Curated by Highsnobiety and presented during the time period formerly known as Paris Men’s Fashion Week, “Not In Paris 2” is our second in a series of bi-annual digital exhibitions celebrating creativity in the age of remote interactions. Head here for the full series and cop our new merch via our online store.
Throughout his career, the late artist Robert Smithson drew abstract floating objects and varied formless masses. Thought of as studies for his famous “earthworks,” these drawings are resonant on their own as depictions of nowheres — spaces suspended in abstraction that hit differently in the era of video conferencing. Presented in collaboration with the Holt/Smithson Foundation as a special project for “Not In Paris,” critic and art historian Mostafa Heddaya wades through the mud of Smithson’s work and his notion of space-time.
Cooped up and stuffed in, New York’s Central Park is a prim rectangle in its urban grid. This dollar on the map promises a lush walkabout down below. Search your pocket to screen directions from servers and satellites: Here’s the big green, now go outside and come down to the earth or its approximation. You have to button up to let loose. That is one principle of the modern Europeans who fashioned goosey gardens in the capitals of their rule. These were picturesque carbon copies of a world where nature is at hand, game for parcel, plunder, or ruin. Kissing cousin of cemetery and museum, the urban park is a place for making nature history and natural storytelling — a picture planted by the city’s boxy monuments, a seedy lot framed preciously by the living and the dead. The park is where cities go to get out.
It is hard to find a good place in a bad time. When the pandemic morgued the city last year, the artist Mark Dion called his students to Central Park to meet with the living banter of Robert Smithson. Just before his passing, Smithson had published an essay that traces some of the delirious contradictions of the park and its nineteenth-century architect, Frederick Law Olmsted. A New York artist, he died young in a 1973 plane crash, but in his 35 years was ingenious as an author of things made out of time and out of place. Today, Smithson’s most ubiquitous trace is “Spiral Jetty” (1970), a screwed up sandbar on a Utah salt lake — to him “a dead sea” — that became an epitaph by mistake.
Bob, as he was to friends, is hard to pin. I heard Dion bring him up in the void of another grid (Zoom), at a discussion organized by the foundation that is the steward of Smithson’s working memory — as well as the work of the brilliant partner he predeceased by a half century, the artist Nancy Holt. The Holt/Smithson Foundation will continue the endeavor of its namesakes until it dissolves itself on Smithson’s 100th birthday, in 2038.
Art, like all things that grow as culture (or cut as revolution), can make its own time and place. Not in the cartoon forever of museum or empire, but in the granite tempo of active thought. The kind of thinking that takes sediment and puts it in mind. “I never saw an exciting space,” Robert Smithson told his happening pal Allan Kaprow in a 1967 chat about museums, deadpanning: “I don’t know what a space is.”
Smithson and Kaprow’s generation of artists precipitated around New York, but most were too serious to be precious about art or avenues. It dawned that you don’t actually have to make it at all, or be there to get it. You can put art in the mail or in a recipe, plan it or act it or count it, as long as you have the right outlook. The dissolution of art into the world of its parts was the stuff of “dematerialization,” a real loose thing that can be connected to now-familiar shorthands like “land art,” “minimalism,” “performance,” or “conceptual” art.
Even their galleries got in on the act. Many of these artists, including Smithson, showed at Park Place Gallery in downtown Manhattan, an uncanny street name carried uptown from its first location when it moved to SoHo. (One Place after Another is one classic book on this moment, a title we can borrow here for an underline. Another is Chronophobia.)
Place was not a given but a point to take up and work out. This could be literal take-away rubble, the summary displacement of Smithson’s Nonsite series. Or he could set upon site itself, as in “Spiral Jetty,” which “cultivated or recycled” the land “as art.” His was the tradition of Olmsted, “America’s first ‘earthwork artist.’” Such work was so audacious that Edith Wharton, in her period novel written a half-century later, could exaggerate an “inaccessible wilderness near the Central Park.” Taking after this predecessor, who blasted and excavated the primordial hollow of Manaháhtaan to give it a second nature as Central Park, Smithson was tuned to the brutal “contradictions that inhabit our landscapes.” Smithson wanted to be an “ecologist of the real,” not to fetishize it like a fresh-air hobbyist, but to somehow hold its principles to his own artistic bedrock.
As Dion did in Central Park, minus park plus New Jersey, I broached Smithson with my students just after the pandemic hit. We, scattered by the circumstances, had a more prosaic encounter with Smithson’s story, an ABC for undergraduates taken suddenly from what that Garden State native called “the glassy air of New Jersey.” I think now of the artist’s own remote correspondence with an art class a half-century ago at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, a Canadian public school that was in the ’60s and ’70s a destination for artists and critics. Organized in part through technologies of communication both simultaneous and not (mail, telephone, teletype), Smithson’s guest submission to this 1969 course was transmitted in text:
1000 tons of mud dumped from a dump truck over a rocky or stony cliff.
In those three lines, Smithson sketches something trim and preposterous, a now and never proposition. Some dreams become responsibilities, and this one would be sketched out further and acted out, too. His “Glue Pour” and “Asphalt Rundown” of 1969 dumped their titular materials down earthy inclines in Vancouver and Rome. In turn, these two avalanches came to bracket Paris, where, in 1996, they were curated as blobby bookends of L’Informe: mode d’emploi (Formless: A User’s Guide), a landmark exhibition at the Centre Pompidou.
For Smithson, time had a “crystalline structure,” and you can see it in the space that gives some of his drawings the unmoored three-dimensionality of Ikea schematics. Though Western art tends to be associated with the single-point perspective perfected by the Renaissance, artists, engineers, and constructors of all kinds have also used isometric or axonometric projection to show a picture that does not fix a line of sight in advance. This is a view of the mind’s eye in which lines are parallel rather than convergent — a float helpful for planning or execution.
In an April exactly 500 years ago, Michelangelo recorded his receipt of 200 ducats from then-Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici, with which he was “to go to Carrara and arrange for the quarrying of the marble for the tombs which are to go in the new Sacristy of San Lorenzo.” Though his project was the opposite of Smithson’s “antimonuments,” Michelangelo’s production of clay models and drawn instructions for stonemasons has a blocky economy that trucks with the rectilinear volumes of the modernist’s drawing boards.
Nancy Holt photographed modest graves and headstones on a trip West with Robert in 1968, two years after he put “the avant-garde of cemeteries” in an impish listicle, right after “the avant-garde of less than nothing.” The blobbed and the buried and the quarried converge at a creeping degree zero, different sides of a thermodynamic law of forever he dubbed entropy and made a grounding concept for his art. If blob is the real look of the future, then this can be named if not quite tamed. The oozing mass, that thing which overwhelms because it is without form, can still be sketched into a semblance of shape and turned into a picture for a museum of the void.
To Olmsted’s delight, the subways wormed their way beneath his landscape of the city’s kernel. Eventually, the “super highway” came to belt city limits automotively. There, the big box stores supply a hinterland of “maze-like counters” with “piles of neatly stacked merchandise,” hypothetical aisles of “a consumer oblivion.” This shopping cart necropolis that Smithson described in 1966 is neither for mourning nor exaltation. It is where “hyperprosaism” flashes more fluorescent even than Warhol was, for “vapidity and dullness is what inspires many of the more gifted artists.” Note to shoppers: Advance your clock, but don’t space out — hover out of place but stay with the mud. “A consciousness of mud,” Smithson prescribes at the end of the Central Park essay, “is necessary in order to understand the landscape as it exists.”
For these reasons, it seems obscene to play present-day with Smithson’s thought, as if bringing it up to date with the interval of a blink. But there is yet a relay for us into this worm’s-eye-view from everywhere, for nowhere people with a slack perspective and a wonky chronometer. (After all, we see each other through boxes buried deep in the landscape now, flying high in the muck of fiber optics.) One source for Smithson’s idea of the “crystalline” is the art historian Wilhelm Worringer, whom Smithson reproaches early in the Central Park essay for having argued, in 1906, that abstraction is “inorganic.” Worringer identifies abstraction with a “life-denying” escape from the natural, and yet also tells of “crystalline forms of inanimate matter.” Smithson scolds the old German, and maybe me or you: “There is no escaping nature through abstract representation; abstraction brings one closer to physical structures within nature itself.”