Robert Smithson Unearthed: Works on Paper, 1957–1973
Robert Smithson Unearthed: Works on Paper, 1957-1973 presents 95 drawings, collages, and illustrations, which underscore his diverse interests in technology, mythology, pop culture and religion. The many early works in the show represent a largely unknown period of his career, and some are being shown publicly for the first time.
Smithson was well-known as the founder of the earthworks movement during the late 1960's and creator of monumental works like "Spiral Jetty" (1970), the 1,500-foot black rock coil that winds dramatically into the Great Salt Lake in Utah and is now underwater, although visible. He was killed in 1973 on an aerial photography trip to the site of a planned earthwork called "Amarillo Ramp" in the Texas desert.
To accompany the exhibition, Columbia University Press is publishing "Robert Smithson Unearthed: Drawings, Collages, Writings," by art historian and exhibit curator Eugenie Tsai. The book includes an anthology of previously unpublished essays and poems by Smithson, including his earliest-known writings and his interviews with art historian and film maker Dennis Wheeler in 1969-70. (Hard cover, 224 pages, with 101 black and white illustrations and eight color plates, $45.)
Ms. Tsai said the show was intended to "present a much more balanced view of Smithson and address the modernist bias against his early work."
She believes his work should be seen as a whole, rather than for "what conforms to the formal aesthetic concepts of modernism and what doesn't."
Smithson's early works largely had been overlooked until 1985, when a show of his paintings from 1959 to 1962 was held at the Diane Brown Gallery in Manhattan. Works in the Wallach Gallery show were drawn from the artist's estate and from private collectors.
"The earlier drawings are very significant," says Nancy Holt, a New York sculptor and editor of "The Writings of Robert Smithson" (New York University Press, 1979), who was married to the artist. "They show the continuum, his development as an artist. This is a wonderful opportunity for the public to see them now."
"Smithson from an early age was fascinated by travel and the landscape, particularly what he called the "entropic" landscape, areas on the fringe such as abandoned quarries or mines, which he often visited in his native New Jersey," Ms. Tsai said.
His formal art training came in classes during the late 1950's at the Art Students League in New York when he was still in high school in Clifton, N.J. Included in the exhibition is Smithson's first commission, 1956 cover designs for Pan, a student poetry magazine at Columbia University. His exuberant black-and-white designs of the horned Greek god "demonstrate a marked shift from the realist orientation of his student drawings," Ms. Tsai writes. "From this point on, Smithson's works on paper consistently explore themes drawn from artistic and literary traditions that address the mythical and intuitive concerns."
Works from 1959 to 1962 explored mythical religious archetypes, including imagery from Dante and from Roman Catholicism. During the early 1960's, he used collage to expand his imagery to natural history, science fiction, pop culture, space flight and language.
An untitled collage (circa 1961-63) in the exhibition refers in geological imagery to the distant past. Clippings of dinosaur skulls hover over a cross section of the earth. Handwritten phrases referring to geological eras and their reptilian forms of life are sandwiched between layers of the earth, along with an excerpt from a text on dinosaurs.
Also on exhibit is one of Smithson's "word drawings," in which he combined words, numbers and the human figure with narrative elements.