Artist and Musician Biographies


Curators discuss Robert Smithson's works made from earth, either altering the earth at a remote site or bringing earth and rock into Museums and Galleries.

Robert Smithson was born in 1938 in Passaic, New Jersey and died in a plane crash while flying over one of his earthworks to examine it in 1973. His father, Irving, worked for Auto-Lite, a company that dealt in car parts, but later went into real estate, and then into banking. The family moved to Rutherford, New Jersey, where Dr. William Carlos Williams, a pediatrician, cared for young Smithson. Williams' writings later influenced him.

Smithson's interest in art began early in childhood. When he was seven years old, his father took him for the first time to the Museum of Natural History in New York City. He always preferred that museum to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He drew a mural-size dinosaur for the hallway of his elementary school and made a large paper construction of a dinosaur. At age seven, dinosaurs and prehistory fascinated him.

When he was eight, Smithson and his parents took a cross-country tour of the United States. On later trips, which Smithson planned for the family, they went to the sites of such natural scenic wonders as Yellowstone Park, the Grand Canyon, the California Redwoods, and the Mojave Desert.

In 1948, the Smithson family moved to Clifton, New Jersey. Smithson's father put together a small basement museum for all of Robert's shells and fossils. Robert also collected insects. Smithson made several trips to Ross Allen's reptile farm in Florida. It appeared he was headed for a career as a naturalist.

In 1953, while in middle school, Smithson won a scholarship to the Art Students League in New York City. While in Manhattan, Smithson frequented the Cedar Bar in Greenwich Village, where he met Franz Kline and artists affiliated with Black Mountain College. He then attended the Brooklyn Museum School on a scholarship and then studied at urban realist Isaac Sayer's studio near Central Park.

Smithson served in the Special Division of the United States Army from 1956 to 1957. He was stationed at Fort Knox and did watercolors of local army installations for the mess hall.

Following his discharge from the army in 1957, Smithson moved to New York City and later hitchhiked around the country. He visited the Hopi Indian Reservation and went to see the pyramids in Mexico.

Smithson returned to New York during the time of the "beat generation." He met Jack Kerouac, author of On the Road, and Allen Ginsberg, author of Howl. In 1959, he met Nancy Holt, a sculptor, and they were married in 1963.

The paintings included in Smithson's first solo show in New York City were abstract and had stripes. The stripes in later paintings were covered with paper. Much of this work seems to have been influenced by Barnett Newman.

Smithson's painting titled "Quicksand" received critical attention in the United States and Europe. This abstract painting was done in gouache and had pieces of paper stapled onto it. This painting enabled Smithson to have a solo exhibit in Rome in 1961. While in Italy, Smithson developed a fondness for Byzantine culture. He regretted that art had moved beyond this point, and detested the Renaissance. The desire to learn and understand primal sources and ancient mythology remained with Smithson until his death in 1973.

In 1962, Smithson's art seemed confused. He had a solo exhibition in New York City in which he showed such things as a stuffed pigeon taken apart and pasted on a board, paintings of scientific diagrams, and rows of pickle jars filled with specimens the artist had concocted and given scientific-sounding names.

In 1965, Smithson had a show of plastic sculptures at the John Daniels Gallery in New York City. Through this gallery, he met Robert Morris, Donald Judd, Dan Flavin, and Sol LeWitt, Minimalist sculptors. He also spoke at Yale University with three art critics on the topic "Art in the City," and published his first articles on art.

An architect who heard Smithson's speech at Yale invited him to be part of the designing and building of the Dallas-Forth Worth Airport. Smithson stayed in Texas in 1965 and 1966 as a consultant to the architecture firm. His first proposal for the airport was to have earthworks on the edges of the airfield that people would see during take-off and landings. Smithson became more interested in the actual structure of the building and was involved in the boring of holes to take earth samples. Smithson's ideas for the airport were never realized because the architect firm lost the airport contract.

From 1966 to 1969, Smithson helped organize an exhibition with Ad Reihardt and Robert Morris, had four solo exhibitions, and was included in two group shows in New York City.

Smithson often traveled with Carl Andre and Robert Morris to the decaying urban areas and industrial wastelands in New Jersey during 1966 to 1969. His experience on these trips led to the concept "Non-sites." A non-site was a randomly arranged pile of natural waste presented as a new premise for contemporary sculpture.

In 1968, Smithson traveled to the deserts of California, Nevada, and Utah looking for locations for large-scale art works involving the land.

Smithson was invited to Kent State University in Ohio as a visiting artist and here he built an earthwork titled "Partially Buried Woodshed" in 1970. He dumped twenty cartloads of dirt on a woodshed, forcing its support beam to split. It had been predetermined that work on the sculpture would end as soon as this happened.

Spiral Jetty (1970) is Smithson's most famous earthwork. The spiral-shaped jetty of earth is over 1,500 feet long and 160 feet in diameter. It projects into the Great Salt Lake in Utah. The water level in this lake rises and falls from year to year and for some time Spiral Jetty was no longer visible because the lake had risen. In recent years the water level has diminished and spiral Jetty has reemerged from under the water and the entire earthwork is now covered with salt crystals.

In the early 1970s, Smithson felt that the land used for strip mining could be used successfully for earthworks. He offered many proposals to strip- mining companies and, in 1971; he built "Broken Circle- Spiral Hill" in a sand quarry in Holland. The earthwork was maintained after it was completed.

Amarillo Ramp (1973) was an earthwork commissioned for private property in Amarillo, Texas. The twelve-foot-high ramp curls from a lake to the shore. When the ramp is climbed, a view of the surrounding landscape is quite different from that seen from the shore or hills.

With Amarillo Ramp in its (almost) final form, Smithson, a photographer, and a pilot set out to photograph the earthwork. Sadly, the plane crashed into a hillside just a few hundred feet from the work and all three on board died. Smithson left behind numerous plans in both writing and drawings for his works. His wife, Nancy Holt, also an important earthwork artist, completed Amarillo Ramp. Smithson died on July 20, 1973.

Page author: C.A.