Robert Smithson and the Birth of Land Art
Robert Smithson is a legendary artist because he expanded the location of art to be possible far outside the traditional art museum and gallery, even outside the city and public urban arena, to include the land and landscape we live in. Dirt, debris, waterways,and mirrors reflecting the sky and environment were the materials of his most interesting projects. Smithson was a deep thinkier and prolific writer as well. He was determined to take artwork out of the precious setting of the art gallery and he did so on a grand scale. The fact that he died young was a tragedy, abruptly ending his brilliant career as a thinker and artist.
Smithson treated the earth as an object and his artwork was coined as "Land Art." Since the 1970s when Smithson dies, the environmental art movement has evoloved and now embraces conceptual art and political action to educate the public and move the govenment to take steps to protect the earth, the air, and the future of our environment. Smithson's Land Art is in some critic's eyes as less enlightened for the fact that he still worked with an object, in this case the land itself, and did not educate about the environment's demise. While this is true, his standing as a legendary artist still stands because he was able to expand the definition of art, where art can be or not be, and how art can be made. He worked within the tradition of modern art, but his art took us outdoors to observing natute first hand where the next generation of artists found material, place, and context for the new environmental art.
Robert Smithson's monumental earthwork Spiral Jetty (1970) is located on the Great Salt Lake in Utah. Using black basalt rocks and earth from the site, the artist created a coil 1500 feet long and 15 feet wide that stretches out counterclockwise into the translucent red water. Spiral Jetty was acquired by Dia Art Foundation as a gift from the Estate of the artist in 1999.
The website robertsmithson.org was created in Smithson's honor and describes the folowing about Smithson's life:
In a career tragically cut short at age 35 while working on a sculpture, Robert Smithson revolutionized contemporary art through works that question issues of permanence, materials, function and presentation.
Born in Rutherford, New Jersey, Robert Smithson was entranced by nature--earth and animal forms--as a child. His artistic talents led to a scholarship at the Art Students League in New York; he studied there for two years and then briefly at the Brooklyn Museum School. There he became a proponent of abstract expressionism, and his paintings of the late 1950s and early 1960s retain the characteristics of that style. Through his dealer, Virginia Dwan, he became friendly with a group of minimalist artists, among whom was the sculptor Nancy Holt. After their marriage in 1963, Smithson began to explore sculpture, also in a minimalist mode. By the mid-1960s, he had become interested in conceptual art. He began to design works that explored his early fascination with the natural world, using natural materials in massive and imposing earth sculpture, his "Earthworks." Although these works would eventually be absorbed by nature, their configurations are often preserved in drawings and photographs, or "non-site" objects. Rocks, gravel, and earth are the materials of Smithson's best-known works. For Spiral Jetty, his most famous project, he used rocks and debris to build a 15-foot-wide spiral in Utah's Great Salt Lake. Smithson regularly made excursions to survey sites.
On one of these trips to Amarillo, Texas, in 1973, he was killed in a plane crash. His work, however, inspired the generation of conceptual artists who rose to prominence in the 1970s."