Robert Smithson


Quick Reference


Sculptor, draftsman, and experimental artist. Remembered particularly for Spiral Jetty (Dia Foundation, 1970), he ranked as a leading figure in the genesis of earth art but also contributed to minimalism, process art, and conceptualism. Blending environmental and apocalyptic thought, his writings affected many artists of the late 1960s and early 1970s. A New Jersey native, Robert Irving Smithson was born in Passaic and grew up in Rutherford and Clifton. While still in high school, he studied at the Art Students League, briefly at the Brooklyn Museum's school, and privately with Isaac Soyer. His abstract expressionist-inflected painting of the late 1950s, when he settled in New York, frequently incorporated figural imagery related to his wide-ranging reading in classical and science fiction literature or drawn from religious art, particularly of the Byzantine period. By 1964 he had turned his attention primarily to minimal sculpture. Besides experimenting with the dematerializing effects of mirrors, he produced modular, geometric works that emphasize mathematical relationships. Avidly interested since childhood in natural science, in the same period he began to seek ways to combine this form of knowledge with his evolving critique of modernity. Smithson's New Jersey childhood had sensitized him to the disruptive effects of industrialization on the landscape. After the mid-1960s he frequently drew on locations in his home state in formulating art works. His first important article, “Entropy and the New Monuments,” which appeared in Artforum in 1966, announced his preoccupation with the Second Law of Thermodynamics and its implication that the universe is winding down. A series of Nonsites from the late 1960s incorporated earth, rocks, and detritus from ravaged locations into gallery installations juxtaposing the natural material—in bins or on the floor, sometimes divided by mirrors—with photographs and maps of the collection areas. For his most explicit homage to entropy, Partially Buried Woodshed (Kent [Ohio] State University, 1970), he heaped dirt upon an unused shack until its main supporting beam began to crack. Left to natural consequences, it eventually collapsed but has been preserved as an art work as the artist intended. After several years of contemplating large-scale earthworks, Smithson executed the well-known Spiral Jetty in Utah's Great Salt Lake. Made from bulldozed rock and dirt, this fifteen-hundred-foot whorl reaches from shore into the dark, pinkish water, following a pattern chosen for symbolic resonance, as well as its association with natural growth. For much of its history, the work has been under water, but from time to time it emerges into view, coated with salt crystals. Following completion of Broken Circle/Spiral Hill (1971) near Emmen, Holland, Smithson was engaged in executing Amarillo Ramp (1973) near Amarillo, Texas, when he died in a plane crash while inspecting the site. With the help of his friends, his widow, sculptor Nancy Holt (1938– ), completed the piece. She also edited The Writings of Robert Smithson (1979).

Born in Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1960 Nancy Louise Holt graduated from Tufts University in nearby Medford and moved to New York. She and Smithson married in 1963. In her best-known work, Sun Tunnels (in the desert near Lucin, Utah, 1973–76), four enormous concrete tubes, each more than nine feet in diameter, lie in a rough X-formation that draws attention to eternal natural phenomena. Aligned with the winter and summer solstices, the tubes frame the rising and setting sun on those days, while holes cut in their upper surfaces provide views of particular constellations. She has continued to specialize in site-specific outdoor works that emphasize the historical continuities and perceptual possibilities of their locations. Earlier in her career, mostly during the 1970s, she also worked with film and video. She lives in Galisteo, New Mexico.


Subjects: Art.

Reference entries

See all related reference entries in Oxford Index »