Robert Smithson: The Death of the Art Object

Land Art, also known as Earth Art or Process Art, was born in the mid 1960’s in America where many post war artists were mainly identified with abstract expressionism. Artists who weren’t entirely satisfied with the norms of the time went on to criticise consumerist culture, embracing the techniques of mass production in creating art. Their endeavours resulted in artworks, as we all know as Pop Art. While conceptual artists were already questioning the established ideas about art objects and its authenticity, Land Artists proposed a new sculptural aesthetic. In the midst of this heavy discourse a lot of “artists found new alternatives to the gallery or museum by co-opting other than urban building types or by working in the open air.”(1)

These artists who worked in the open air include Michael Heizer, Robert Smithson, Robert Morris, Dennis Oppenheim, Walter De Maria. What pushed these artists to create art works outside a gallery environment? This essay will try to examine the motives behind the Land Art movement through a focus on a major figure within the movement, Robert Smithson.

What were the social, political and cultural dynamics of the time when the first examples of earth works began to emerge? Is Land Art a collective response to Vietnam War as social activism was in the air that time? Could it be seen as a direct result of the rise of consumerist capitalism and technological advancements in the post-war America? Were environmental artists simply projecting the need for a cultural revolution, were their motives to create social consciousness through a new art form or were they purely concerned with aesthetics and challenging the art institutions?

Jan Verwoert (2) argues that with the rise of conceptual art in the late 60’s, the division of labour in the art industry went through a change because the idea became more important than the technique or the time spent on creating an artwork. Artists no longer had to make their artworks themselves. In other words the concept surpassed the craft and this brought upon a major shift in the art field, opening up a whole new world of opportunities for the artist to create artworks.

Beside of the obvious socio-political reasons, Land Art also could also be seen as a refusal of modernist aesthetics as it was outlined by art critic Clement Greenberg who, in his essay ‘Modernist Painting’, described Modernism as not at all a break from the past but as a continuity of past tastes and traditions. “Without the past of art, and without the need and compulsion to maintain past standards of excellence, such a thing as Modernist art would be impossible.” (3)

The first group of artists who challenged Greenbergian notions of aesthetics were the minimalist. However their art works mostly stayed within the confines of the gallery space. Land artists especially, picked this attitude up from minimalist and went a step further by taking the art into the landscape. These artists challenged the conventional notions of making art in the traditional sense, regardless of the materials used, end result of art making has always been an object that occupied a space in a gallery, art-objects which were to be acquired and collected. “A dissatisfaction with the current social and political system results in an unwillingness to produce commodities which gratify and perpetuate that system, here the sphere of ethics and aesthetics merge.”(4) Land artists, by simply placing their works in a natural environment, not only critiqued the traditional ways of creating art and the art world and its institutions, they also changed the way we interact with art works. They shifted the focus from the material to transient; from art as a commodity (art-object as a trade object) to ephemeral art that responds to the changes in the environment they are placed in and eventually dies within the landscape.

Robert Morris writes in ‘Notes on Sculpture’ (5) that these artists attack the iconic character of artworks. He also argues that even though Marcel Duchamp questioned the process of creating artwork, the artist’s direct involvement in the finished product and its value, his Readymades still stayed as iconic art objects. ‘The Fountain’ for example is one the most iconic and well-known art works of the early 20th century. However, what most land artists propose is not a static finished object but a notion of art as a never-ending process.

Robert Smithson curated the first important exhibition of Earth Art and Land Art at Dwan Gallery, New York in October 1968, at a time of civil unrest in the United States during the peak of Vietnam War. The exhibition was titled ‘Earthworks’. ‘Earthworks’…..all of the works posed an explicit challenge to conventional notions of exhibition and sales, in that they were either too large or too unwieldy to be collected; most were represented only by photographs, further emphasising their resistance to acquisition.”(6)

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Land artists, however, made a resonating impact in the contemporary art scene with their second exhibition in the following year. 1969 show “Earth Art” was exhibited in Andrew Dickson White Museum at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York and was curated by video artist and curator Willoughby Sharp. This exhibition brought together art works from American land artists, who played a major role in shaping the environmental art movement, as well artists from Europe and the UK such as Richard Long, Jan Dibbets, Gunther Uecker and Hans Haacke.

This exhibition was planned out to be the first of the four touring exhibitions each of which focused on a different natural element such as earth, fire, air and water. The reason behind choosing a certain area in Ithaca was the geological qualities of the place, as it was known for its richness in natural materials. Due to the limited budget of the gallery however the number of artists was kept to twelve maximum. Thomas W. Leavitt, the director of the gallery at the time, explains this process in the official exhibition catalogue in the below paragraph;

“Because a unique feature of the exhibition was that the artists would be invited to Cornell to execute their works in situ from locally available rock, soil etc. The invitations sent out to the artists for the February exhibition each contained a small brochure with a floor plan of the available exhibition area and photographs of the land around the Museum which was to serve as exhibition space. Each artist had the choice of doing his piece either indoors or outdoors.” (7)

Being a small gallery within the local university, Andrew Dickinson White Museum of Art had certain autonomy and freedom to an extent and therefore proved to be the perfect place to challenge the conventional values of the art world. “Earth Works” exhibition was the first example of its kind and the foreteller of a brand new art form. It is arguable that if the curator picked a different location or an art gallery heavily integrated within the art market, this exhibition would have never realised.

“The work in this exhibition can be grouped conveniently by manner of presentation: (1) the works which were placed within the existing landscape, (2) works whose components were placed both within and without the boundaries of the museum, and (3) works whose material limits were revealed within the confines of the gallery space. (…) The visual statements at the Earth show not only fall outside the traditional categories of painting and sculpture but also deny altogether the notion of the art object as traditionally displayed.”(8)

Art works in this exhibition were a direct response to the natural environment in Ithaca. Artists used raw materials naturally found in the landscape. In this exhibition they intended to present a new concept of art, which is about moving beyond the limiting space of the gallery. They only relied upon the documentation of their artwork as most of them were in far away locations and they couldn’t be moved or transported. Some artists brought in samples of the art works from their original locations. Robert Smithson, for example, created a small indoors replica of his site-specific work titled ‘Mirror Displacement’ which was located in Cayuga Rock Salt Company mine in the local area where the exhibition took place. This artwork consisted of mirrors placed on the piles of rock and earth inside the mine, one and a half mile below the surface. The materials from inside the mine were carried all the way into the gallery and Smithson arranged the mirrors on random piles of rocks and exhibited them alongside the map of the mine. In this sense, although the audience is often invited to visit these locations, their engagement of the earthworks is generally limited to documentation or photographic reproduction. It is said that the viewer “must struggle to see them, to the point of travelling numerous miles in the heat, desert and dust before finally ‘discovering’ them.”(9) 

Smithson, in his 1972 essay ‘Cultural Confinement’, compares museums to asylums and jails. He argues that ‘when a work of art placed in a gallery it loses its charge and becomes a portable object’.

He defines it as ‘transportable merchandise’. ‘Cultural Confinement’ reads almost like an artist manifesto in which Smithson makes a harsh critique of the art world and its market mechanisms. We can clearly see his reaction against the power systems within the art world where, everyday, art works become more and more of a commodity. He suggests that confined spaces such as museums and galleries offer a false sense of freedom to artists. He proposes a clean break from the past in these lines; ‘the museums and parks are graveyards above the ground, congealed memories of the past that act as a pretext for reality.’ His analysis of the ideological function of the parks is also worth a mention to illustrate his idealistic views:

“Parks are idealizations of nature, but nature in fact is not a condition of the ideal. Nature does not proceed in a straight line it is rather a sprawling development. Nature is never finished. When a finished work of 20th century sculpture is placed in an 18th century garden, it is absorbed by the ideal representation of the past, thus reinforcing political and social values that are no longer with us.” (10)

His direct style of writing and the general tone of the essay bring to mind the Futuristic Manifesto in which Futurist artists elaborate the need to erase the past and look to the future with the lines such as: “Museums, cemeteries! Truly identical in their sinister juxtaposition of bodies that do not know each other.” Or “To admire an old picture is to pour our sensibility into a funeral urn instead of casting it forward with violent spurts of creation and action. Do you want to waste the best part of your strength in a useless admiration of the past, from which you will emerge exhausted, diminished, trampled on?” (11)

Within ‘Cultural Confinement’ Smithson, also touches upon the traditional notion of artwork that is sacred and protected from the environmental factors. He condemns static artworks, which he calls ‘finished art’ and strongly believes that a work of art should have a dialectical relationship with its environment and he sees the nature as the perfect provider of dialectic in which constant opposing forces create a certain balance.

“Site-specific works are impermanent, installed in particular locations for a limited duration, their impermanence providing the measure of their circumstantiality. Yet they are rarely dismantled but simply abandoned to the nature; Smithson consistently acknowledged as part of his works the forces which erode eventually reclaim them for nature. In this, site-specific work becomes an emblem of transience, the ephemerality of all phenomena, it is the memento mori* of the twentieth century. Because of its impermanence, moreover, the work is frequently preserved only in photographs.”(12)

Not every artwork placed outdoors, however, fits into this description of dialectical artwork. According to Smithson, for example, many public sculptures offer no ongoing dialectic. Smithson compares urban parks and gardens to landscape paintings, which are made with using the nature itself and he describes them as pictorial. Although he is strongly opposed to representation, his most famous work he completed in 1970 titled ‘Spiral Jetty’ undoubtedly carries certain pictorial qualities. With its anti-clockwise curl reaching into the pink hued salt water, it is certainly an eye pleasing earth installation border lining the ‘picturesque’. In his 1972 essay which consists of his reflections on the process of making Spiral Jetty, Smithson describes his first drive onto the valley towards the lake in a most poetic manner, he depicts the area as a place that “resembled an impassive faint violet sheet held captive in a stoney matrix, upon which the sun poured down its crushing light”(13).

These delicate lines might suggest that Spiral Jetty were born out of Smithson’s visceral response to the landscape and that the art work has a certain sense of poetry despite its harsh nature. Within the same essay, he also mentions that the high salt content of the lake which gives the water a deep pink colour was one of the reasons he chose this location for his jetty as he believed it would create a visual contrast to the black rocks used in the art work. It is clear the Smithson has painterly concerns in terms of how the audience visually engages with his earthworks.

Another criticism might be that Smithson, while offering a new art form and a separation from the values of the past, always took into consideration the history of the area and how his sculptures would correspond to or engage with this history. ‘Spiral Jetty’, for instance, was inspired by a local myth that the Great Salt Lake opens up to the ocean through a whirlpool at the bottom of it. This art work was also commissioned by the Dwan Gallery as the undertaking of this earth work would require a full construction crew with heavy bulldozers to carry over six thousand tons of black basalt rocks (now discoloured due to coating of salt) from a nearby area. This financial support resembles the traditional way of art dealing where galleries and art collectors commission artworks for their own collections.

In this instant however the end product doesn’t belong to a particular individual but rather to institutions and art foundations. Although ‘Spiral Jetty’ is a part of the landscape, Dwan Gallery, in return of its sponsorship, owned the lease to the location for 20 years until Dia Art Foundation in New York took over in 1999, which now organises ‘Spiral Jetty Tours’ for visitors.

Robert Smithson, when he elaborated his manifesto like essay ‘Cultural Confinement’ (1972), described curators as people who impose their limits on an art exhibition, and thus limit art in every way. Although Earth Works were radical in their nature and critical of art institutions, land artists including Smithson, still needed to gain an art audience and be accepted by the art world through exhibitions. Some might argue that it is problematic for artists who practice an art form, which emphasises the space outside of the gallery to exhibit their works in galleries. However that would be the topic of another lengthy essay.

Smithson played a key role in the introduction of the new concept of art which offered a non materialistic and an ephemeral approach to sculptural forms. He initially set out to liberate art from its commodity status. Like many other land artists who were critical of art institutions he too exhibited his art works in galleries, perhaps it is not that easy for an artist to escape the domination of art institutions and galleries entirely. Smithson arguably was the most idealistic out of all the environmental artists of the 1960’s America and devoted his entire life to his ideals by constantly seeking new ways to leave his mark on the surface of the Earth until he passed away in a plane crash, symbolically enough, on his way to a location for another of his earth work installations.

To conclude, let us remember Morris’ (14) statement about Duchamp’s Readymades and how much he believed in the Land Art movement to make a successful critique of the artworks, which eventually become icons. Smithson’s magnum opus ‘Spiral Jetty’ too, a perpetually changing, dynamic artwork which presents itself as an embodiment of his ideals, ultimately gained an icon status in the contemporary art world. Alluding Greenberg (15), it is suffice to say, this is how a break from the past indeed becomes the very continuity of it.


1: Kastner, Jeffrey, edited by Brian Wallis, 1998, Land Art and Environmental Art, Phaidon, London, Printed in Hong Kong, p.12, 13
2: Von Bismarck, B., Fraser, A. and Sheikh, S., 2006, Art and its Institutions: Current Conflicts, Critique and Collobrations; Ed. By Nina Montmann. United Kingdom: Black Dog Publishing Ltd., p.132

3: Greenberg, Clement; Modernist Painting
Harrison, Charles, 2002, Art in Theory, 1900-2000: An Anthology of Changing Ideas, United Kingdom: Wiley, John & Sons, Incorporated, p.779
4: Barbara Rose, 1969, The Politics of Art, Part III, Artforum Article
5: Morris, Robert ‘Notes on Sculpture 4: Beyond Objects’,
Harrison, Charles, 2002, Art in Theory, 1900-2000: An Anthology of Changing Ideas, United Kingdom: Wiley, John & Sons, Incorporated, p.884-885

6: Kastner, Jeffrey, edited by Brian Wallis, 1998, Land Art and Environmental Art, Phaidon, London, Printed in Hong Kong, p.23
7: Thomas W. Leavitt, Director, Andrew Dickson White Museum of Art Cornell University “Earth Systems”, in Earth Art, exhibition catalogue, Ithaca, NY: Andrew Dickinson Museum of Art, Cornell University, 1970, p.132
8: William C. Lipke, “Earth Systems”, in Earth Art, exhibition catalogue, Ithaca, NY: Andrew Dickinson Museum of Art, Cornell University, 1970.
9: Gilles, A. T., 1996, Land Art, United States: Princeton Architectural Press, p.17
10: Smithson, Robert, 1972, ‘Cultural Confinement’, Artforum Article
Harrison, Charles, 2002, Art in Theory, 1900-2000: An Anthology of Changing Ideas, United Kingdom: Wiley, John & Sons, Incorporated, p. 970-971
11: Filippo Tommaso Marinetti (1876-1944) ‘The Foundation and Manifesto of Futurism’
Harrison, Charles, 2002, Art in Theory, 1900-2000: An Anthology of Changing Ideas, United Kingdom: Wiley, John & Sons, Incorporated, p. 147-148
12: Owens, Craig, ‘The Allegorical Impulse: Towards a Theory of Postmodernism’
Harrison, Charles, 2002, Art in Theory, 1900-2000: An Anthology of Changing Ideas, United Kingdom: Wiley, John & Sons, Incorporated, p.1027
13: Smithson, R and Holt, N, 1979, the Writings of Robert Smithson: Essays with Illustrations. United States: New York University Press, p.109
14: Morris, Robert, ‘Notes on Sculpture 4: Beyond Objects’,
Harrison, Charles, 2002, Art in Theory, 1900-2000: An Anthology of Changing Ideas, United Kingdom: Wiley, John & Sons, Incorporated, p.884-885
15: Greenberg, Clement; Modernist Painting
Harrison, Charles, 2002, Art in Theory, 1900-2000: An Anthology of Changing Ideas, United Kingdom: Wiley, John & Sons, Incorporated, p.779