Wandering through Robert Smithson's music collection
Other people’s music collections are always intriguing. Rifling through an inventory of LPs from more than five decades ago is to travel through time. There is that moment when you recognize shared tastes and you feel a connection with the collector. Then, you might see something that would have you running out of the room at top speed if the sounds met your ears. It is hard not to judge people by their music.
Robert Smithson had expansive and eclectic taste. These thirty-four selections are my journey through his collection. We have a shared love of salsa—who would have thought Nancy Holt and Smithson might have danced in their Greenwich Street loft to Santana? And I must admit to taking great pleasure in knowing there is a mutual appreciation for the sweetness of Dolly Parton—the song here is so sugary that it surely must be icing on the top of a cake made of the same kind of caustic irony in Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is?”
The playlist starts with the Australian actor Cyril Ritchard reading Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, a book whose “highly ordered nonsense” fascinated Smithson. It ends with “The Voice of the IBM 7090 Computer.” I imagine Smithson reveling in hearing the voice of a machine promoted as the most powerful data processing system ever invented, celebrated for its use in space vehicles.
There is an inkling here of Smithson’s taste in cinema—theme songs from the 1964 Bond movie Goldfinger and 1969 film Midnight Cowboy are taken from soundtracks. The artist carefully chose two Waylon Jennings songs for the film Mono Lake, which he started with Nancy Holt in 1968. With Michael Heizer, the couple saw Jennings live in Las Vegas in July 1968, a week before they began shooting the film.
My favorite discoveries in Smithson’s collection are two songs from the 1953 Folkways album Songs and Dances from the Flathead Indians, bringing together traditional vocal music. “Sweathouse Song” is sung to cure eye afflictions, and “Life Song” to express joy at being alive. Both are fantastic. I must admit two selections here are toe-curling to me—yet, I could not resist choosing them. Really: “Lick My Decals Off, Baby” and “Waltzing with Tears in my Eyes.” What was he thinking?
—Lisa Le Feuvre, Executive Director, Holt/Smithson Foundation
For the full inventory, see the companion publication to the 2004 Robert Smithson retrospective published by the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles/University of California Press.
Robert Smithson was born in Passaic, New Jersey, in 1938. He died in Amarillo, Texas, in 1973.