"Everybody has a different mind, everybody has a different
perception of nature, different perception of art. And there is no way that I can control or force my intentions, although
they might arrive at a correspondence with my view."
Although he only lived to be thirty-five years old, Robert Irving Smithson was one of the major environmental site artists
of the twentieth century. Born in Passaic, New Jersey in a middle-class family. Although his father was a car mechanic, he
always had an interest in nature. When he was eight years old, his family went on a trip around the United States. This would
have a profound impact on his future. He was trained at the Art students League of New York, starting when he was still in
high school. Smithson had a very limited art training, having chose to serve in the United States Army Reserve after high
school, but he did attended classes at the Brooklyn Museum School. As his career began, he quickly became drawn to
the use of nature within his works and he enjoyed minimalism. "Painting, sculpture and architecture are
finished, but the art habit continues." Some of his favorite artists in this area were Robert Morris,
Sol LeWitt, and his wife Nancy Holt. Using this inspiration,
his art really had two distinct categories: Sites and Nonsites.
The nonsites begin with an actual site. From this location, three types of artifacts are collected: documents, geological
artifacts, and the container. The documents are placed on the gallery walls. These are usually the maps, photographs, and
other text based resources of the actual site. The geologic collections are placed on the floor of the gallery space in the
built containers. Often the geological objects were presented along with mirrors. This was a visual connector between the
Earth and the sky. In the 1960s he began to plan his larger scale site works. "Artists are expected
to fit into fraudulent categories." Smithson was going to move far beyond what was considered acceptable
art media. His art was not made of paint, paper, or fired clay. His art was the Earth. He began to create Earthworks.
Simply put, an Earthwork is an artwork that is made in nature and its location is a often a specifically selected
spot by the artist, or site specific. Obviously, because the artwork was designed
for this selected site, the only place the work could be seen in person is in this specific location. Paintings, sculptures,
and most things we think of as art can move from gallery to gallery around the world, but these Earthworks cannot. Its like,
if you want to see Mt. Rushmore in person, the only option is to travel to South Dakota. It will never be anywhere else but
carved into the side of that mountain.
Jetty is an example of an artwork of Robert Smithson’s that
was created for a site specific location. "That's a work that's very much involved with the processes
of nature insofar as it goes through all different kinds of climates, dates, and seasonal states. It's involved with a kind
of ongoing process. It's very much in the actual landscape." In 1970 he finished that enormous 1500 foot long and 15
foot wide spiral of rock and dirt that projected into the Great Salt Lake at Rozel Point in Utah. A wopping 6,650 tons
of material. "Well, it took two weeks of actual construction, and about two months of negotiation
and preparation. I was very pleased and very happy after I made it." In 2008 an oil drilling company applied to drill
near the art work witch could disturb the isolated viewing area and possibly contaminate the water where cleaning would be
more destructive to the nearly forty year old artwork. Utah State government is looking at long-term preservation of the Spiral
1970. Rock, dirt, and salt. 1500 X15 feet. Great Salt Lake, Utah.
Another of his sites contains two works. In a sand quarry outside of the town of Emmen, in the Netherlands, Smithson created
Broken Circle and Spiral Hill.
1971. Sand, earth and water. 140 feet in Diameter. Emmen, Neatherlands.
1971. Earth, topsoil, and sand. 75 feet in Diameter. Emmen, Neatherlands.
Often Smithson would create art that would be placed into a more typical art gallery setting. These collections were called
"Nonsites". Each nonsite has three parts: documents (things like photographs, maps, and information on the origin of the displayed
material); material samples (sand, rock, and the like); a fabricated bin that would house the samples.
There was a man-made dam at Tecovas Lake along the Texas Panhandle that became of interest of Smithson. It was his
goal to build an Earthwork in the lake that was going to be called Amarillo Ramp. While
viewing and photographing the site from a plane, it stalled and crashed into the land that was to be his canvas. Smithson
tragically died along with another photographer and his pilot. The artwork was posthumously finished by artist and his wife,
Nancy Holt, and their artist friends, Richard Serra and Tony Shafrazi.
1973. Rock. 160 X 396 feet. Tecovas Lake, Amarillo, Texas.