Joan Waltemath at Robert Smithson at the Whitney
Ann Reynolds is Associate Professor of Art and Art History, and Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. She is the author of Robert Smithson: Learning From New Jersey and Elsewhere (MIT Press, 2003). Currently she is working on a book-length project entitled Playtime: Creativity and Community in New York, 1940-1970.
Eve Andrée Laramée is the Chair of the Interdisciplinary Sculpture Department at the Maryland Institute College of Art. She is currently working on an installation and book about the transformation of the Salton Sea/Mojave Desert during the Cold War. Her visual score on gravity anomalies will be performed this year by ensembles in Shanghai, China and Hamburg, Germany.
Joan Waltemath (Rail): What led you to Robert Smithson?
Ann Reynolds: When I was in the Whitney Independent Study program, I did a show at 55 Water Street called “Landscape and the American Site.” Lisa Philips, the director said, “Oh, it’s like site/non site, Robert Smithson,” and I replied, knowing nothing about Smithson at the time, “No, it has nothing to do with that.” A year later I entered graduate school to continue studying nineteenth-century American landscape painting; I was particularly interested in the politics of Western expansion, and the ways images were used to promote expansionist agendas and the National Park System. Then I realized that the field of nineteenth-century American art was not the best context in which to be asking the kinds of questions I wanted to ask.
I chose to work on Robert Smithson for my dissertation because through him I could address the politics of land use. At the end of his life he was directly engaged in such issues through the land reclamation projects that he was developing for strip mining companies. Initially, I felt like Smithson’s personality and central interests were distant from my own; I was not interested in the relationship between science and art, science fiction, and many of the other sources that seemed important to Smithson and to his work. Then in 1987 Smithson’s widow, Nancy Holt, donated his papers to the Archives of American Art; I started going to the New York office every day for as long as I could stand it, some days for eight hours, some days for four hours. After a while, because of the massive amounts of material the archive contained, and the fact that little of what I had learned about the 1960s really helped me to make sense of it, I realized I had to let go of everything I’d learned and start again. I also began to discover affinities between me and this person who grew up in New Jersey, went to a high school very similar to mine, and who had educated himself about the things that really mattered to him. I began to use my own instincts and the more I trusted these instincts, the more interesting and coherent the research process became.
Around the same time, I began to go to the American Museum of Natural History so that I could come to know that museum as intimately as Smithson, who grew up going there frequently. I had no way of knowing if the gallery spaces that I was familiarizing myself with looked the same as when Smithson visited them as a child and then as an adult, so I started working my way through the photographic archives at the museum. One of the first images I found was an installation shot of a 1969 exhibition called “Can Man Survive?” which was organized by the American Museum of Natural History at the height of the ecology movement. The geometric forms used in the wall display and captured in the photograph resembled forms Smithson and several of his contemporaries, such as Donald Judd and Robert Morris had used in their sculpture a few years earlier. In the exhibition, these forms were used to represent technology and mass production. Even though I had no evidence for it, I knew just by looking at the image that Smithson must have been interested in this exhibition. Several months later, working my way through drafts of unpublished and previously unknown essays by Smithson, I discover an essay entitled “Can Man Survive?” in which he discusses the use of minimalist form to represent environmental disaster. It was the first time in my research process that an instinct I had really paid off. Learning from New Jersey and Elsewhere is largely the result of my trusting my instincts; they allowed me to discover how to weave together, and how Smithson wove together, everyday life experience and artistic practice. The archive allowed me to situate Smithson in an historical moment and to think about how such a model might be useful for artists now; Smithson left many threads dangling which need to be taken up by other artists and developed.
Eve Andrée Laramée: In college, I saw the “Spiral Jetty” film and it had a profound affect on me, so I began researching Smithson’s work. When I came across documentation of the “Enantiomorphic Chambers” I was majoring in science, and had read Martin Gardner’s The Ambidextrous Universe: Mirror Asymmetry and Time-Reversed Worlds, which deals with enantiomorphs, George Gamow’s One Two Three Infinity, and other books, which were also in Smithson’s library. So when I saw the photograph of “Enantiomorphic Chambers,” I became very excited. I understood that Smithson was using inverse forms to capture a paradoxical visual phenomenon. This intrigued me, and I kept digging into Smithson’s mind, in particular the drawings, maps and photographic work. Smithson’s fascination with the cataclysmic also drew me in. One finds amazing collisions of natural phenomenon and cultural phenomenon in Los Angeles where I grew up. Earthquakes, floods, fires, debris flows, and landslides all within an urban place. Cliff sides and subdivisions slither down into the Pacific Ocean, like the “Asphalt Rundown.” I share with Ann an interest in nineteenth-century landscape painting and the role it played as propaganda for Westward expansion, which I’ve written about in relation to the development of the National Parks and Smithson. His thought process intrigued me, and how it played itself out in the material forms he investigated…much more so than the objects themselves.
Reynolds: What’s interesting now, thirty-five or forty years later, as museums mount retrospective shows of Smithson and his contemporaries, is a tendency to emphasize the objects or the physical aspects of his practice. As a result, his thought process is getting harder to see. These objects—the sculpture, the nonsites, even the “Spiral Jetty”—were only a part of that process, not its primary goal. Art historians are also guilty of talking about artistic practice in a manner that doesn’t adequately represent how things get made. We tend to work from the object or image backward. This is certainly how I was trained—to believe that the object held the answer to everything, at least everything that mattered. But art objects, and especially Smithson’s objects and images, don’t provide all the answers. They depend on a constellation of things, both produced by the artist and out in the world. In my book I tried to develop an approach to contextualize and represent Smithson’s conceptual and visual processes as well as provide an analysis of his work.
Andrée Laramée: To my mind, it’s the invisibilities, contradictions and paradoxes that make him such a compelling character. Many of us came to his work and ideas through his writing as much as through the visual work.
Rail: When I encountered Smithson’s definition of art as “an idea embodied in a material” it really resonated for me and became part of my understanding. Yet as an artist I gravitate to the actual object. With “Alogon” I see that the difference between the elements is barely perceptible. How big is it? An inch?
Reynolds: That’s what I meant earlier when I said that his objects are not discrete and are never self-sufficient. The “Alogons” and his other three-dimensional works from the mid 1960s, when isolated in tightly cropped photographs, are almost unintelligible. They need to be understood in terms of the different physical and conceptual situations that Smithson set up for them. The ideas Smithson was working with depended on the material form of the work, but the form doesn’t just refer to the material that the thing is made out of, but the material of the world, in a broader sense. You can see this work in a photograph—and actually Smithson did have photographs of them made as visual demonstrations of how they worked—but the point of the work is most immediately grasped when you actually stand on the other side of, say “Pointless Vanishing Point,” and its point vanishes towards you rather than away from you in three-dimensional space.
Rail: You publish some of Smithson’s photographs of the “Alogons” from the Archive in your book. They reveal essential aspects of Smithson’s thought; at the same time they’re also visually confusing. You’re forced to delve into the whole, or they don’t make sense.
Reynolds: Part of it has to do with the fact that there were so many things at stake for him; there was never just one thing. He also appreciated the fact that his work would function on a number of different levels; some would be able to view his work in exhibitions, some would only see photographs of it in magazines or newspapers. It had to be able to express its complexity in a two-dimensional image as well as in a three-dimensional form in a three-dimensional space; neither experience is completely satisfying by itself. It is already that non-site/site, split-off experience, in which any one work, any one experience, is not quite enough. Even when you get all of these aspects of the work assembled together—the drawings, the photographs, the sculpture, and a particular arrangement of them—together they still produce a funny, yet confusing and irresolvable experience.
Andrée Laramée: They’re ambiguous as sculptures; certainly when they’re photographed, they’re ambiguous in terms of scale and context. I imagined the “Alogons” much larger than the actual size.
Rail: I think they’re built at half scale, so that in a photograph you imagine them at full scale in relationship to your body – twice as big, like a Tony Smith sculpture.
Andrée Laramée: It’s not an identifiable scale; they operate in an in-between scale.
Reynolds: It’s not an anthropomorphized scale, yet it is somehow familiar. Smithson’s forms also seem familiar, vaguely recognizable from somewhere else, and he adopted them from numerous places, including in the case of the “Alogons,” the crenellated ceiling decorations in the old Hayden planetarium. This generalized familiarity also encourages the viewer to go out and see these forms elsewhere, everywhere and to try to figure out what these formal relationships might mean. There is something very frustrating about all of this because it is so open-ended. Ultimately it is very generous, and that is why I think Smithson’s work has the potential to constantly be revisited. When he went to Mexico in 1969, three years after he made the “Alogons,” he looked at the Temple of Inscriptions at Palenque, saw the same forms in the temple’s steps, and made a sketch in the back of his guidebook. The form was not something that he had one idea about or association with and then abandoned. It was the constant recognition and misrecognition of these forms that he was interested it.
Rail: Smithson is a pivotal artist where the awareness emerges that the objects aren’t separate from the context in which you see them.
Andrée Laramée: That reminds me of the “Map of Broken Glass” recreated at Dia Beacon. That piece was made for a specific context, a specific site in New Jersey. The original was made of used glass and it was out on a beach! To re-contextualize it on a cement floor using new glass with milled and polished edges, self-consciously broken and placed, is jarring.
Rail: It becomes a Barry Le Va!
Andrée Laramée:Which is absurd because Le Va was dealing with systems whereas Smithson was dealing with a narrative about Atlantis.
Reynolds: The fact that it was a site-specific work, which is a central aspect of the history and significance of the work, vanishes.
Rail: Then there’s this incredible drawing, “Texas Airport.”
Andrée Laramée: I love this drawing. Smithson wrote about aerial mapping being like crystalline grid networks, and saw air and land as part of a vast lattice similar to crystal systems.
Rail: In a reproduction you don’t see right away that he’s drawn in the spirals around the maps of different airstrips; you lose the tension between the hand drawn and the printed that conveys Smithson’s intent.
Reynolds: I don’t think Smithson ever wanted any of his airport proposals to be totally subsumed by their environment or completely self-sufficient. I used to think that the “Spiral Jetty” was unique because of its self-sufficiency… you go out there and you don’t need anything else because you’ve got the site and the non-site collapsed together. But, in fact, the “Spiral Jetty” creates an unbelievably disorienting experience. Few individuals go out there before seeing a photograph of it first; the images are the nonsites that set the site/nonsite relationship in motion.
Rail: Jonas Mekas, who you quote in the beginning of your book, told me he was flying out of Salt Lake City once, looked down and saw the “Spiral Jetty” for the first time. He was elated, “What is this?” and then of course he found out.
Reynolds: And, of course, it looks very different now and it is changing all the time. The scale is just so unbelievable because it is actually quite small—relative at least to what I had imagined.
Andrée Laramée: It appears miniaturized in the vast horizontality of the surrounding landscape.
Reynolds: When we retraced Smithson’s trip to Mexico in 1989, we went looking for the site and possibly the residue of one of his hypothetical continents, Gondwanaland, which he built out of white limestone on the outskirts of the Mayan ruins of Uxmal. We drove down what we thought was the road indicated on a map Smithson made of the continent’s location, and we soon found ourselves in this rutted field surrounded by literally hundreds of piles of white limestone. At this moment, I truly understood that the point was not to find the object; it was to become aware of the designation process itself and that many things,
almost anything, could be this object. I was forced to ask myself: What are these categories and why and how do I invest in them? I was caught feeling, well (laughing)
Rail: What intrigues me is how Smithson’s work reflects thought processes, his as well as our own. When I first saw the enantiomorphic chamber I understood it as a model of dialectical terms.
Andrée Laramée: What makes him so interesting to me are the paradoxes and murky contradictions; Smithson wrote of the void and the pointless vanishing point. Ann develops an amazing argument about the blind spot in his work. There is an expanse of blank wall in the middle and you can’t see yourself in the mirrors; the enantiomorphic piece erases its own center. In the other mirror pieces everything collapses into the center and disappears—that perceptual phenomenon parallels his thinking process. It’s a geological crystalline model, not a biological anthropomorphic model.
Rail: What do you think initially got Smithson interested in crystalline structures?
Reynolds: He collected rocks and crystals from an early age, and later on his interest in crystalline structures led to a desire to distinguish between an anthropomorphic-centered worldview and an abstract one. He used Wilhelm Worringer’s and Martin Gardner’s definitions of crystalline abstraction to reveal the unconsciously anthropomorphic descriptions of abstraction that critics like Michael Fried and Clement Greenberg were advocating in the 1950s and 1960s for Abstract Expressionism and the work that developed in response to it. Around 1966–67, he wrote “Abstract Mannerism” in which he juxtaposes a well-known quotation about the paradigmatic status of the framing edge for modernist painting from Greenberg’s essay “ ‘American-Type’ Painting” with a quotation about the role of the frame in Mannerist painting from a book by Jacques Bousquet to demonstrate that the two authors are basically arguing the same thing. In the 1960s, there was renewed scholarly interest in and respect for Mannerism. Instead of characterizing it a decadent form of Renaissance art, art historians begin to view Mannerism as an independent artistic development with its own inner logic. Smithson owned a significant number of these revisionist studies and, in fact, the authors of some of these books make comparisons between the contemporary art scene and the Mannerist period. Smithson adopted their descriptive language and used it to rethink the contemporary moment for himself. He was very interested in the machine of Art History and its historical narratives, which privilege certain styles and artists over others, and then present them as inevitabilities of history. The rewriting of Mannerism’s art historical significance revealed to Smithson that these so-called inevitabilities are up for discussion, negotiation. This moment also helped Smithson to understand how Greenberg presents an equally powerful narrative. It is not just what is in these narratives, but what has been left out that is important. It was very liberating for him. He realized that he could actually write a history that provided a more productive way of explaining what his work and the work of some of his contemporaries was about even if, Donald Judd in particular, they didn’t like the kind of comparisons that he made.
Andrée Laramée: When you look at the diversity of his production, including the figurative work, the fascination with science fiction, and alchemy, and how he was almost shoehorned into minimalism, what an uncomfortable fit that is! I once saw a drawing of the “Spiral Jetty” with a snake’s head drawn in the middle that had been erased. I realized, “Oh! There’s something else that’s going on here.” I love the things that “shouldn’t” be in there that are; it makes the works so much more interesting and problematic.
Reynolds: There are probably many other artists whose works have the same kind of complexity. How many different ways can you place this work and how does the system or what Lawrence Alloway called the “artworld described as a system” move this stuff around and make certain kinds of relationships evident and suppress others?
Rail: Here are the site/non-site works!
Reynolds: I wrote my first essay on Smithson about this work. In 1987, I went to Düsseldorf to meet with Konrad Fischer who commissioned work for a show at his gallery in 1968. Düsseldorf is located in the Ruhrgebeit, which was the center of Germany’s mining and steel industry before World War II. Fischer grew up in this region, and, in fact, Smithson’s chosen site, the steelworks of Gute Hoffnung’s Hutte, Sterkrade (Oberhausen), was founded in part by Fischer’s great-grandfather. At this stage in my research, I was interested in the significance of Smithson’s claim that the Museum of Natural History, not the art museum, had shaped his psyche. Through my work in the American Museum of Natural History’s photographic archive, I discovered these “musettes” (little museums)—wooden boxes that contained objects from the Museum’s collection—that public school teachers from the New York/New Jersey metropolitan area would borrow and set up in groups for their students to study. These boxes served a dual function: they were containers that transported materials from one site to another, bringing the Museum to the students with the hope that these students would then come into the city and visit the larger collection at the Museum, and ultimately the original site the object came from. This reciprocal and ever expanding back and forth process seemed analogous to the way that Smithson’s site/non-sites worked, and it was nothing like the way the art museum structured the experience of works of art. MOMA, for example, doesn’t encourage the viewer to go to Holland after looking at a Mondrian. My realization of this fundamental distinction was extremely important at the time.
Andrée Laramée: The “Oberhausen Nonsite” blurs the distinction between the industrial and the natural so they co-exist in an inseparable way. Slag, a waste product of the now nearly extinct steel industry is an industrially transformed material with a chaotic molecular structure is perceived as rock, which has a crystalline structure. We read the slag not as artificial rock, but as natural matter placed in artificial containers. It’s the steel boxes that contain the entropic slag that has a crystalline structure. This contradiction in our perception parallels the way “Nature” is represented in the Natural History Museum in nice boxes and display cases.
Reynolds: In the press release for the opening of the North American mammals hall, the director states that the museum created the hall for future generations who may never know these animals, the assumption being that a lot of these animals will become extinct. This statement, which reflects the perception that the museum visitor was looking at the big and long picture of natural history, is very different from the paradigm of an art museum whose relative temporal trajectory is very short. When Smithson made “Oberhausen Nonsite,” the mining and steel industries in northern Germany were already winding down. By the time I visited, a sign posted on the site of Gute Hoffnung’s Hütte advertised luxury housing soon to be built on the site. Smithson was probably unaware of the specific future of this site, but he was interested in it as a site in transition, an image passing out of existence only to be replaced by another. The sites Smithson chose possessed and continue to possess specific geological, political, social, and economic histories, and at any one point, some of these histories have to give way to others.
Rail: Do you see the cartographic works as a way to address these issues?
Reynolds: There’s a book in Smithson’s library about mapping written by David Greenhood, someone who knows his subject so well that he can talk about it in a simple, clear manner and yet with an poetic and evocative style. So much so that if Roland Barthes had written a book about maps, this is the book he would have written. After introducing the cartographic convention of the mapnet—the longitudinal and latitudinal lines that cast a net over the globe—Greenhood states that all this mapnet is, is a container for information about where we are in the world. This image of a mapnet as a container for information about a site accurately describes Smithson’s nonsites: geometric, albeit three-dimensional containers of information about a site. So there’s a cartographic image embedded in the nonsites, one that is both generic and specific at the same time, like maps with their generic symbols for specific locations. This cartographic system, which again is abstract in a crystalline and not in an anthropomorphic manner, does not represent the world illusionistically; it provides an abstract analogy or system.
Andrée Laramée: The concept of a pole, and the fact that the grid converges at two poles is arbitrary, as is the origin of the geographic grid at zero degrees longitude by zero degrees latitude. The poles are based on a magnetic field and spin of the earth, both of which fluctuate. The poles are a construct, so why not map their entropic wandering? In the “Hotel Palenque” slide show Smithson says, “The point is there is no point”; the “Entropic Pole” is another blind spot, another pointless vanishing point.
Reynolds: So it’s not unlike the convention of linear perspective, which is what he is playing with in many of his three-dimensional sculptures. It is a construct; it is an abstraction that represents space but not through resemblance at all. It is also a way of transforming a three-dimensional object—the earth—into a two-dimensional image.
Rail: The dimension these works create is in your mind, a thought room that opens doors to your own work. Actually, one of the most powerful map drawings I’ve ever seen—something that I carry with me—is the map drawing you made, Eve, of the Indian Reservations where the sections of their land form a checker board pattern.
Andrée Laramée: I blacked out everything except the native lands, the pattern simply revealed itself. We think of maps as being a hard text that’s factual—so when Smithson cuts them up, reverses them and displaces things, he allows for an element of fiction to come to play. They begin to resonate in a zone between fact/document/hard text and something that is fictional and otherworldly. How do you read a map in a way that isn’t with a cartographic or geographic mindset? What other information is buried or embedded in it that you can pull out, extrapolate and run with?
JOAN WALTEMATH is an artist who lives and works in New York City. She writes on art and has served as an editor-at-large of the Brooklyn Rail since 2001. She has shown extensively and her work is in the collections of the Harvard University Art Museums, the National Gallery of Art, the Hammer Museum and the Museum of Modern Art. She is currently the Director of the LeRoy E. Hoffberger School of Painting at MICA.