main: June 2005 Archives

        "I am a Modern artist dying of Modernism." Robert Smithson, 1961

           (in a letter quoted by Thomas Crow)

Robert Smithson: Spiral Jetty, 1970

Developing the Negatives

The death of Robert Smithson in a plane crash in 1973 was not only the loss of an important artist (and the art he might have made), but the loss of his dialectic of negativity, an acid skepticism that was part of his charm.

Smithson, however, was not a Duchampian. Smithson found Duchamp too French, too elitist, and no doubt too spiritual. That ironist too spiritual? Arturo Swartz was right all along: Duchamp was an adept.

I am reminded of Duchamp's alchemical goals by a much-quoted interchange between Smithson and Marcel, as nailed down by historian Moira Roth's 1972 interview, reprinted in the catalogue to the current Smithson retrospective now at the Whitney (945 Madison Ave. at 75th Street, through Oct. 23).

Upon meeting Duchamp for the first and only time (at a gallery opening), Smithson told Roth: "I just said one thing to him. I said, 'I see you are interested in alchemy,' and he said, 'Yes, I am.' "

And basically that was that.

Certainly Smithson's science-fiction vision of vast stretches of geological time reeks of the Gnostic; but once he overcame the ugly Catholic imagery in his early work, most at the time would have been hard-pressed to find any evidence of spirituality in his oeuvre. Of course, Gnosticism, the heresy that would not go away, nowadays counts as spirituality. Ask literary critic Harold Bloom. Once you read or, in my case, reread Smithson's dense essays, it's easy to see entropy (his favorite trope) morphing into eschatology. 

Smithson and I shared a love of the extremities of science fiction, noir films (along with our mutual friend art critic Lawrence Alloway, who wrote Violent America for MoMA), love of argument, contempt for late Clement Greenberg, and, oddly enough, a deep respect for Frederick Law Olmsted, the creator of Prospect Park in Brooklyn and co-creator of Central Park in Manhattan as well as other masterpieces. (I once called Olmsted the greatest American artist of the 19th century.)

There were other things we shared. We shared New Jersey. He grew up in Clifton, where the poet William Carlos Williams was his pediatrician. I once lived in nearby Paterson, with its water-courses designed by Alexander Hamilton, its derelict silk mills, and the famous falls that figures so largely in Williams' epic (or anti-epic) poem Paterson.

As young men we had worked in bookstores: he at the legendary 8th Street Book Shop and yours truly at Brentano's on 5th Avenue, with the likes of underground filmmaker Gregory Markopoulos and a mad Cuban who was dating the ex-wife of a famous surrealist painter, and a former valet who in Great Britain as a young man had dug senseless ditches as a spiritual exercise under Gurdjieff's disciple Ouspensky. Furthermore, I was thrilled to work in the same bookstore that had once employed the poet Hart Crane and, let us not forget, a workplace where most of the sales staff actually knew who Crane was and had read his poems.

But back to spirituality, which I usually count as essential to artistic importance, no matter how unfashionable that stand. Might we see Earth Art (of which Smithson's efforts are the most complex manifestation) as "spiritual"? In the last few years of his life he was so anti-ecology and pro-corporate -- or at least actively pursuing corporate funding for his schemes to renovate strip-mining sites -- that I fear a spiritual tag now would cause him to rise from his grave in wrath. Post-Dwan Gallery, his rejected proposal to place a pool with four jetty-curls at the bottom of an enormous cooper mining pit I now think would have been terrific. I am sure if he were alive he would gleefully point out all the sappiness (if you will excuse the expression) of naked hikers and tree-huggers with their Rolex watches and I-pods. But how would he have dealt with global warming? Would he have enjoyed photographing New Orleans under water?

When Smithson Became Smithson 
Because I am not particularly interested in Smithson's extensive juvenilia, in evidence at the Whitney for, I assume, educational rather than aesthetic purposes, I had to ask myself when exactly Smithson became Smithson. He did not have a good "hand." Even his Earth Art sketches show that. It makes perfect sense that he ended up outsourcing whatever sheet-metal work he needed and that he favored the camera and bulldozer over the chisel or paintbrush. In any case, by the late '60s, "touch" was anathema and had been thoroughly demythologized. Or so it was thought.

Smithson became Smithson with the Enaniomorphic Chambers of 1965. These are, as some have pointed out, mirrors that do not reflect the viewer, infinity boxes that are larger inside than outside -- and I maintain an early slap at the face of minimalism.

I like minimalism, but it is not sacred. In some sense, it is just another move in the art game; as is Smithson's antiminimalism.

The current retrospective proves that his mature work, such as the1966 geometric sculptures Alogon and Plunge, and Leaning Strata of 1968, holds up. Although, as some have pointed out, the graduated-unit structures are more Tony Smith than Don Judd, even in relationship to Smith's crystalline three-dimensional doodles Smithson's odd sculptures are disconcerting, disturbing. Simple, arithmetic progressions become hallucinatory.

The Nonsites and the mirror pieces that follow, to use a very un-Smithonian term, are sublime. And we all know that the Spiral Jetty is a masterpiece, even though most of us will see it only in photographs or on film.

I am not sure it is fair to butt him up against his on-again/off-again friends and elders, the hard-core minimalists. He had contempt for the unsophisticated Marxism of the well-known Marxist-manqué in that elite group; he often nastily referred to Sol LeWitt as Saint Sol. Robert Morris, of course, he ended up finding too Duchampian.

Before the breakthrough nonsites, with their astounding dialectical premise, pieces such as Alogon were already edging toward what would be called postminimalism. So-called objecthood and literalism were out the window.

With the Nonsites -- "demonstrating" dialectical relationships between indoors and outdoors, art spaces and open spaces, nature and culture, verbal and visual, image and thing -- he pushed us into the void. His self-proclaimed dialectic is not Hegelian or post-Marxist, but a trilectical/trinitarian synthesis of Heidegger and Wittgenstein (both of whom Smithson read), and Sam Peckinpah.

Dialectic was indeed one of Smithson's favorite words or, I would more correctly announce, one of his favorite concepts -- as was entropy. But his sense of the dialectical was not academic or rigidly Hegelian or Marxist (certainly not Marxist). He wanted to get at interrelationships, as opposed to dualistic oppositions. He was not an either/or type of guy. How would I characterize the Smithsonian Dialectic? Thesis and antithesis are always clearly presented, but the synthesis is free-floating, elusive, anxious.

In 1969, for an article in New York magazine, I went with Smithson to an abandoned quarry in New Jersey that overlooked the Turnpike. He was re-photographing blow-ups of the snapshots he took for Six Stops on a Section at the original sites as "displacements" or " photo-markers." I quoted him as saying: "My Nonsites take the outdoors and bring it inside in containers. This starts a dialectic. These photo-markers do the reverse. I am using the environment to frame something artificial. In the gallery, History frames time. Here the reverse happens."

When Ranking Must Be Done

So, in the realm of postminimalism, what happens when we compare Smithson to Eva Hesse, Richard Serra, and Ana Mendieta? Who wins? Richard Serra is, these days, way beyond postminimalism with his magnificent rolled-steel sculptures. Hesse, as much as we like her work, did not have Smithson's cosmic ambition; only Mendieta did, but she was not as early in the game as Smithson. And the other so-called Earth Artists? They made a few good examples, here and there. But what are their ideas?

Another way you judge artists is by their influence. In her catalogue essay, called "A Lurid Presence: Smithson's Legacy and Post-Studio Art," Cornelia Butler takes a stab at it, highlighting Smithson as the initiator of what is now called post-studio art (if you are a Brit, post-studio "practice") and nomadism. Except for Rirkrit Tiravanija, the citation of proposed heirs is disappointing. Since, if you will excuse the expression, we judge the tree by its fruit, someone had better come up with better examples of post-studio art fast, and nomadism really fast. The current issue of Arforum does no better. And though in terms of Smithson's oeuvre there is still a lot to be mined, his art, even his attempt to exploit mining pits, was founded on his dialectical methodology: he was not a simple-minded man making simple-minded art. He had an apocalyptic vision.

When Virginia Dwan, Smithson's dealer and patron, closed her gallery in 1971, he went around saying "the party's over," referencing, as it were, a song sung by Judy Holliday in the Broadway musical/movie Bells Are Ringing. Oh, that Smithson; what a wit. Nowadays we have a different question: when is the party going to start?

As is well-known, in the late '60s Smithson held forth at his table in the front room of the now legendary Max's Kansas City. There you could meet the minimalists and any visiting earth artist who happened to be in town. And sometimes Tuesday Weld or Dennis Hopper. Andy Warhol had the back room for his salon. But at least there was an art bar. There are no known art bars now. Which probably means that there are no longer any art feuds, arguments, or even much talk. What is there to talk about? Real estate?

Next installment: Smithson's Library and Mine

June 30, 2005 9:29 AM |


   Touring Chelsea: Chelsea High Line Railroad, courtesy Friends of the High Line

                Why We Still Go to Galleries

As I become more and more a denizen of the internet, the digital ether, I get nervous. Transformations are traumatic. And so I cling to past modes of perception. Is it my imagination, or is it really the case that the longer I am online, the stronger my need to experience things in three-dimensions, in real space?

Seeing art in real life --- in an artist's studio, in someone's living room, in a gallery, in a museum --- is better than seeing art in a magazine or on the internet.
But perhaps we are being snobby, still lingering in the 20th century. Let's face it, sometimes real art is disappointing; the image of the image looks better than the image itself.

Furthermore, do we really need the rituals, the people, and the spaces around art? The expense? The aura of cash value? Let's say we didn't have to take that cab ride to Chelsea, or in my case, the subway to 14th or 23rd Street and then a tedious crosstown bus. Let's say we could look at art without getting dressed up or, for some, without dressing down; without a carefully composed face: sort of neutral, but interested, without being too interesting.

                   *  *  *

Here, just to inform you and annoy you, are some of the other art gallery rules:

Other than on 57th Street or the Upper East Side, women should not wear couture when visiting galleries. Uptown, men should wear ties, but never in Chelsea, Soho, Tribeca, or Williamsburg; but guys, even artists, should never visit in workclothes or they will be asked by the 22 year-old socialite stationed at the front desk if they are making an art delivery or have come to fix the sink in the storage room. Students don't have to worry, because no matter what they wear they always look like students. And of course no one should talk loudly (to oneself or to others) or wear discernable perfume or cologne.

Celebrities are allowed to visit only during the week; not on Saturdays, when they will distract from the art. The "celebrity bubble" used by a certain scion of a publication family does not work; he, his wife, her dog and at least one guest swan from gallery to gallery on Saturdays (!), limo somewhere offstage, thinking that the plastic dome they have imagined surrounding themselves is adequate sound-proofing. Just because you do no see or acknowledge other people does not mean they do not see you. Or hear you.

No cell phone use in galleries, please. Most galleries, I am told, have installed Cell-Kill, a device that senses activated cell phones and silently and immediately fuses those little chips they have inside.

All of these annoying considerations are part of art, as are many economic and class factors too complicated (and endlessly interesting) to delve into here. Art is social. Furthermore, if the art in question is made to be savored in all of its physicality (or even, in the case of some more conceptual efforts, in its lack of physicality), then, of course, we should make some effort to see it in the context of its intended presentation.

                   *  *  *

These perverse meditations were inspired because briefly housebound, I was desperate for art, nostalgic for art - other people's art; art other than my own. So I concocted various cyber tours for myself. And learned something: you can construct your own art magazine. You can preview art on your own, on the internet.

When you are experiencing art-withdrawal symptoms, an image of an image is better than no image at all. Probably more important, an internet preview can help you decide which galleries to go to later on, if you live in New York or will be here on a visit.

We all know we can't trust the art magazines; they are always two months too late. And the newspapers? Well, only if you have nothing else to go by. I'd rather trust myself by making up a list of favorites and then, unless I have an entire week to go to galleries, check out the internet.

Previewing on the internet is more efficient than the usual triage halfway down your must-see list, when you are totally exhausted after three or four hours of elevator waits, garage doors, loading docks and focusing and refocusing with each venue. Chelsea now stretches, between Tenth and Eleven Avenue, for 22 blocks in the shadow of the abandoned High Line elevated railroad (soon to be a park) from Exit Art to Sperone Westwater on West 13th. The High Line spine of the Chelsea Art District could have been a helpful monorail. But not at the expense of a park -- so couldn't a monorail be suspended under the High Line?

And then on late Saturday afternoons there's all that infernal socializing. No uptown air-kisses, no 10th Street hugs, no Soho sneers, but chat, chat, chat, and perhaps the sharing of notes: Did you see Jasper's awful new paintings? And that same old stuff at Sonnabend!

But how do you start? One handout, produced by Art in America and Interview, now lists 236 galleries in Chelsea along with their websites --- but it is not available online. offers 218 Chelsea galleries and is indeed online. It also lists galleries in all the art districts in New York City and elsewhere around the country. Unfortunately, the few thumbnails look like pay-fors and there are no links to gallery websites, where you always can find images. But you can Google to find the gallery sites, one by one.

So here's a virtual tour of Chelsea I made up for myself. You may use it as a starter list, but please remember to visit one gallery you have never been to before every time you are online or out and about. Why be in a rut? What I want to see is your own personal list, ever expanding, ever quirky, ever rewarding. And the 15winners are:

The Basic Chelsea List with Links

Mary Boone,541 W. 24th St. Karen Davie, paintings made with overlapping swipes and loops, to June 25. Click on thumbnails for excellent blow-ups.

Cheim & Read, 547 W. 25th St. Joan Mitchell, to June 25. Excellent site, with eight views of gallery installation, which are very helpful in communicating scale.

Paula Cooper,  534 W. 21st St. Sophie Calle: Exquisite Pain. First U.S. showing of this conceptual art museum piece, documenting a failed love affair. Click on installation image for an excellent press release describing exhibition.

Charles Cowles 537 W. 24th St. Mona Kuhn: Recent Photographs, to June 18. Naked youths of both sexes, mostly lounging. I'd need to see them first hand. even with the blown-up thumbnails offered.

Gagosian Gallery, 555 W.24th St. Roger Allen and Alec Soth: Photographs; also on view but currently not available online: The Figure in Space and 2 Sculptures by Robert Therrien (which I would definitely take a look at);through July 29. Also if you are in London: Sculpture by Roy Lichtenstein.

Galerie Lelong, 528 W. 26th St. Sean Scully. To June 25. Currently one of my favorite abstract painters. Site only has one image, plus one image each for Lelong's Antoni Tapies show in Zurich and its Jan Dibbets in its Paris Branch.

Barbara Gladstone, 515 W. 24th St. Richard Prince. Old and new works, but I bet the car hoods still look best in real life. Site is a bit difficult. You have to click on exhibitions, then current, then more information. The payoff is 12 installation views.

Paul Kasmin, 293 Tenth Ave. Walton Ford, Watercolors ("delirious natural history spectacles"), to July 2.. Click on current exhibition for 8 images and then on installation for 6 installation views. Without the latter, I might have missed that Le Jardin (a buffalo being harassed by a pack of white wolves) is 10 1/2 feet wide, which is gigantic for a watercolor.

Lehmann Maupin, 540 W. 26th St. Bryan Crockett: Drawn Out of My Mind and Jennifer Steinkamp: Rapunzel., to June 25. Crockett's two sculptures, Solipsist and Male Ghost intrigue, but I gotta see them in the flesh, as it were. Steinkamp's projected installation needs to be seen in real life too. Generally uneven offerings, but always worth a look

Matthew Marks Gallery, 523 W. 24th St. Darren Almond, photographs of Siberia in honor of poet Joseph Brodsky. 522 W. 22nd St. Jasper Johns: Cantenary Paintings, and 521 W. 21st St. Weegee: Idiot Box. A five-minute film shot off a TV in 1965, plus stills by the Great One.

Metro Pictures, 519 W. 24th St. Summer Group Show, to July 29,

Robert Miller Gallery,524 W. 26th St. The Subjective Figure, June 16-July 29. No other information.

PaceWildenstein, 534 W. 25th St. Chuck Close: Recent Paintings, to June 18. Far-flung and usually considered blue-chip. Has a "private gallery" for special customers, requiring a user name and password.

Max Protetch, 511 W. 22nd St. Tobias Putrih, June; video, rear-projection installations, sculpture? Can't tell very much from images on site. What is being projected? But it's fun to see that Protetch also offers real estate upstate in Dia-land, where the gallery has an outpost.

Andrea Rosen Gallery, 525 W. 24th St. Andrea Zittel: A-Z Advanced Technologies and Michael Ashkin; Abjnabistan. To June 18. Zittel is now well-known for her functional objects, and I feel guilty I haven't written about her. In what looks like half a show there appears to be a shelving unit along with items that relate to her A-Z company. Ashkin, an artist new to me, shows an elaborate cardboard model of an anti-nationality he invented. Texts here are excellent, which is not always the case with other galleries.

June 14, 2005 5:36 AM |
Taking a short hiatus. Will be back soon.
June 4, 2005 2:27 AM |


John Perreault interviewed on WPS1 

Now available as a podcast. Click here: PODCAST.

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