Review: ROBERT SMITHSON RETROSPECTIVE AT L.A. MOCA
by Mat Gleason
from Coagula Issue #71 – December, 2004
Ask anyone on the street who the most important artist of the 1960s was and you are bound to hear an answer of Andy Warhol nine times out of ten. But downtown?€™s Museum of Contemporary Art has an exhibit up now that persuasively argues for consideration of artist Robert Smithson (1938 ?€“ 1973). Ten years younger than Andy but just as nerdy, Smithson worked in media antithetical to the cool soup can paintings. Like Warhol, he changed the very ideas of what art could be; but Smithson also challenged traditional notions of where art could be and how art could be experienced.
Smithson?€™s crowning achievement was Spiral Jetty (1970), contemporary art?€™s first iconic Earthwork. The piece is a path of rocks extended into Utah?€™s Great Salt Lake in a circular fashion over 15 acres. The exhibit cogently shows this monumental artwork as the net sum of Smithson?€™s concerns. While his abiding faith was in empiric science and the geometry it supported, he never left the natural world upon which he felt one needed to experience the sublime perfection of the real. In making science subservient to art, he sought to use the simplicity of shape to expand one?€™s perceptions. Smithson?€™s 20-minute film of the making of Spiral Jetty is on continuous display in the MOCA theater and must not be missed.
If this all sounds too trippy, and a little hippie dippy, well, it is and it isn?€™t. The exhibit begins with some of his minimal sculpture (the de rigeur method of expression in the mid-60s) emphasizing his use of mirrors. The reflection of light in the most mundane of objects was Smithson?€™s retort to centuries of artwork using light as a metaphor for the divine inspiration. The artist presented a light no less brilliant or focused, but it was the light of science, of rigorous intellectual analysis, of a belief in the structure of the physical universe as the ultimate truth. Reflecting his times, Smithson is the artistic embodiment of the separation of church and state, and yet unites rhyme and reason in seeking the perfection in life that he revealed already exists in nature. Of course, the steady diet of LSD helped, and although ignored in the historical detritus attached to the show, Smithson?€™s impetus to get at the essence of things may not have been motivated by the drug, but was certainly cheered on by it. That he managed to make a clean and perfect art without landing on the stoned cliches of a thousand members of his artistic generation may be, in the final analysis, his greatest accompishment.
The exhibit also delves into Smithson?€™s political side, again placing him at the apex of 60s activity, while underscoring his distinct privileging of the art over the simplicity of sloganeering. He aspired for the grand, universal statement over any trite shock art. To make his sculpture Partially Buried Woodshed (1970), he used an industrial backhoe and piled 20 loads of earth onto a small woodshed. This cracked the central beam of the building, rendering a sculpture. More importantly, Woodshed is on the campus of Kent State University, allowing for a myriad of analogies and metaphors. A superb short documentary of this sculpture?€™s creation ?€“ and its present condition – is included in the exhibit. The subtext of the scars of the 60s are palpably present here.
If you have a shred of idealism in what art can aspire to, Smithson may be your man. His primary means of expression was sculpture but, as we see in this brilliantly-curated exhibit, he executed a vast number of interesting drawings in planning his often monumental works. The exciting thing about this show is that we get to see Smithson as both the mature groundbreaking genius and the excited young artist all at once, rather than in some quaint chronology. After years of tired MOCA exhibits that have reeked of schoolmarm lessons in how an artist develops, curator Eugenie Tsai treats the viewers like adults and hangs early Smithson paintings next to sketches of his well-known masterpieces.
When a painting and a drawing look alike, the obvious need for a viewer to see an artist return to earlier methods of expression outweighs the tendency to confine an artist?€™s early/inconvenient work to out of the way places along the exhibition trail. It is amazing what a little new blood will do for an institution. Smithson was one of the few products of the 1960s to reflect his era while also transcending it with a universal body of work that still inspires contemporary viewers.
On the day I viewed the show, the members of Scotland?€™s hippest band, Franz Ferdinand, were engrossed in the exhibit (they later signed autographs in the bookstore, before departing with the exhibition catalogs and other art books), and sources close to MOCA say this exhibit has seen the highest foot traffic since the museum?€™s 2002 Warhol career survey.