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A Pop naturalist

MOCA's retrospective of Land Artist Robert Smithson is revelatory.

September 13, 2004|Christopher Knight | Times Staff Writer

Robert Smithson did not go to college. As a New Jersey teenager, he commuted to some classes at Manhattan's Art Students League and the Brooklyn Museum, but after high school he did not enroll in art school. He joined the Army Reserves instead, then bummed around the United States and Mexico. Today, when it is unlikely that an artist would emerge into prominence without a university degree or the network of affiliations developed in art school, Smithson's lack of formal training as an artist manages to startle.

The surprise is even greater when measured against a claim in the catalog to the much-anticipated retrospective of Smithson's powerful work, which opened Sunday at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Whether one agrees with the assertion that "no other postwar American artist can be said to be as influential" as he, the effect his art and writing have had on art in the last 30 years is immense.

That influence partly extends to his important peers. Smithson (1938-73), whose death in a plane crash at age 35 stunned the art world, was a pivotal member of a generation that included Richard Serra, Eva Hesse and Carl Andre. Yet, recently emerged artists such as Sam Durant, Renee Green, Tacita Dean and Matthew Coolidge (with the collective known as the Center for Land Use Interpretation), all of whom were too young to have witnessed Smithson's brief but blazing evolution first-hand, have also built on his precedent.

I mention this aspect of Smithson's biography for a particular reason, which has to do with his work. He's widely revered as a pioneer of Earthworks (or Land Art), in which sculptural manipulation of the wilderness landscape creates art with imperceptible boundaries and that cannot be contained within a museum or gallery. But the retrospective shows something slightly different. Above all else, Smithson's art privileges perceptual experience. Literate, astute in its knowledge of complex scientific and mathematical theorems, shrewd and often witty, his work nevertheless positions itself as a catalyst to a fascinating perceptual experience.

The move away from the gallery and into the landscape was important, because a sludge of expectations, habits, rules and assumptions had settled around vanguard American art.

Smithson was enamored of Abstract Expressionist painting of the 1940s and 1950s, and the work by which he's known today drank deeply from the well of Jackson Pollock. But the exceptional creative ferment of the 1960s was partly fueled by an aesthetic sense of dull conformity, coupled with the social and political constraint of the era.

Smithson's genius was to make liberating objects (and environments) that busted up those impediments, while also directly asserting the awesome power of inertia.

The exhibition, organized and artfully installed by guest curator Eugenie Tsai with MOCA curator Connie Butler, includes a strong selection of 10 of Smithson's gallery pieces from 1968 and 1969 -- the famous "nonsites" and "mirror displacements." Sand, stones, shells, cinders, rock salt and other natural materials gathered from outdoor sites -- often remote and desolate or evocative of industrial slag -- are stacked in steel bins, paired with topographical maps and piled around sheets of mirror, holding them in precarious geometric configurations. Widely shown and discussed, and seen by many more people than the Earthworks Smithson made in remote corners of Utah, Texas and elsewhere, they remain a signal achievement.

The show's revelation, however, is the painted metal and mirrored wall reliefs. They date from just before the potent nonsites and the classic Earthworks -- such as 1970's famous "Spiral Jetty," a 1,500-foot coil of rock in the apocalyptic environment of Great Salt Lake. Although I've seen most of the painted reliefs and floor sculptures before, I was unprepared for how fresh and invigorating they look here.

They radiate a colorful whimsy that is frankly Pop. Take the untitled 1964 relief whose metal frame unfolds across the wall like an enormous pleated fan (it's more than 6 feet wide). The frame is painted golden yellow, while the mirrored panels are a bright teal-blue. The long, skinny, four-sided pyramids in Day-Glo hues jut out from the wall, like disco decor. The relief might be abstract, but the vibrant color is as striking as a glamorous portrait of Marilyn Monroe by Smithson's friend Andy Warhol.

The sculpture is Minimalist bling-bling. Its faceted form recalls a crystal, but the emphasis on industrial manufacture and unnatural color means we've entered the land of rhinestones, not diamonds.

Stand before the mirrored relief and a strange thing happens. The mirrors don't reflect you.

Angled, the mirrors instead reflect the ceiling, floor and surrounding gallery walls, sucking the space of your peripheral vision into your direct line of sight. The flat plane of the wall on which the mirrored relief hangs seems to splinter and dissolve.

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