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  • Maximal Minimalism
  • Charles Altieri (bio) and Rei Terada (bio)
Review of: Robert Smithson. Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. 12 Sep.–13 Dec. 2005.

We saw this show together. We saw it differently. We enjoyed those differences and wanted to convey that pleasure. Below we mention Smithson’s Four-Sided Vortex, which gives the viewer the ability to see one’s companions in a mirror instead of oneself, for a moment. Here are some glimpses of our experience.

Boy Genius

MOCA’s approach to the problem of exhibiting Robert Smithson de-emphasizes writings, plans, and reproductions of large-scale works (although these are represented, selectively) in favor of Smithson’s paintings and drawings, a few films, and several elegant and quietly assertive sculptures. Through this relatively intimate Smithson—a living room and backyard kind of Smithson—the viewer remembers and catches glimpses of the colossal earthworks. The effect is to imply a continuity between the kind of interest we have as children in the rocks and old lumber that collect at the side of one’s house and the architect’s ambition to reshape the landscape, or between junior high school notebook fantasies and Smithson’s brainy, eclectic sketches for projects (for example, his Proposal for a Monument in Antarctica [1966]). In the showily juvenile male fantasies of the barely post-adolescent Smithson, airplane parts and erect nipples are motifs of competing interest; the famous Smithson too was never more than a very young man, his language full of ostentatious allusion, deadpan humor, and other tropes of precocity. The question is not so much how Smithson’s smart-aleck rhetoric becomes something more as how he manages to convey the nascent challenge in adolescent intellectualism when it starts asking questions of the physical world.


Robert Smithson seems an enticing anomaly. In an age where the reigning interest is political, Smithson still gets treated as he would want to see himself—that is, through the lens of powers attributed to genius or, as he puts it, as above all a “generative artist” (88), creating context more than responding to specific cultural forces. Thus MOCA’s show brings into focus Smithson’s capacity to reinvent himself in order to make art objects so visibly and entertainingly the realization of a thinking that could have no other satisfying outlet. Make no mistake: Smithson was so deeply engaged in the cultural life of his time that he could become perhaps his age’s most powerful critic of the then-dominant formalist modernism. But he could manage that role because his fealties lay not with the human or social orders so much as with an imaginative site produced by the mind’s dialogue with geologic time and crystallographic space. Comparisons to Leonardo are not uncommon, and not unjustified in relation to Smithson’s constant inventive activity, as well as in relation to how that activity seems to warrant a position apart from the culture wars.

Born in 1938, Smithson worked at first (after high school and the army) primarily in drawing and in painting. His brushwork and palette in works like Eye of Blood (1960), From the Valley of the Suicides (1962), and various renderings of the passion of Christ make me think of Philip Guston on speed. There is everywhere the intense painterly activity unwilling to settle for representation, but like Guston, Smithson insists on providing an image as the provocative source of that activity. But this Guston-on-speed also manifests a Blakean spirit of linear excess, here adapted to what would become the cross between the psychedelic and the comic book sensibilities common in the art of the mid-seventies. In one respect Smithson’s painting is the work of the classic repressed nerd (fifteen years before the emergence of that figure for genius), albeit one talented nerd. I love the tension between human and organic forms in the painting and drawings responding to Dante’s valley of the suicides: clearly suicide is no solution, since the soul’s discomfort only carries over into other forms of alienated material existence. The Christ paintings are remarkable for their evocation of a manifestly staged pathos that elicits what can only be called “vulnerability...

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