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Robert Smithson

May 12, 2008 by garry

Spiral Jetty, 1970.

Robert Smithson was an American artist who lived from 1938 to 1973. Although he initially worked in traditional mediums like drawing, painting and photography, he's best-known for the massive sculptural earthworks that he created later in his career. Starting out producing pop art-inspired collages in the early '60s, the minimalism movement in the middle of that decade abruptly aimed Smithson in a new direction, as he began to fashion sheets of glass and neon tubes into quasi-industrial sculptures.

Next, drawing upon the influence of 18th and 19th century landscape architecture and the impressive sight of giant earthmoving equipment in action, Smithson began to assemble rock and dirt installations in art galleries in 1967, eventually moving on to full-scale on-site earthworks. In 1970 and '71, he produced his most famous pieces in this category, Spiral Jetty, Broken Circle and Spiral Hill. To counter criticisms that he was wrecking the landscape, Smithson claimed, “The best sites for Earth art are those that have been disrupted by industry, reckless urbanization, or nature’s own devastation.” Ironically and tragically, Smithson died in a plane crash on July 20, 1973 while surveying sites for his last great earthwork, Amarillo Ramp.

Timeframe: Pre and post-Altamont.

Public Impact: Although pre-dated by a hot minute by ancient geoglyphs, Robert Smithson's earthworks were among the first--and certainly the most majestic--of the modern era's official land art movement, which began in 1968 and continues today with artists like Andrew Rogers. And, although Smithson's works will be enjoyed for years to come by those few who seek them out in their remote locations, they will, as intended, slowly transform with the landscape over time--only to eventually and utterly erode into their surroundings.

To learn more, visit Robert Smithson's site.


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