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Who is Robert Smithson?

By Michael Totten
Updated Mar 06, 2024
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Robert Smithson was an American minimalist, environmental artist. He was a key figure in 20th century environmental art, also known as land art or earthworks. In addition to the artwork he produced, Robert Smithson wrote extensively on the subject. His essays on art challenged traditional methods and ideas, and affected and changed art theory substantially in the decades that followed.

Robert Smithson was born in New Jersey, United States on 2 January 1938. His initial interests were in drawing and painting, which he studied at the Art Students League art school in New York. Smithson’s early artwork reflected his primary focus on painting the human body, and science fiction and fantasy themes.

In the early 1960s he became interested in minimalism, an artistic movement that started during the post-World War II era. This type of art was usually visual or musical, and was simplified in order to draw attention to the artwork’s most fundamental characteristics.

At the same time that minimalism was gaining popularity, Robert Smithson turned away from his immersion in art of the human body. Instead, he used materials new to the art world in order to explore visual elements in new ways. He was especially interested the concept of entropy, and in the sculpture of crystalline structures.

During the late 1960s, while exploring industrial areas, Robert Smithson became captivated watching the excavation of tons of earth and rock. The moment inspired him to create land art. By 1970, he had created one of his most famous land artworks — Partially Buried Woodshed. Later that same year, he finished his most famous work, the Spiral Jetty, on the shore of the Great Salt Lake in Utah. Smithson used 1,500 feet (457 meters) of rock, earth, salt, and red algae to create the jetty.

Much of Smithson’s interest in land art was based on the idea of deformities in the land. He considered deformities to be areas that had been agitated by industry, urbanization, or natural damage. It was the damaged, or scarred, areas that were art in his view. Because of this, Robert Smithson faced criticism that he, and other similar artists, further disrupted the land with their artwork. In an essay, Smithson argued that human or natural manipulation could actually benefit the landscape, and that his opponents’ views prevented them from seeing this potential.

Robert Smithson’s art career was tragically ended at the age of 35 when he died in a plane crash. At the time, he was reviewing a site for a work in Texas to be called Amarillo Ramp.

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Discussion Comments

By ddljohn — On Feb 17, 2011

I think that harsh criticism of Smithson's art was undue. I would agree with the critics if his work had altered landscapes in a way that harmed nature or its inhabitants, but this is not the case. Robert Smithson's Partially Buried Woodshed was made of natural materials- wood, soil and rock.

I also think that Smithson opened the way for artists to see landscapes through a different lens and perhaps has inspired a new school of artists who photograph landscapes that have been ruined by industrialization. There is one particular image in my mind of a recycle "valley" in China which is one of the most horrific scenes of global economies I think. Just imagine a family living among mountainous piles of metals which they untiringly sort through for a living. Such photography, such art makes huge statements about our landscapes, nature, human consumption and labor today. For me, this is not only art, but really as a social cause and Robert Smithson is someone who helped pave the way for new generation artists.

By bear78 — On Feb 17, 2011

Robert Smithson was an artist with a grand imagination. After seeing pictures of his works, especially "Spiral Jetty," I bet he stood out from other artists right away. I wonder what he would think about modern Dubai if he were alive today? I also wonder if Dubai's builders have taken any inspiration from Robert Smithson's land art?

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