Inside the Spiral: The Passions of Robert Smithson
(University of Minnesota Press, 2023)
Normally I avoid biographies—including artists’—not being concerned with what the art world now admires as “stories.” When art students were still trained in formalism, it was possible to observe without romantic schmooze how one work of art could make another work art-historically possible. Here, however, is a major exception: the extensive biography of an artist I have stood by for some fifty years which is impossible not to consider definitive, particularly in its investigation of the artist’s unconscious as well as conscious motives. Now Suzaan Boettger’s long awaited Inside the Spiral: The Passions of Robert Smithson constitutes an epitome of probing inquiry into a major artist’s “life and work,” as many old biographies said. A huge literature has developed on the work of Smithson (1938–1973) since I briefly knew him, half a century ago. In the beginning, I was indeed interested only in this sculptor’s abstract Motive (motifs in German). I still think that art history is finally about the conversation of artworks among themselves,1 but as Boettger’s book welcomes motives in the personal motivational sense, I meet it halfway with some personal views of my own.
As short as it was, Smithson’s life in art had three main phases, beginning with early solitary, gut-wrenching, red and blue (I almost said black and blue) figure paintings concentrating on the Passion of Christ, exhibited in Rome. Boettger is convinced that the source of this whole phase, and much else, was the lasting trauma of being a “replacement child,” for which she produces a great deal of evidence (aside from a certain obsession with numerology).2 That Smithson was a lifelong Catholic is important to the entire account, and Boettger’s book warrants more on that; but these paintings would never have made him a major artist. Related documentary evidence on the artist’s religious sentiments, from letters to the Roman art dealer George Lester, seems lonely and spiritually tortured. (Question: why would anyone keep copies of such outgoing letters? For love? For vanity—letters of a new Michelangelo?) By the way, I hope it isn’t too pedantic to signal a theological mistake here that continues for the rest of the book: “Christology” doesn’t mean anything that concerns Christ: it concentrates on the interrelation between his divine and human natures, especially the problem of their relation before his earthly Nativity. In any case, Boettger’s appreciation of Smithson’s lasting religious commitment never wavers.3
Bob Smithson and I did talk about religion during our one intense conversation, though not about those figurative paintings, which I didn’t know about until decades later. Boettger writes on how, after that phase, Smithson turned to abstract sculpture, with a new career-awareness, not to say careerism as such; and as a young critic writing for Artforum I suppose I played a role in that. He may have been anxious and guarded at first, because when I asked if he was related to the Smithsons of the Smithsonian Institution, he said yes, which is apparently false.
This visit was in late 1970, and I wanted to talk to Bob in view of my forthcoming review of the Spiral Jetty film for Artforum. The meeting developed into an all-night, college-style session at his and Nancy Holt’s place on Greenwich Street. I did my best to explain everything I could recall from my great mentor Rudolf Wittkower’s lectures on the English landscape garden (jardin anglaise). This covered the philosophical background, most of all Shaftesbury’s 18th-century Whiggish liberalism (obviously shared by one who owed his and his wife’s lives to being able to emigrate from Berlin to London in 1933), including the dialectic of the “loyal opposition” in the British parliamentary system; not to mention how the same landscape tradition extended to Olmsted’s Central Park. In gratitude, Bob gave me, in early morning, a drawing for his Panama Canal project, which I published in “The Panama Canal and Some other Works of Work.” He put his own twist on the matter by writing “Frederick Law Olmsted and the Dialectical Landscape” (Artforum, February 1973). I do think this experience illustrates what Suzaan says was Bob’s new more social outlook at the time.
Let us call the early painting phase, hidden from art history until recently, Phase A; and call the last phase, which for various reasons can be considered Post-Minimal (and prepared for, as such, by the artist’s writings, especially on entropy), Phase C. This will set my visit within the sculptural Minimalism of Phase B—except that, in part ignited by Boettger’s narrative, I shall attempt to explain how the work of Smithson interestingly complicates the matter.
It is in Phase B that we discover, thanks to Boettger, a new Smithson, more sociable, and soon critically visible, as a participant in the new sculptural style of Minimalism, where he was welcomed by the principal players largely for his smart if unstoppable intellectual banter at Max’s Kansas City. Because the very word is now as abused as “icon,” I must explain for younger readers that Minimalism, per se, was a unique movement in American sculpture: it wasn’t just design simplicity or white yuppie couches. It was so deliberately materialist as to be absolutely anti-transcendental. In other words, Mies van der Rohe’s transcendental “less is more” has nothing to do with it. Minimalist work is static, usually symmetrical, and, if not unitary, tending to proceed by regular augmentation. Here was a speak-no-evil, dumb-on-purpose kind of art—though its makers didn’t even want to call it sculpture—especially in the context of Vietnam: such as Smithson’s Minimalist “Alogons.”
That much is art-historically according to Hoyle, but this new book is pushing me in the direction of thinking something that would have seemed outlandish: that in passing from Phase A to Phase B, Smithson may not have left his Catholicism behind. Obviously Minimal Art is set up to deny the art object any idealist, transcendent status. But isn’t that the neglected point, that there is also immanent as well as transcendent theology? It takes cognizance of God as present in all of material creation, not merely in spiritually privileged things. As such, Smithson’s Minimalist phase finds a missing contemporary counterpart in Catholic thought in the modern revival of immanent theologies at the Second Vatican Council (1962–65)—which is to say, in just what today’s conservatives, contradicting Pope Francis, love to hate.
In any case, major differences between Minimalism and Post-Minimalism include a shift from the compact to the diffuse; from the constructed and stable to the fluid and even decrepit. A relevant passage from Inside the Spiral sets out to account for Minimalism, giving a perfect caricature of the Minimalist stylistic, or rather, anti-stylistic flavor: “a sober authorial voice ventriloquizing ascendent Minimalism’s dispassion.” Yet by straining against Minimalist decorum, Smithson was precociously negotiating a transition from the one mode to the other. Here is Boettger paraphrasing and quoting Smithson’s 1966 essay “Entropy and the New Monuments,” and entropy even seems to enter the rhetoric: “Characteristically, Smithson undercut the potentially dull sobriety of Minimalism by applying droll metaphysics in a list of ‘Constants Exalted to the Null-Dimension.’ They included ‘4. Agreement between acedia and splendor; … 7, Quadripartitioning of futility; and 8. Rigid paroxisms set in a row.’”
I see this passage of The Passions as a textual counterpart to the genius of Smithson in engendering the union (B+C) of his marvelous series of “Nonsites”, in which raw rocks sit, not like readymades but as raggedy natural specimens of planet earth in spiffy, Minimalist cultural compartments of enameled sheet steel. What was that about all material creation?—here industrially produced, enameled sheet steel, as well as a bunch of craggy rocks? For as soon as Smithson became a card-carrying Minimalist, he must have chafed against the limits of the style into a precocious Postminimalism of the earthen elements, not only in the “Nonsites” but also by interposing mirrors in mounds of earth, indoors and out, and finally the rocks and earth and water of large earthworks as on-site sculpture being the definitive aspect of Part C.
So much is covered in Inside the Spiral that it might seem petty to bring up a contextual lack. And only Boettger’s ceaseless probing stimulates me to say that I do find one element missing from Smithson’s cultural ambience: a celebrated novel that appeared when Bob, at age nineteen, was studying at the Art Students League instead of going to college, with his parents living not far from the Jersey side of the George Washington Bridge, namely, Kerouac’s On the Road (1957). The first chapter evokes a replacement-child motif: “it wasn’t only because I was a writer and needed new experiences that I wanted to know Dean more, … but because, somehow, … he reminded me of some long-lost brother; the sight of his suffering bony face … made me remember my boyhood in those dye-dumps and swim-holes and riversides of Paterson and the Passaic.” Not to mention Kerouac’s sense of landscape:
at dusk we were in the Salt Lake flats with the lights of Salt Lake City infinitesimally glimmering almost a hundred miles across the mirage of the flats, twice showing, above and below the curve of the earth, one clear, one dim. I told Dean that the thing that bound us all together in this world was invisible, and to prove it pointed to long lines of telephone poles that curved off out of sight over the bend of a hundred miles of salt.
Both died early, Kerouac in 1969 at the age of forty-seven. As lower-middle class Catholics, both were by then obviously petit-bourgeois, miffed by the Church’s then recent progressivist changes. So Smithson’s Requiem, in the old Latin form, was at St. Jean-Baptiste, on Lexington Avenue, less than a block from Kay Voss’s great Paraclete Bookshop—the most important American source for publications of the Second Vatican Council.
I have steered clear of certain topics here, only partly to leave room for myself as having “been there.” One is the subject’s lingering adolescence: not just pornography, but the badly educated American-naif who still fancies dinosaurs as a “mystic” science nerd. I suspect that Smithson’s essays are overrated—though in fairness, I think much the same of Malevich’s tedious science-fiction stuff. Otherwise, in the interests of art history: it might have been good to introduce the great contemporary European sculptor, and sometime Catholic, Joseph Beuys (1921–86). Nevertheless, Boettger’s incorrigible fixation on her otherwise singular subject has produced an indispensable book for the study, “from the inside,” of such a major American artistic personality.
- Joseph Masheck, "Smithson's Earth: Notes and Retrievals," in the catalogue Robert Smithson's Drawings (New York: New York Cultural Center, 1974), 18-29.
- I can’t really pooh-pooh this because I have long considered sibling rivalry a principal factor in Duchamp’s career.
- For more on Smithson and theology, see now Thomas Crow, “Incarnations of Robert Smithson,” in his No Idols: The Missing Theology of Art (Sydney: Power, 2017), 85-105, with color pls.; reviewed by myself in The Burlington Magazine 161, no. 1393 (April 2019), 356.