We’ll always have Paris. To certain American artists emerging in the 1950s, that was the problem. The School of Paris was flowering on their New York doorsteps. And they wanted herbicide.

If American art in the first half of the twentieth century set its sights on mastering the School of Paris—the modernism of Cézanne and Matisse—then it wasn’t long after that artists turned to the School of anti-Paris and its antimodernist dean, Duchamp. Soon enough the antimovement became a movement. The school of Duchamp became an MFA program. Even Hans Hofmann lost tenure.

The School of Paris was flowering on their New York doorsteps. And they wanted herbicide.

That’s getting ahead of things. The big question, at first, was who would be king of the heap, lord of the sewer. Johns and Rauschenberg made a go of it. Donald Judd squared off the corners. But it was Robert Smithson (1938–1973), the original Earth artist, who had the sense to truck the lot over state lines. When you’re born in Passaic, New Jersey, waste management is in the blood.

The history of antimodernism is one of absence in absence—cycles of nothing. Smithson’s life ended in an airplane crash at age 35. For a movement made out of what’s not there, his absent career has become the art world’s ultimate void, a Hallmark card to write in its x’s and o’s.

The cult of Smithson is now a generation in the making. A generation of artists and academics are considered part of it. So why is this retrospective,1 organized by Eugenie Tsai for the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, with stop-overs in Dallas and New York, only the second such show mounted since Smithson’s untimely death? The answer, naturally, is there’s no there there.

Had Smithson lived a longer life, we might better know if he could have maintained the antimodern stride he found for a short time from the mid-1960s until 1973. (Duchamp, after all, avoided the whole problem of a long career by taking up chess.) With Smithson, abridged, we see consistency personified: an artist always at his peak—or nadir. In appearance, a cross between Stephen King and an extra from Zabriskie Point, Smithson is ever the crystal-collecting Gauguin, a William Carlos Williams for the Dianetics set, the goth Beatnik in the Cedar Tavern. A skilled rhetorician, he mixed the jargon of science with the kitsch of science fiction so effortlessly that critics seemed to miss the underlying sentimentality in the treasure maps and B-movies and Champollion-at-the-ruins poses of this avowedly unromantic artist. He once asked “who wants to be ‘interested’ in the condition of the artist’s romantic ego?” How about anyone interested in Robert Smithson?

It was in his writing on art, more than in the flukey success of Spiral Jetty (1970), that Smithson demonstrated his innate talent. Compare Smithson’s breezy narrative in “The Monuments of Passaic” (1967) with Judd’s dull ruminations of the same time period and it’s no surprise who got the most column length in Artforum.

When you’re born in Passaic, New Jersey, waste management is in the blood.

Wall labels and more wall labels. That’s what you find at a Smithson show. He excelled at the printed page. He fell short most everywhere else. In the plastic world he had little sense for form that did not serve a rhetorical end. Smithson’s gallery-sized designs come off as either inert graphpaper doodles (Terminal [1966]) or space-age ashtrays (Four-Sided Vortex [1965]). His piles of mirrors or rocks or chalk or shells, like Mirror Displacement (Cayuga Salt Mine Project) (1969), are little more than geological updates on the Duchamp “Readymade” —not to mention curatorial nightmares.

Smithson once said, “I’m not interested in the occult, that kind of Gnosticism. Those kinds of systems are just dream works, it seems to me. They’re fictions at best, and at worst they’re uninteresting.” Tell that to the pilgrims who have made Spiral Jetty the postmodern Lourdes.

Smithson’s best known work—really, his only known work—is a 1,500-foot-long and 15-foot-wide coil of trucked-in rock and encrusted salt spiraling into the mineral tides of Rozel Point. If you didn’t know that Smithson had spirals on the mind for a decade before Spiral Jetty, you will after seeing this show. About half of the floor space, and an equal percentage of the exhibition catalogue, is dedicated to hitting you over the head with it. There is the spiral in the early paintings (Feet of Christ [1961]). There it is in the notebooks. There, in magnifications of “screw-dislocated crystals.” There, in his copy of Martin Gardner’s Ambidextrous Universe from 1964—Smithson’s 1000-volume library was dutifully chronicled at his death and is itemized in this catalogue (more than a few New Criterion authors appear in it). Should you be interested, Smithson owned a copy of Elizabeth Barlow Rogers’s Frederick Law Olmsted’s New York, twenty-six issues of Partisan Review, books by William Empson, Matthew Arnold, and Wilhelm Worringer, not to mention two Rod Stewart albums and an equal number by Kris Kristofferson.

If inspiration didn’t limit Smithson, environmentalists surely would.

When his small plane went down on a scouting mission in Amarillo, Texas, did Smithson have another Jetty in him? His Broken Circle and Spiral Hill earthworks, constructed at a mine in the Netherlands in 1971, lack any of the grace that made Spiral Jetty, in pictures at least, appear impressive. Meanwhile his plans to cover an island in Canada with glass shards fell through when protestors blocked his contractors at the border. If inspiration didn’t limit Smithson, environmentalists surely would—this is an artist, after all, who had trucks dump “1000 tons of asphalt” down a hillside in Rome (Asphalt Rundown [1969]).

But back to the beginning, to the School of Duchamp. The exhibition catalogue features a revealing interview with Smithson on the subject—mixed in with a half-baked chapter by Thomas Crow (“Cosmic Exile: Prophetic Turns in the Life and Art of Robert Smithson”) and the bromide of one Jennifer L. Roberts titled “The Taste of Time: Salt and Spiral Jetty” (sample sentence: “The very salt crystals that embody the principle of historical excess and remainder, the very salt crystals that function as a kind of radical materialist additive, also arrange for their own transcendence”).

Smithson, the autodidact, thought a lot about Duchamp. He observed:

I see Duchamp basically as a kind of priest of a certain sort, who’s turning urinals into baptismal fonts… . The pose of the priest-aristocrat that Duchamp takes on strikes me as reactionary… . If the French had any wit at all, really, I don’t appreciate it. They always seem very laborious and opaque and humorless. So that when you get somebody like Duchamp, who’s putting forth a whole notion of the amusing physics or the gay mathematics or whatever you want to call it, I’m not convinced. It’s a kind of Voltairean sarcasm at best.

Here was the student trying to better the master. For me, the nostalgia for Robert Smithson comes not out of a desire for New Age pop, but for an art world that still considered art serious business—and one that had ideas to argue against.

  1.   “Robert Smithson,” Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, June 23-October 16, 2005

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 24 Number 1, on page 70
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