Et in Utah ego: Robert Smithson and the Monuments

Yesterday I went to a great talk by James Meyer, the Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. and author of Minimalism: Art and Polemics in the Sixties (2001) and Minimalism (2010) for Phaidon’s ‘Themes and Movements’ series. (The latter volume has a lot to answer for in terms of kick-starting my interest in thinking of Modern and Contemporary Art in terms of my day job as a Classicist – I’ll get to specifics someday). Meyer was speaking as the keynote of the Ohio State History of Art Graduate Association biannual conference Boundaries of the im|material and his talk was advertised as ‘Bad Entropy’, although he actually spoke about ‘Entropy as Monument’.

The word ‘entropy’ rings a particular bell for anyone interested in Modern and Contemporary art as referencing the work and writings of American artist Robert Smithson, especially his influential 1966 article ‘Entropy and the New Monuments’. Writing about the ‘new kind of monumentality’ of the art of his time – in particular that of Donald Judd, Robert Morris, Sol LeWitt and Dan Flavin – Smithson argues that such artists ‘celebrate what Flavin calls “inactive history” or what the physicist calls “entropy” or “energy drain.” They bring to mind the Ice Age rather than the Golden Age…[and] provide a visible analog for the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which extrapolates the range of entropy by telling us energy is more easily lost than obtained.’ Yet this new monumentality grounded in entropy is also a very fitting description of Smithson’s own work, and this was the focus of Meyer’s talk. He contextualized his interest in Smithson in terms of a new project called ‘Why the Sixties?’ in which he is exploring the meaning of the sixties and early seventies for the art of today. He cited T.J. Clark’s comment in Farewell to an Idea: Episodes in the History of Modernism (2001) that ‘Modernism is our antiquity’ to then transfer it to his own project by stating that ‘the Sixties are our Modernism’. (Interestingly, for me and the focus of this blog, in the Q&A, Meyer corrected a question that characterized his updating of Clark as ‘the Sixties are our Antiquity’ – why make this distancing claim? What would it mean for us to think of the Sixties as our Antiquity? I will have to revisit this in the future, although, for now, see below for what I think Louise Lawler has to say on the matter).

Louis Lawler, Triangle, 2008/2009 Cibachrome face mounted to plexi on museum box 42-3/8 x 42-3/8 inches 105.7 x 105.7 cm (MP# 628)

Meyer focused on Smithson because his interest in our return to the Sixties is exemplified by a return to Smithson. This return comprises of a series of retrospectives in the mid-2000s, as well as Smithson’s conception of the Non-Site supplanting Duchamp’s Readymade at the center of contemporary artistic practices. Smithson is best known for his earthworks, such as Spiral Jetty (see below), the Asphalt rundown pieces and his non-site sculptures, which all radically intervened in and transformed the artistic practices of the late sixties and early seventies, in terms of Minimalism, Conceptual Art and Land Art. 

Robert Smithson Spiral Jetty Rozel Point, Great Salt Lake, Utah
April 1970
mud, precipitated salt crystals, rocks, water coil 1500′ long and 15′ wide
Collection: DIA Center for the Arts,
New York

Meyer’s talk focused on a particularly relevant Smithson entropic monument for his audience – the Partially Buried Woodshed of 1970 at the Kent State campus, fabricated a few months before the Kent State Riots. Meyer’s discussion of some artistic responses to Smithson’s Woodshed (Renée Green, Sam Durrant and Mike Nelson), proved how they were also responding to the Kent State shootings as well. Meyer showed the extent of the impact of this potent nostalgia (if that is even the right term) for these tragic events on Smithson’s work by discussing how the events literarly transformed the Woodshed into a monument by the act of graffiti. (You can just make out ‘MAY 4 KENT 70’ in the photo below).

For the graffiti writers and, now, for us, Smithson’s Woodshed is an entropic monument. Even though it was meant to disintegrate (and it all but has), it offers a memorial to the event that it preceded. Now, there are two points I want to make about Meyer’s talk and Smithson’s entropic monument that, I believe, engage with our discipline of Classics.

At one point in his PowerPoint, Meyer juxtaposed photographs of Trajan’s column in Rome with Smithson’s Woodshed. 

In another slide, Meyer showed Smithson on his 1961 visit to Rome, posing with the remains of the columns of the Temple of Venus and Rome to his left and the Colosseum behind him. Meyer uses his two Roman slides to different, and I would argue, potentially conflicting ends. On the one hand, the juxtaposition of Trajan’s column and the Woodshed is used to argue that unlike the ‘intentional’ monument, made by Trajan (to commemorate Trajan), the Woodshed was an ‘unintentional’ monument – made by Smithson (or ‘unmade’ as it was Smithson who broke the shed’s central beam), but used to memorialize the shootings by the graffiti artist. On the other hand, Meyer uses the next slide of the young Smithson in Rome to ground his argument in a biographical context, by claiming that Smithson’s interest in monumentality – even the entropic monument such as the Woodshed – was grounded in his Roman sojourn. Hence the monuments of Rome both distance (Trajan’s column) and direct (the Colosseum photo) Smithson’s entropic monumentality. I want to expand on this ambiguous use of Rome by Meyer by pulling on a very interesting thread found in Smithson’s writings.

Before turning to Smithson’s writings, I must emphasize that it is well acknowledged in the scholarship on the artist that his writings were not somehow paratextual supports to his work, but were  extensions of his art in themselves. Smithson was well aware of this too, as the wonderful essay ‘A Museum of Language in the Vicinity of Art’ (1968) shows in its treatment of the writings of Donald Judd, Dan Flavin and others as part of their Minimalist work. With this in mind, I want to think about two of Smithson’s writings: ‘A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey’ (1967) and ‘The Spiral Jetty’ (1972). The former, a so-called photowork, is a direct extension of his conception of the new (entropic) monument, as Smithson records his encounters with dumps and wastelands of what he dubs the ‘non-historical past’. Here we encounter ‘The Great Pipe Monument’ or ‘The Bridge Monument Showing Wooden Sidewalks’ (below):

In an ironic comment (and one that acted as a subtitle to the original Artforum essay), Smithson asks: ‘Has Passaic replaced Rome as the Eternal City?’. This question supports Meyer’s ambivalent use of ancient Rome in his talk since the answer it calls for – and demands if we are to see the subject of the essay (and the photowork itself) as itself a work of art – is ‘yes’ (like the unintentional monument of the Woodshed), while the phrasing of the question also maintains Rome’s exemplary and foundational status (like the photo of the young artist at the Colosseum). Indeed, this dual role for ancient Rome is expanded in the other of Smithson’s writings I want to discuss: ‘The Spiral Jetty’. In this essay, Smithson not only describes the evolution and creation of the work in Rozel Point, Salt Lake City, Utah, but also his own encounter with it in a helicopter (for the film that he made of the work which we can use to accompany this written testimony). Here is part of Smithson’s description of the work and his ride to film it:

A withering light swallowed the rocky particles of the spiral, as the helicopter gained altitude. All existence seemed tentative and stagnant. The sound of the helicopter motor became a primal groan echoing into tenuous aerial views. Was I but a shadow in a plastic bubble hovering in a place outside mind and body? Et in Utah ego. I was slipping out of myself again, dissolving into a unicellular beginning, trying to locate the nucleus at the end of the spiral.

Smithson’s punning reference to Poussin’s use of the phrase et in Arcadia ego in his Arcadian Shepherds of 1637-8 (see below – Pouissin also has another work that uses the phrase – nb. not from Virgil’s Eclogues!) does more than preempt the Field of Dreams Iowa/Heaven reference. It locates the conflation of the primal, out of body experience of the helicopter ride (Arcadia) and the site of the jetty (Utah) in the figure of the pun.

Nicolas Poussin Les Bergers d’Arcadie, 1637-8, Musée du Louvre

In fact, Smithson uses language to directly parallel the spiral of the jetty throughout the essay, not only in terms to the wordplay of James Joyce, but also by way of his use of Greek and Latin etymologies. He refers to the fluctuation of scale of the Spiral Jetty as dependent on the viewer that leads to a ‘mental spiral’ and finally to a ‘world that cannot be expressed by number or rationality. Ambiguities are admitted rather than rejected, contradictions are increased rather than decreased – the alogos undermines the logos.’ Midway through this (entropic?) process, Smithson puts the word ‘scale’ through the etymplogical mill (taken from Websters):

Scale skal n. it. or L; it Scala; L scala usually scalae pl., I. a. originally a ladder; a flight of stairsl hence, b. a means o ascent.

Etymological precision enables the transition from the Spiral to its perception; from scale to scalae, in a form of descent that is also an ascent. But where is Smithson gaining his perspective? From the helicopter, which too undergoes etymological deconstruction: ‘from the Greek helix, helikos meaning spiral.’  I would claim that these Classical etymologies are performing the same role for Smithson as the Et in Utah ego pun. They are evoking the ‘roots’ of words to ground them at the same time as showing the instability or even entropy of language itself. Here we are fully immersed in the world of Smithson’s ‘Earthwords’ (to borrow Craig Owens’ already appropriated term); his heaps of language:

Robert Smithson A Heap of Language, 1966. Pencil.

So, where does that leave Smithson’s Rome? I would not want to replace Meyer’s nuanced reading of the ambivalent role ancient Rome plays in Smithson’s conception of the entropic monument with a pedant’s emphasis on his punning and etymologically informed use of Classical reference and language. Instead, I would merely point to that particularly Classicist genre of publication from Hilda Lorimer’s landmark Homer and the Monuments (1950) to Tony Boyle’s Ovid and the Monuments (2004) and beyond, as a potential approach to Smithson that could balance the role of Classicism in his writings in relation to material culture; his language with his art; earthworks with earthwords.

Exegi monumentum aere perennius…

(For more info on Robert Smithson, go to www.robertsmithson.com – from which I have borrowed the images of his works for this post).

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