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Definition: Smithson, Robert from Chambers Biographical Dictionary


US land artist

Born in Passaic, New Jersey, he studied at the Art Students' League (1955-56) and at the Brooklyn Museum School. He took up Minimal Art in the 1960s, but from c.1966 he began to exhibit his "Non-Sites" - maps of sites he had visited, together with samples of rocks and soil. He is best known for such earth works as the Spiral Jetty on the Great Salt Lake, Utah (1970). He was killed in a plane crash in Texas while engaged in aerial photography of one of his earth works.

Summary Article: Smithson, Robert (1938–1973)
from Encyclopedia of the Sixties: A Decade of Culture and Counterculture

Robert Smithson was a sculptor who worked in various media and then became the most famous and important exponent of earth art. He is best known today for the most famous work associated with the movement, Spiral Jetty, which he created on the Great Salt Lake in Utah in 1970.

American sculptor and artist Robert Smithson (1938–1973) in 1969.

(Getty Images)

Smithson was born and raised in suburban Northern New Jersey. His father was a mortgage broker. His interest in geology and urban spaces may have begun as early as childhood, when the eight-year-old Smithson and his parents toured the United States. He became interested in art as a teenager. As a young man, he studied at the Art Students League in New York City. In the 1950s and early 1960s, he did paintings and drawings that were derived from various modernist styles. These works were narrative and figurative in style and explored themes of the bizarre, morbid, supernatural, and mystical. By the mid-1960s, Smithson was making sculptures, which were often highly abstract.

Smithson was a prolific, articulate writer of theory concerning his own work and the burgeoning movements of minimalism and earth art, and his essays of the 1960s were essential to the rise of the latter. He conceived of sites and “nonsites,” the two constituting polarities of the tangible and immaterial, the particular and the generic, interior and exterior, the creative activity of the artist versus the surrounding unaltered background, clarity versus ambiguity, and certainty versus uncertainty. He came to believe that the industrial, manmade environment was inseparable from raw, unspoiled nature. He was also intrigued with theories of entropy in nature, of chaos, uncertainty, and transformation in the natural world.

His work of the 1960s is related to minimalism and conceptualism, although he often worked with natural, earthy materials and explored the forms and processes of nature. In Non-Sites (1967), topographical maps and photographs on the gallery wall are matched with trapezoidal boxes on the floor filled with soil, rocks, gravel, and the like taken from the sites diagrammed and recorded on the walls. Rock Salt with Mirror (1969) is one of several works in which these disparate materials are combined and the salt is allowed to dissolve over time. Smithson did numerous works with pouring and spilling asphalt and mixing it with cement and glue, such as Asphalt Rundown (1969).

In early 1970, Smithson constructed Spiral Jetty, a 1,500-foot-long spiral of rocks, soil, and algae bulldozed into place on the edge of the Great Salt Lake in Utah. This enormous sculpture of natural materials was constructed in a barren, industrial edge of the lake far from Salt Lake City, and it has been allowed to interact freely with its environment ever since. Thus, over the years it has been visible or submerged, at sea level or below, and has changed colors often. The process of making Spiral Jetty was recorded on film. These changes embody the connections between the manufactured and naturally generated; the forces of growth, change, destruction, and uncertainty, and the ideas of site versus nonsite and entropy in nature, all of which had interested Smithson for years. Smithson died in 1973 at the age of 35 when an airplane in which he was riding crashed in Texas. He had been scouting out locations for a new project.

  • Flam, Jack D., ed. Robert Smithson: Collected Writings. University of California Press Berkeley, 1996.
  • Kastner, Jeffrey, and Brian Wallis. Land and Environmental Art. Phaidon New York, 1998.
  • Tsai, Eugene, ed. Robert Smithson: A Retrospective. University of California Press Berkeley, 2002.
  • Jr., Herbert R. Hartel
    Copyright 2012 by James S. Baugess and Abbe Allen DeBolt

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