Last fall a groundbreaking exhibition at Princeton University Art Museum, “New Jersey as Non-Site,” showed how the Garden State’s elevated highways, pastoral ruins, toxic bodies of water, and industrial waste provided fertile ground for avant-garde artists in the 1950s. Robert Smithson’s “non-sites” gave inspiration to the exhibition title.
“Smithson’s non-sites reference work somewhere else,” said Princeton University Art Museum’s curator of contemporary art Kelly Baum at the time. “The works are meant to establish a relationship outside a gallery or museum.” Using “non-site” in the exhibition title was deliberately irreverent, undermining the New Jersey stereotypes. “The negative perception of the state fascinated artists (like Smithson) who sought the typical cultural wasteland as a destination.”
Smithson’s non-sites were maps, or “landmarkers” constructed from natural materials he chose from remote, unpopulated areas, or the ruins of collapsed buildings. The materials could be brought into the gallery, placed in constructed bins with maps, or situated within mirror formations.
“I began in a very primitive way taking trips in 1965; certain sites would appeal to me more — sites that had been in some way disrupted … pulverized,” Smithson (1938-1973) wrote. “I was really looking for a denaturalization rather than built up scenic beauty.”
The Montclair Art Museum is exhibiting “Robert Smithson’s New Jersey” through Sunday, June 22, exploring the ties to his home state.
When the Montclair Art Museum opened in 1914, Childe Hassam and others were painting views of the landscape we now consider traditional but were at the time cutting edge. Works by Ralph Albert Blakelock and Charles Warren Eaton, more concerned with interpreting, rather than depicting, nature, paved the way for Smithson. Many decades later, Smithson reflected the ravages of industrialization, suburban sprawl, and loss of bucolic areas.
The Montclair Art Museum is only 15 minutes from where Smithson was raised, in Clifton and Rutherford. One of the main sites to inspire Smithson was Great Notch Quarry in Little Falls. With a deep interest in geology and mineralogy, Smithson was an avid rock hunter. As a child he would prowl the quarries near Paterson, which become embedded in his psyche, and collected bugs, fossils, seashells. He loved to visit the Museum of Natural History in Manhattan, whose skyline he could see from Passaic. He wrote extensively about New Jersey and rock hunting, noting the juxtaposition of the state’s suburbs and New York City skyline visible from the Upper Montclair Quarry cliffs. Smithson referred to the highways as “man-made geological networks.”
“Smithson replaced that naturalized, unitary, two-dimensional pastoral view of New Jersey with three-dimensional, multi-faceted conceptions to show his perception of a postwar, suburban-industrial Garden State,” writes Montclair Museum chief curator Gail Stavitsky in the exhibition catalog. New York-based art critic — and author of Modern Master Series publication “George Segal” — Phyllis Tuchman co-curated.
He was associated with pioneering minimalists Sol LeWitt, Donald Judd, Dan Flavin, Robert Morris, and others. While their structures had smooth, sleek surfaces, and were mostly industrially fabricated, Smithson assembled geometric abstractions from limestone, trap rock, broken concrete, sand, metal bins, photostats, maps, mirrors, and instamatic photographs. He did not paint, photograph, or in any way replicate views of the great outdoors.
“The earth to me isn’t nature, but a museum,” he said. “My idea relates to man and matter rather than man and nature.”
A founder of the art form known as earthworks, or land art, Smithson’s most famous work, “Spiral Jetty,” in Great Salt Lake, Utah — “one of the key works of the 20th century,” says Tuchman — was constructed in 1970 and has been compared to serpents, an ear, and crystals. The 1,500-foot long, 15-foot wide coil made of mud, salt crystals, rock, and water juts from the shore of the lake, and ebbs and flows of the water level alter the visibility of the jetty.
With “Spiral Jetty,” Smithson achieved his goal of putting the sculpture in the land, rather than on it. Earthworks were a radical departure from making artwork in the formal setting of a gallery.
“During all the years he traveled back and forth between Rutherford and Clifton and New York, there was a moment when Smithson rode on a curve and looked out of the windows of cars and buses and saw a big blue sky,” says Tuchman. “That’s essentially the experience he repeatedly had on the helix, the ramp, considered an engineering marvel of its time, on the Garden State side of the Lincoln Tunnel. When he built ‘Spiral Jetty,’ Smithson practically came full circle.” It serves as a coda to his New Jersey period, she adds.
Growing up, Smithson’s father worked for a spark plug manufacturer. His mother was a homemaker, and his pediatrician was poet and doctor William Carlos Williams. His drawings included one of a brontosaurus that hung in his school.
After World War II, but before Eisenhower’s Federal Highway Act, the family drove across America, visiting the Badlands, Yellowstone National Park, the Redwood Forest, and the Grand Canyon. Smithson enjoyed reading maps and collecting souvenirs and made a miniature theater to display postcards to classmates. When his father was promoted to vice president of a mortgage company, the family moved to a more upscale neighborhood, and his father helped to build a “Museum of Natural History” in their basement. It was stocked with fossils, insects, reptiles, and artifacts from the area or purchased on family trips.
Photographs show his family homes, collecting trips and young Smithson as a Boy Scout. While in high school Smithson began studying with the Art Students League, and after high school he joined the U.S. Army to take advantage of a special services art program, then becoming artist-in-residence and honorably discharged shortly after his year of basic training.
With friends he hitchhiked across the country and to Mexico, and when returning to New York painted as an Abstract Expressionist, hanging out at the Cedar Tavern. Before he thought of making Earthworks, he explored the ocher-colored fissures and crevices of Canyon de Chelly National Monument in Arizona and New Mexico.
During the 1950s he exhibited his paintings, including in Rome, and had enough success to persevere as an artist, influenced by Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman, Willem de Kooning, Jean Dubuffet, and Robert Rauschenberg.
In 1959 he became intrigued with the “New Images of Man” exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art and began developing works concerning doomsday. After a period of reading and drawing, Smithson began creating assemblages and exhibited along with Donald Judd, Dan Flavin and Sol LeWitt. In 1963 he married artist Nancy Holt, a collaborator.
“Once Smithson began making New Jersey-themed art, he quickly arrived at a state of consistent mastery,” writes Tuchman. “For the first time, whether he was making sculpture, taking photographs, drawing or shooting a film, everything was one of a piece.. With images that related to crystallography and mapping.”
Making field trips to sites near Rutherford, Passaic, and Clifton, Smithson wrote “I was interested in a kind of suburban architecture: plain box buildings, shopping centers, that kind of sprawl.” He found the Meadowlands “a good location for a movie about life on Mars” and sought other New Jersey sites that resembled interplanetary or primordial landscapes.
Smithson’s ideas are expressed in drawings, projects and proposals, sculpture, earthworks, films and critical writings.
Among the more than 60 works on view are “Suburbia,” a grid of 18 color photographs of the hardscapes of concrete landings, bridge trusses, tanks of fluid, and loading docks; various bins of rocks and gravel (some of these will look familiar to visitors of “New Jersey as Non-Site”); drawings; film stills; and cut-up maps. There is the film he collaborated with Holt on, “Swamp,” as well as some of his broken mirror sculptures. Photographic and handwritten documentation accompany these works.
Smithson’s life was cut short by a plane crash in 1973 — he was only 35. “Smithson repeatedly was called a visionary,” writes Tuchman. He “turned the conventions of landscape art upside down.”
New Jersey was as integral to his art as Maine was to Winslow Homer and Chadds Ford was to Andrew Wyeth.
Robert Smithson’s New Jersey, Montclair Art Museum, 3 South Mountain Avenue, Montclair. Through Sunday, June 22. $10 to $12. Free during first Thursdays evening extended hours. montclairartmuseum.org or 973-746-5555.