Robert Smithson, like many artists of this century, was concerned with exploring the limits of art. In his own words, “The major issue now in art is what are the boundaries. For too long artists have taken the canvas and stretchers as given, the limits.” He experimented with conventional drawings and sculpture techniques, as well as with various types of earthworks, and eventually arrived at a three-part format for his own artistic expression. Most of Smithson’s works, from 1968-69 until his death in 1973 consisted of drawings, sites and non-sites.
I. Drawings Smithson was not concerned with making drawings that would stand on their own as works of art. His drawings are vigorous, rough, and purposefully lack virtuosity. They are not intended for aesthetic pleasure, but as an aid to the imagination. Smithson used them as working tools to help him imagine various possible combinations of materials and sites, and as such they give us some insight into his imagination.
Although size and scale are of the utmost importance in Smithson’s completed earthworks, his drawings rarely include any clues as to what the intended scale might be. For instance, he never included human figures which might have provided some scale for spatial measure.
Because Smithson was concerned with expanding the boundaries of what is considered to be art, he was careful not to allow his drawings too important a place in his oeuvre. He used them, instead, as plans both for earthwork sites and for non-site exhibitions.
II Sites For Smithson, making sculpture out of the landscape was both a rejection of art historical formulas and an attempt to take art out of the exclusive gallery and museum world. By using all of nature as his studio, Smithson thought he could do away with the status of art as a commodity and make it more direct and immediate.
In was in these outdoor sites that Smithson came closest to achieving these goals. However, the sites themselves are usually so inaccessible that few people ever actually see the works. The site of the Cayuga Salt Company mine is documented in Mirror Displacement by a geological map of the Cayuga Lake Region, and by photographs taken in 1969 at the time of the original work. At that time, twelve mirrors, each twelve inches square, were placed in and around the mine and allowed to reflect their environment at random. Several of them were broken by shifting rocks; others had the unexpected man-made look of primitive artifacts when seen in their disordered natural setting.
Smithson’s choice of a salt mine for this work is typical of his love of places which show evidence of both geological and technological corrosion. Since he knew that his own art was destined to disintegrate, he planned earthworks to be monuments to entropy and chose sites for them that emphasized their inevitable dissolution.
III Non-Sites To solve the problem of the inaccessibility of the sites of his earthworks, Robert Smithson also did gallery exhibitions, or non-sites. In this more conventional art setting, he tried to convey some of the same feeling of disordered, chaotic nature which was expressed in his outdoor earthworks.
Smithson found, however, that he was far more tied to visual art conventions when working within a gallery space. Although the rock salt used in the works now on exhibit is the same material he used in the mine, the pieces here have a far more traditional sculptural appearance. The mirrors, which remain perfectly rectangular in the protected environment of the gallery, act as visual references to the conventional shapes of paintings. Smithson recognized this reference and accepted it as inevitable.
In Mirror Displacement, the non-site was first constructed, according to Smithson’s instructions, at the Andrew Dickson White Museum of Art, Cornell University, 1969.
-text from the exhibition wall labels