Robert Smithson focused his short but influential career on a reconsideration of the nature of sculpture—or, rather, of sculpture in relation to nature. Created during a brief period from the mid-1960s to the early 1970s, Smithson’s provocative works spanned a variety of sites beyond the museum and gallery, from magazine pages to abandoned industrial and natural wastelands. Deeply informed by science in its popularized forms (such as science fiction literature and cinema, encyclopedic collections, even natural history museums), his art focuses on processes of accumulation, displacement, and entropy in order to reveal the contradictions in our visible world.
In his first mature works, Smithson used crystalline formations and structures as symbolic models for the composition of his sculptures. One example is Untitled (1966), a modular, composite volume that incorporates opaque and reflective surfaces. The cross-shaped whole, which consists of organically merged cubes, conjures a deliberately static, yet paradoxical, volume: as the structure seems to expand, its consistency is undermined by the mirroring surfaces on its sides. As part of a series of stepped pieces, each module results from the application of a simple mathematical principle to create a contrapuntal system, literal and symbolic, dynamic and still. A similar principle operates Four-Sided Vortex (1965–67), where a tetragonal container encloses an abyssal space, reformulating optical systems and protocols in a structure that opens into endless vanishing points. The viewer’s gaze is multiplied and engulfed as she comes closer to scrutinize the object, which thereby dodges examination. As the structure remains painstakingly still, its experience involves decomposition—an entropy in perception.
“A crystal,” observed Smithson, “can be mapped out.” In fact, the study of crystallography led him to the formulation of the concept of Nonsite as a physical synthesis of the map and the mapped, or, as he put it, “a container within another container—the room.” Technically, he defined the Nonsite as “an indoor Earthwork,” an elusive “three-dimensional map of a site.” “Instead of putting a work of art on some land, some land is put into the work of art. Between the site and the Nonsite one may lapse into places of little organization and no direction.” Some remarkable examples related to Smithson’s Nonsites may be found in this gallery. Gravel Mirrors with Cracks and Dust (1968), for instance, contains gravel collected at Bergen Hill, New Jersey. The piece incorporates six pairs of mirrors that occupy the junction of floor and wall, with piles of gravel dropped on them with the intention of cracking the glass. The reflections create the illusion that the work exists in and encompasses an expansive space. Symmetrically duplicated by the mirrors, the fissures of cracked glass together with the dust from the gravel mar the pristine reflective surfaces, further complicating the multifaceted interplay of materiality and illusion, presence and absence. Two related sculptures, made one year later, also incorporate mirrors and loosely assembled raw material—Closed Mirror Square (Cayuga Salt Mine Project) (1969) and Leaning Mirror (1969).
“I like landscapes that suggest prehistory,” said Smithson. The countless fragments of shattered glass that form Map of Broken Glass (Atlantis) (1969) are layered both literally and figuratively. As the title implies, the sculpture is to be seen not simply as a pile of sharp, transparent fragments but also as a map of a legendary lost continent. “It is a shimmering collapse of decreated sharpness . . . arrested by the friction of stability.” Similar to other fictive territories, Map of Broken Glass foreshadows Smithson’s most ambitious realization: a spiral-shaped artificial peninsula made out of mud, salt crystals, and basalt rocks named Spiral Jetty, which he built in the Great Salt Lake, Utah, in 1970.