Negotiations 4: Smithson Sightings

The dirty little suspicion in the heart of every aesthete is that he is no better than a tourist. The appreciation of art and the activity of sightseeing are as old as culture, and their relationship is a lot closer than any of us would like to admit. There have been “art tours” to Florence since the Renaissance; Frank Lloyd Wright’s Falling Water is all at once a sight to see, an art experience, and a tourist destination; art museums increasingly become sights one visits for their intrinsic artistic merit, whatever objects they might contain (Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao comes to mind); and then there is Land Art, wherein the artist chooses a remote area or deserted suburb (a “site”), “works” it in some way or another, and returns it to us (or invites us to come see it) as a sight which is itself, after the artist’s intervention, a work of art.

Distinctions between the tourist and the traveler notwithstanding, the trajectory I have traced above, from art tourism to tours as art, recapitulates the trajectory of art in the 20th century from its Representational to its Conceptual phase. One of the pieces of baggage that art was supposed to have lost along the way was the “aura” that objects carried. They went from being singular, authentic objects that were invested with the individual artist’s genius, which was itself invested with and an expression of Nature, or Truth, or the Sublime, to becoming everyday objects or representations of the same that were at times indistinguishable from objects we see every day: a snow shovel, a brillo box, graffiti scrawled across a broken wall, an inflatable flower. If you want to experience one of the last, great examples of Auratic Art, stand in front of one of Jackson Pollack’s giant canvases. The paint on those things is still wet, still dripping and pooling; they shimmer and shiver; they pulse; they emanate aura. When asked if he painted nature, Pollack famously replied, “I am nature.” He was the apogee and, in a certain sense, the end of the auratic in art.

The Robert Smithson retrospective currently at the Whitney, which is a “must-see” for the art tourist, turns this history on its head. One of the earliest practitioners of Land Art, Smithson began by transforming sightseeing into site-seeing, which then became blind-spot-seeing (Patterson, New Jersey) and in turn, finally, seeing sight. His early work is about making you “see” your sight. Mirrors are framed as sculptural objects in such a way that, looking at them, you can’t tell whether you are looking at the thing itself or at the reflection of the thing. These are uncanny, mind-bending works. In a single move, Smithson makes material the assault that Duchamp led, conceptually, upon the retina. Smithson gets behind the lines and forces the collapse of the eye. The entire structure of art as something-one-sees falls in a frenzy of reflections, and one is catapulted into the realm of the conceptual. Language not being up to experience, the only thing one can say at this point is, “Aaaah… now I see!”

After working you over with these mirrors that reflect the frames in which they are placed, thereby creating things that do not exist(!), Smithson introduces an organic element. Now he incorporates seashells, earth, rock salt and stone, so that there is a crossover and a junction between absolute nothingness (the mirror, the surface that only reflects) and elemental matter. I grew giddy at this point. I suddenly realized that I was standing in a room of Robert Smithson’s works, but he hadn’t made a single one of the pieces at which I was looking. They had been assembled not by Smithson (who died in 1973), but by the artslaves of the Whitney. The idea (Pour ten bags of basalt crystals on the floor. Bury a mirror in each one.) was of course Smithson’s, but the objects I was studying had been “made” in that space by someone else. Smithson had not placed each one of those tens of thousands of pebbles there and he had not left diagrams for where each one of them were to be placed in the pile. These were purely conceptual works; and since ideas are immaterial, they prohibit the auratic. Ideas are not wet and nothing sticks to them, neither genius nor nature nor intent—therefore, no aura. Ideas are atemporal. They neither accumulate experience nor decay in time. They escape entropy: hence, the third stage in Smithson’s oeuvre.

At a certain point in his career, Smithson was sponsored (by Yale, I think) to go to Mexico and look at some of the Mayan and Aztec monuments and do something down there. Make some art. What he returned with (and here the difference between the tourist and the traveler makes all the difference) was a series of slides of an old hotel, still functioning but in an advanced state of decay. Smithson had discovered entropy as an idea worthy of aesthetic exploitation. The most famous of the works he would create from this conceptual field, before his tragic death, was Spiral Jetty.

With Spiral Jetty, Smithson does something that I haven’t seen any other artist, anywhere, at any time, do: he renders a concept material, without loss or compromise either to the concept or to the materiality of his art. (The piece that comes closest would have to be van Gogh’s Sunflowers, which are like—but not yet—material sunlight.) I don’t know how Smithson is able to achieve this. It might be because he is not dealing with just a concept but with a universal law; but Spiral Jetty—the object itself—is not just a representation of entropy. It is entropy. It is the very thing it points to. Spiral Jetty is one of those sites (and artists are creating more and more of them) where one can go as witness to and celebrant of a universal sacrament: in this case, the second law of thermodynamics. And in these secular-sacred places, to which all and sundry tourists are invited, the aura, undeniably, returns and abides.

Not a postscript: Some of us have been having a very interesting little discussion as a result of Morgan Meis’s delightful, compelling post on Jeff Koons last Monday. Check it out; leave a note. We’re at over 9,000 words already (scroll down to the comments).