Robert Smithson (American, 1938–1973) is widely held as one of the most influential and significant artists of the 20th century. His writings, drawings, sculpture, and, most famously, his earthworks have become touchstones for contemporary artists for their rigorous artistic and theoretical investigations and for the way in which they married concept and form. This exhibition brings together three works from the MCA Collection: Smithson’s film Spiral Jetty (1970) that documents the production of the landmark work of the same name; Mary Brogger’s Earthwork (2000); and Sam Durant’s Partially Buried 1960s/70s Dystopia Revealed (Mick Jagger at Altamont) & Utopia Reflected (Wavy Gravy at Woodstock) (1998)—to demonstrate the sustained influence of Smithson’s ideas and practice on a subsequent generation of artists.
Spiral Jetty is a 1,500-foot long, 15-foot wide counterclockwise coil made entirely from mud, salt crystals, basalt rocks, earth, and water that extends from the northeastern shore of Utah’s Great Salt Lake. Smithson created it just months after the completion of the work Partially Buried Woodshed, a dilapidated wooden structure upon which Smithson had dirt piled until its central beam cracked and then left as site-specific work, half exposed, half covered in dirt. Spiral Jetty was an extension of many of the ideas Smithson also explored in Partially Buried Woodshed, the work to which Brogger’s and Durant’s works specifically refer, including the concept of entropy—the inevitable disintegration or decay of all matter and energy over time—as well as the use of natural materials and the expansion of art-making into the landscape on a grand scale. Located on the campus of Kent State in Ohio, Partially Buried Woodshed subsequently accrued new meaning through its context—it became an unofficial monument, signified by the addition of graffitied text, to four students who were shot and killed by the Ohio National Guard in a Vietnam War protest that turned violent.
Brogger’s Earthwork, a birdhouse in the form of a scale-model of Mies van der Rohe’s seminal Farnsworth House, takes on the legacy of modernism with a wry tongue-in-cheek reference to Smithson and his earthworks. Piling birdseed in the center of the transparent home, Brogger suggests the potential for an icon of architecture to become a ruin itself. Durant borrows the materials and formal language of Smithson’s oeuvre—dirt, mounds, and mirrors—for his work Partially Buried 1960s/70s Dystopia Revealed (Mick Jagger at Altamont) & Utopia Reflected (Wavy Gravy at Woodstock). Durant explores, as the title suggests, the utopic and dystopic shift the two music festivals heralded. Durant parallels this symbolic historical comparison with the way in which Smithson’s Partially Buried Woodshed came to memorialize not only the students who were killed at Kent State, but in many ways the promise of the 1960s, an entropy unto itself.
The exhibition is presented on the third floor, where a selection of books and ephemera on Robert Smithson and some of the historical issues raised by Brogger’s and Durant’s works are available. The exhibition is organized by Michael Green, Curatorial Assistant, and Diana Nawi, Marjorie Susman Curatorial Fellow.