Robert Smithson
Biography of Founder of Land Art and Earthworks Designer.

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Robert Smithson (1938-1973)


Training and Early Works
Land Art: Installations and Earthworks

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An influential figure in mid-20th century American art of the 1960s, the painter, sculptor and installation artist Robert Smithson experimented with various types of art and was initially associated with Minimalism, before turning to Conceptual art and finally Land art - the genre for which he is best remembered. During the final part of his career, leading up to his tragic death at the age of 35, he was involved in the creation of a number of large-scale earthworks, such as Spiral Jetty (1970, Rozel Point, Utah). Other key works by Robert Smithson include: Ithaca Mirror Trail (1969, Tate Collection, London); Yucatan Mirror Displacements (1-9) (1969, Guggenheim Museum, New York); Partially Buried Woodshed (1970, print at National Gallery of Art, Washington DC); Broken Circle (1971, Spiral Hill, Emmen, The Netherlands); and Amarillo Ramp (1973, Tecovas Lake, Amarillo, Texas).


Note: Smithson contributed to land art.

Training and Early Works

Born in Passaic, New Jersey, Smithson studied drawing and painting at the Art Students League in New York for two years after which he briefly attended the Brooklyn Museum School. His early paintings (c.1957-61) followed the fashionable style of abstract expressionism. During the early 1960s he became involved with a group of American sculptors, among whom was his future wife, Nancy Holt (b.1938) (later, photographer and land artist), and Richard Serra (b.1939). It was during this time that Smithson switched focus from painting to sculpture and became interested in minimalist art. He became absorbed in mathematics and thermodynamics, and started using new materials (glass sheet and neon lighting tubes) in his works - see for instance Enantiomorphic Chambers - to experiment with visual refraction and mirroring. In the process he became affiliated with artists like Robert Morris (b.1931) and Sol LeWitt (1928-2007). To widen his artistic self-expression he turned to writing, and outlined his theories in a number of reviews and essays for Arts Magazine and Artforum. By 1965 he was represented by Virginia Dwan, owner of the Candace Dwan Gallery, New York.

Land Art: Installations and Earthworks

In 1967, inspired by his exploration of industrial areas in New Jersey, where he witnessed large-scale building excavations, he produced a series of works called Non-Sites. This was a form of installation art consisting of photographs and plans of site locations (mostly derelict urban areas), which were displayed along with earth, rocks and other geological refuse collected from the sites. As Smithson explained: 'Instead of putting a work of art on some land, some land is put into the work of art.' In addition, he created and placed a series of artworks outside. These small-scale works often featured mirrors, whose reflections created an apparent displacement of space. These were followed by his massive environmental constructions designed to raise public awareness of Man's relationship with Nature. The most famous example is Spiral Jetty (1970), a 1,500-foot long concentric ring of roadway that runs out into Great Salt Lake, Utah. Occasionally submerged by the fluctuating water level in the lake, it is made from 6,500 tons of basalt, earth and salt. Another work, created by Smithson the following year, was Broken Circle, (1971) on the sand-flats at Emmen, in the Netherlands, for the Sonsbeek'71 art festival.


It was Smithson's writings as much as his artworks that launched land art as a new form of contemporary art. In fact it was shortly after the publication of his essay The Sedimentation of the Mind: Earth Projects, in the autumn of 1968, that the 'movement' made its first public showing at a New York exhibition entitled Earthworks, hosted by the Dwan Gallery. This was followed a few months later, by a major 'Earth Art' exhibition in the Andrew Dickson White Museum of Art at Cornell University. Artists represented, in addition to Smithson, were: Walter De Maria (b.1935), Jan Dibbets (b.1941), Hans Haacke (b.1936), Michael Heizer (b.1944), Richard Long (b.1945), David Medalla (b.1942), Robert Morris (b.1931), Dennis Oppenheim (b.1938), Gunther Uecker (b.1930) and others.

Tragically, Smithson died in a plane crash on July 20, 1973, while surveying locations for his earthwork Amarillo Ramp, in Texas. His premature demise has not, however, reduced his reputation among other top contemporary artists. On the contrary, his ideas continue to be highly respected, while his drawings, photography, sculptures, collage art, and installations are still widely exhibited in many of the best art museums in America and around the world.




Despite Smithson's personal reputation as one of the most thoughtful and committed postmodernist artists of his time, the earthworks movement has attracted controversy, not least for the contradiction between its avowed rejection of the commercial art world, and its reliance on commercial galleries to present its work. In addition, many of the remote locations involved can only be viewed by plane, which narrows its audience drastically. Finally, the movement must overcome the main issue surrounding all postmodernist art, namely: is it art? (Or, is it environmental engineering?) Art critics are unsure. The postmodernist issue is exacerbated by a continuing use of overly complex language. For instance, as long as articles on Smithson contain such cumbersome phrases like - "anti-aesthetic dynamic relationships", "anti-formalist logic and a theoretical framework of the Picturesque", "the dialectic between the physical landscape and its temporal context" - the subject is likely to remain the preserve of the hyper-educated elite.

• For biographies of other postmodernist artists, see: Famous Painters.
• For more about environmental earthworks, see: Homepage.

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