Originally published – JUNE 26, 2005
Robert Smithson, “Terminal Area Concepts,” Tibbets, Abbot, McCarthy, and Stratton, c.1966
Robert Smithson’s distant, mythic, Spiral Jetty is his most familiar artwork. However, it was nearly eclipsed by an earlier and far more commercial proposal to develop the “Dallas Fort Worth Regional Airport” as a landscape that integrated a public space with land art.
From 1966-67, Smithson was retained by Tibbets, Abbott, McCarthy, and Stratton (TAMS) as an “artist-consultant.” Smithson’s heavy interest in French films and structuralism saw a number TAMS related works based on maps, aerial art, and with a different perspective. Ann Reynolds (“Robert Smithson: Learning from New Jersey and Elsewhere”) draws attention Smithson’s preoccupation with Chris Marker’s “La Jetée” which debuted two years prior to the TAMS project. Marker’s movie played with the formal aspects an airport terminal being a place of departure/arrival as well as the lexical “terminal” which is an end or death. In an article by the artist, Smithson later wrote of the project: “Art today is no longer an architectural afterthought, or an object to attach to a building after it is finished, but rather a total engagement with the building process from the ground up and from the sky down. The old landscape of naturalism and realism is being replaced by the new landscape of abstraction and artifice.”
“How art should be installed in and around an airport makes one conscious of this new landscape. Just as our satellites explore and chart the moon and the planets, so might the artist explore the unknown sites that surround our airports.” – “Aerial Art,” Studio International, 1969
Robert Smithson, “Aerial Map-Proposal for Dallas-Fort Worth Regional Airport,” 1966
Smithson surrounded himself with friends for the TAMS project, which included: a sod mound “extended a 1,000 feet” designed by Robert Morris, “A crater formed by a one-ton bomb dropped from 10,000 feet – or – An acre of blue-bonnets” by Carl Andre, a series of concrete triangles that would combine into a spiral by Smithson, and a “non-visual” piece supplied by Sol Lewitt which would consist of a cube with unknown contents buried in an undescribed location on the site. Smithson hoped to include live video feed of the sites within the airport to recreate the experience within as a sort of museum.
In New York, this will be the summer of Robert Smithson. The artist’s first major retrospective just opened at the Whitney Museum, after dates in Los Angeles and Dallas. Wanting to reproduce the histrionics of Christo’s The Gates, The Whitney Museum has collaborated with the non-profit arts group Minetta Brook to realize Smithson’s “Floating Island,” from a 1970 drawing on view at the Whitney exhibition “Floating Island to Travel around Manhattan Island.” The joint effort will result in a barge decorated as a park, with indigenous fauna, which will be pulled around the Hudson, East, and Harlem River. “Floating Island” will be on view mid-September. The intention is to dock the barge so that people can visit the work.
Robert Smithson, detail of “Texas Airport AP 10,” 1966
An early review of the Whitney exhibition resuts in a precocious, though generally positive overview by the New York Times,“It’s treacly and compelling. To watch the film is also to be reminded how heavy machinery and raw materials made Smithson’s hamfistedness more or less irrelevant, distancing him from the physical task of making sculpture, but paradoxically making that art more distinctly his own.” – Michael Kimelman, “Sculpture From the Earth, but Never Limited by It”
Two weeks earlier Kimmelman waxed effusively about the merits of Richard Serra’s seductive behemoths now at Bilbao Guggenheim. Not to diminish the certain beauty of Serra’s ellipses and spirals , but it’s curious that Kimmelman brooks no qualm with the distressed steel forged by Serra’s assistants, yet derides the mechanical against Smithson’s “hamfistedness.” Kimmelman embalms Serra’s sculpture, even calling it “humane.” Yet, Smithson’s earthworks are reductive to: “vernacular America, but not transcribed from comic books into zippy Pop paintings. They were a different sort of Pop art.”
Despite Kimmelman’s “hamfisted” dismissals, Smithson remains an attractive, though oblique, icon for generations of artists. His premature death, at the age of 35 (1973), created a martyr to anchor earthworks with, and left behind and difficult métier: more interested in the geological symbolism of a work than its palliative disposition. Where in that you can find contrivance towards Pop seems like malignant reportage.
I’ve made a few failed trips to the Spiral Jetty (once still submerged and a second blocked by snow.) Despite living in Utah for a number of years, the “closest” I’ve gotten to the Jetty was a trip to Vancouver a couple of years ago when an ex-girlfriend and I sat quietly on a bench in an empty viewing room and watched the grainy documentary about the work (also on view at the Whitney.) Our companions had long left us for the gift shop, but in that room I felt the quiet vast scope of the work and finally a touch of the artist whose persona is as enigmatic as that distant monument.
Placement was a website that turned a critical eye on culture, with an emphasis on the importance of integrity in process over product. It published frequently from 2005 through 2006, as an online critique of art and design within contemporary culture. Placement provided original content by independent voices – something the internet is particularly good at offering but which blogs don’t seem to be very good at maintaining.
In order to save some of that work from the sands of time, I’ve archived selections from that work here: PLACEMENT Archive
Among his less savory qualities, he's a poor sport, a sore loser and ill fitted for honest labor. He makes bad friends and worse decisions. Animals avoid him and children despise him. He's been known to drink to excess, carry on with seditious talk and leer at women. He's a coward, a card cheat and a known liar.