smithson created "Partially Buried Woodshed" to illustrate geographical time consuming human history. His most famous work is Spiral Jetty (1970), a 1500 feet long spiral-shaped jetty extending into the Great Salt Lake in Utah constructed from rocks, earth, salt and red algae. It was entirely submerged by rising lake waters for several years, but has since re-emerged.

As well as works of art, Smithson produced a good deal of theoretical and critical writing, including the 2D work Heap of Words, which sought to show how writing might become an artwork. His more theoretical writing is concerned with the relationship of a piece of art to its environment, he developed his concept of sites and non-sites. A site was a work located in a specific outdoor location, while a non-site was a work which could be displayed in any suitable space, such as an art gallery. Spiral Jetty is an example of a sited work, while Smithson's non-site pieces frequently consist of photographs of a particular location, often exhibited alongside some material (such as stones or soil) removed from that location.

Smithson died in a plane crash, while surveying sites for his work Amarillo Ramp in Texas.

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