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Robert Smithson can be a trap for the critic. So much of what is interesting in his work can only be accessed through his writing, and his ideas are so captivatingly threaded through both that quotation often stands in for interpretation. Most studies of Smithson are just extended glosses and therefore do not tell us anything that we could not find out ourselves by going to the same source. Art history offers two correctives to this state of affairs: close study of the works themselves, and close study of the context within which they were made. These two approaches are quite ordinary; it is surprising that they are so little applied to Smithson. It is one merit of Ann Reynolds’s recent book that she uses them both.
The first approach, a close reading of the works, gets a bit tricky later on in the artist’s career, as Smithson’s writing becomes more intimately imbricated with the objects. The crucial moment is probably 1969, the period of his essay “Incidents of Mirror-Travel in the Yucatan.” But Reynolds does an excellent job of opening up the earlier Alogons and other quasi-Minimalist sculptures. In her treatment, these works become more fascinating and more important than one might have guessed. She relies heavily on Smithson’s notes and his reading material for background, but also manages to show why the works have the form they do, and why that form is effective. He was an eccentric Minimalist, maybe a mannerist Minimalist, peripheral to the main group although close to all of its members with the exception of Donald Judd. A real understanding of Smithson’s sculpture might help us to understand better many other artists of that period whose work does not fit the strict Minimalist paradigm. But, of course, Reynolds has her hands full with Smithson, so she does not need to roam afield.
One especially interesting chapter, “Travel as Repetition,” begins with a discussion of Smithson’s solo exhibition at Dwan Gallery in 1968. This show featured sculptures commonly regarded as relatively early, works such as Pointless Vanishing Point but also the first “Non-Site,” a more mature and more consequential work. This close attention to a moment of transition allows us to appreciate how rapid Smithson’s development was, and how manifold were the streams of his thinking. In this case it becomes very clear how crucial his work on the Dallas-Fort Worth air terminal, from July 1966 to June 1967, was for the move from sculpture to something larger and less bounded.
With Smithson the temptation for a critic is always to follow his development, what could be called a diachronic, horizontal method. But despite the clues provided by his writing, that method has its pitfalls. Like any classic modernist, Smithson had no interest in commenting on or responding to current events, so it is hard to show how his work belongs in its time without falling back on the standard art-historical periodization of style. Reynolds avoids that trap completely by taking a vertical cut through the material—a synchronic approach—but sometimes she has to strain a bit to show how his artistic trajectory partakes in the larger movements of the culture. Her discussion of his responses to the moon landing is very good, and her use of contemporary debates in architecture and urbanism as background is similarly enlightening. But her attempt to define exactly how Smithson’s work should be considered political, or socially critical at least, is not so convincing. The author has to confess that he was not politically engaged, but then claims that his work says a lot about American life and society anyway, and so reflects critically on its context despite itself. This is tantamount to saying that he was a realist, which I have no problem with, but Reynolds’s claims here do not come up to the standard of the rest of her study, which works with concrete particulars. The synchronic approach is the right one, but does not go far enough. It is better to accept the apolitical nature of his work with no reservations.
Another great merit of Reynold’s book is that it breaks with Craig Owens’s now canonical but utterly mistaken reading of Smithson as a postmodernist. In her preface, Reynolds is firm, but maybe a little too polite, when she writes: “Craig Owens is often credited with first identifying Smithson’s working strategies as postmodern, while the history of the reception of the critical theory necessary to this identification and Smithson’s situation within this history are not and have never been addressed. My work engages with [this approach] by considering the historical dimensions—and limitations—to the arguments [he constructs]” (xii). Reynolds is claiming that her work should be taken as a critique of Owens’s postmodernist reading, and that she is, in fact, placing the critic in history. I applaud the ambition, but she runs the risk of a small victory. Making sure that everything is in its proper historical place, and that speculation is not getting out of hand, does not really seem adequate to Smithson’s own imagination, which makes a lot of transhistorical associations. The articulation of concrete historical research with speculative theory remains a difficult task for art history because there is no single way to do it—the right balance has to be achieved anew in each case.
But then the same caution applies when studying Smithson’s art in particular: there is no consistent method that will work, and Reynolds seems to realize this. Based on her needs, she moves from the art, to the background material she found in Smithson’s archives, to the ideas circulating in his writings, to the historical context of the 1960s and early 1970s. For this reason her book is very informative and certainly the best study on the artist to date. As Reynolds points out in her introduction, Smithson’s status is different from that of his peers, who are mostly still alive; it is not possible to get quite the same perspective on Sol LeWitt, for example. New information about Smithson will surely come to light, and future studies will benefit from that, but for the moment, her volume is the standard.
Reynolds’s book has many merits, but the question remains, what do we actually learn? Take, for example, the following description of what is accomplished by Smithson’s photographs of mirror placements in the landscape: “By the time someone, either Smithson or the reader of Artforum magazine, sees these marks [on the mirrors], they already exist in a past that is passed off as present. They are markers of an absent present and an absent place” (182). But is not any photograph a “marker” of a time and place that no longer exist? And don’t we always recognize this whenever we look at a photo? The semiparadoxical language teases us with enigmatic profundities, but in the end the point seems banal.
In the analysis of basic structures that underlie and usually precede the aesthetic experience, such as the mirror and the frame, Smithson is seeing, and showing us, something that is always present but usually not noticed, so he runs the risk of a banal profundity. For that matter, perhaps profound banalities are the norm among Smithson’s generation, of everything we collect under the rubric of “Conceptualism.” As we might expect, both the strength and weakness of an artistic mode is to be found in the same place, and the critic must have the kind of distance that allows that contradiction to appear. Reynolds does what all critics of Smithson eventually do: the crazy spinning momentum of his ideas takes hold, and she begins to mimic his manner of writing. Authentic criticism must always have a mimetic dimension, because mimesis is the properly artistic mode of comprehension, but again, to return to my opening point, a mimesis of Smithson can be dangerous. In treating an artist who was also a great critic, the critic is matching high stakes. The failing of all writing on Smithson to date is that it is not critical enough; it does not yet dare to be negative. Close reading and interpretation will have to travel a little further on before we can fully take the measure of this art.
Adjunct Professor, Faculty of Arts, University of Waterloo