Rendered Null: A Review of the Robert Smithson Exhibition

June 28th, 2005 · No Comments · Writing

[I wrote the following review when the Smithson retrospective opened at MOCA last fall. Since the show has just opened at the Whitney in New York, I thought I’d dust if off and post it. I haven’t yet seen the show at the Whitney, so I have no idea how the exhibition is handled in that particular space. Check out From the Floor for an up-to-date look at the NYC exhibition.]

The Robert Smithson retrospective at The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles has been widely touted as a successful exhibition, particularly in the West Coast media. The exhibition is an uncannily timed coup, taking advantage of a natural phenomenon — the drought which has lowered the level of the Great Salt Lake, thereby exposing Smithson’s most acclaimed Earthwork, Spiral Jetty, which has been submerged for most of its existence — and this has led to increased public interest and media coverage of the influential artist.

In the face of such a universal climate of praise, I would like to present a contrary viewpoint. Perhaps the media is feeling generous and wishes to champion an artist who has yet to get his reward in the court of acclaim, and their praise is directed toward the subject of the exhibition, and is thus overlooking the success of the exhibition strategy itself. In any case, it is the exhibition that I intend to critique.

Before I begin, I first want to affirm that I believe Robert Smithson is a modern master, a phenomenal and influential artist. His reputation is deserved, and a serious scholarly look at his work is long overdue. Having established that, I want to approach this exhibition not from the position of yet another enthusiastic nodding head, but as a dispassionate reviewer intent on examining the effectiveness of the presentation of his work to the larger public.

In all fairness, putting together this retrospective was not an easy task, as the artist’s work doesn’t lend itself to being showcased in a traditional manner. Smithson himself acknowledged the difficulty of presenting his artwork in a museum setting.

“The Museum tends to exclude any kind of life-forcing position. But it seems that now there’s a tendency to try to liven things up in the museums, and that the whole idea of the museum seems to be tending more toward a kind of specialized entertainment. It’s taking on more and more the aspects of a discotheque and less and less the aspects of art. So I think that the best thing you can say about museums is that they are nullifying in regard to action, and I think that this is one of their major virtues.” Robert Smithson

Smithson’s perspective about museums seems to be crucial to the curatorial strategy of this exhibition, but his above statement doesn’t appear as wall text until the last room of the exhibition, and it is presented in the same size font and above the titular information for his drawing The Museum of the Void, 1966-68. The curator Eugenie Tsai’s whole presentation strategy seems to be informed by Smithson’s observation about the “nullifying” effect of museums.

The complicated nature of presenting the work is also addressed in the foreword to the catalog for the exhibition.

“Some might find it paradoxical the notion of a museum retrospective of Robert Smithson’s work, given the challenge it implicitly issued to museums… And yet an awareness of the art-going public as well as the museum, gallery, and art worlds continued to be integrated into his work. It is in keeping with this awareness that The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (MOCA), has undertaken this retrospective exhibition.”

The curators of the exhibition made a decision to allow the artwork to remain mystifyingly obtuse. In fact, they appear to let Robert Smithson curate the exhibition himself, posthumously, through selected quotes appearing throughout the exhibition as wall text. Unlike exhibitions that allow text to dominate the artwork, this retrospective swings to the other end of the spectrum, electing for non-obtrusive, nondescript markers next to the work.

Along with titles, dimensions and dates, there is often one of these Smithson quotes that seem to be the only narrative imposed on the survey. While helpful in shedding light on the work, there is no context for the quotes, leaving the interested viewer to wonder if Smithson was referring to the work that these quotes appear in relation to and what year and in what context these quotes were made.

The text is also problematic in its lack of information. In many cases, the text for a work that appears in the center of the room is placed next to the text that refers to work that is wall-hung. In many cases, there is no indicator for which text refers to which work.

This is not a chronological retrospective. In fact, the work seems to be curated according to aesthetics more than scholarship. The first room of the exhibition showcases some of the sexiest work in the exhibition: large sculptural pieces from the late 1960s. Drawings and schemas, including a vitrine that holds proposals for the Dallas-Fort Worth Regional Airport Layout Plan, 1966, are on unobtrusive walls. Two of the larger artworks are grouped together by masking tape, making them appear as if they are part of the same artwork.

The curatorial strategy seems to be that each room of the exhibition has sexy work on the most visible wall, drawing the viewer through the galleries with eye-candy, regardless of its relationship to the work around it. While effective and visually compelling, this approach does nothing for educating the viewer about the trajectory of Smithson’s work.

In the second room of the exhibition, drawings that correlate to the Enatiomorphic Chambers, a lovely minimalist wall-hung mirrored sculpture, are relegated to an opposite corner of the room. It is unclear, unless you do a lot of guesswork, that they relate to the finished work that is several artworks removed from the drawings. Even more confusing, the wall text for Enatiomorphic Chambers identifies that it is a “[reconstruction]” but does not explain if that means that Smithson himself built the reconstruction, or if the reconstruction was done by someone else (presumably the museum), using the blueprints and drawings that are on the diagonal wall from the artwork. Included in the documentation for the reconstruction is a schematic for how the piece works optically, but it is unclear whether this is Smithson’s, or a curatorial, explanation. It is the only such schematic in the entire show.

The third gallery holds the most impressive pieces in the exhibition, Smithson’s Nonsites. The presentation here is uninspired, but serviceable. Each floor-based work is surrounded by a square of grey masking tape, and its corresponding wall text is located somewhere on the wall. The Nonsites are presented one right next to the other, though, and the communal display negates the power of the individual works.

Why the curator chose to leave the large space relatively unpartitioned is unclear. A better strategy might have been to create a series of smaller chambers where the individual pieces could be contained therein, similar to the exhibition style of the recent Wolfgang Laib show.

The exhibition seems to want to present the work smorgasbord-style; to overwhelm the viewer with all the stuff that Smithson made. Perhaps this exigency comes from the fact that Tsai is a Smithson scholar, and she is eager to overcompensate for Smithson’s small legacy of completed works. The exhibition would have been far more successful if that tendency had been stifled, and the curators had embraced the smaller catalog of works, and had given each individual work more room to breathe.

The fourth room holds the first video-based work in the exhibition, and it is handled poorly. The room is full of early (1960) intricate ink drawings and a vitrine holding the ephemera from Smithson’s landmark essay Monuments of Passaic, 1967. In the corner of the room on a pedestal a television displays three different videos on a loop. It would take over 30 minutes to watch all three videos, and there is no place to sit down. The way the television is oriented in the corner of the room makes it difficult for more than a handful of people to see it at the same time. As a viewer, there no way of identifying which video is playing at any given time. During my time in the gallery, I observed most people standing in front of the television for only a few seconds before giving up and wandering off.

The next gallery is a viewing room where a documentary of Partially-Buried Shed is playing along with two other films. The wall text outside the viewing room is easy to miss. While this strategy is better than the television in the corner of the room, it is still not enough to warrant staying for the entire run of the films. There are only two benches in the room, and there were crowds of people standing against the walls both times I was there. Most people did not stay for the duration of the films. Why would the curators choose to present three videos in a loop in one room?

The second viewing room holds not a documentary about Smithson’s work, but an actual artwork, Hotel Palenque, 1969. The fact that this is an artwork is not clear until you spend a bit of time deciphering the difficult-to-miss wall text. This work is a series of slides with Smithson’s (presumably, although this is not explicit in the documentation) voice-over. Once more, there are only two benches.
The final two galleries are anti-climatic in comparison to the rest of the show. The first holds Smithson’s oil paintings from 1970-71. It was in this gallery that I found the cryptic wall text to be positively egregious. The paintings were grouped together and the wall text was to both the right and left of the paintings, and it was grouped as well. There was no clear indication which paintings the text referred to, and both times I was there, I witnessed people in a funny dance of confusion: reading the text; hopping over to the painting; hopping back over to the text; then back to the painting, desperately trying to match it up with the text.

The final room holds altered maps, more mirror works, and, finally, the first reference to Smithson’s most well-known work, Spiral Jetty. Despite the fact that this is the first appearance in this exhibition of his famed Earthwork, this room is by no means a grand finale. In fact, the exhibition ends quietly with his aforementioned drawing The Museum of the Void, 1966-68. Only a few drawings and storyboards of Spiral Jetty are included.

The excellent film Smithson made about his masterwork is playing continuously downstairs in the Ahmanson Theater, but there is only one sign that indicates its existence and location. That sign is on red Xeroxed paper in a stand that was pushed against the wall of the hallway by the stairs, and if you weren’t looking, it would be very easy to miss. Once downstairs, there is another Xeroxed sign on the door to the theater that reads “Spiral Jetty Film,” but there is no wall text outside the theater. The film is not presented as a part of the exhibition, but as an addendum to it.

This was perhaps the most nonsensical decision of entire presentation strategy. Was the curator more interested in getting the public to see the lesser known works than in presenting a cohesive and encyclopedic exploration of Smithson’s career?

In comparison to the exhibition, the catalog is a resounding success. By its very nature, Smithson’s work is better suited to a book than an exhibition, and his ideas and works are presented far more comprehensively in this setting. The book is professional, exhaustive, informative and lovely. Ten Smithson scholars weigh in on his body of work, and each essay is elucidative, well written and timely. The editors included several nice touches: an interview with Smithson from 1973 and a catalog of everything that was in his library when he died.

Lush new photographs of his Earthworks are included in the catalog, and they are perfectly placed to inform the included writings. It begs the question: why were these photos left out of the exhibition?

Robert Smithson had a complicated relationship with the institutional art world, even as he knew that no artist could survive without a certain level of deference to it. Perhaps a museum isn’t the best way to experience Smithson’s work, but it is in the books and landscape he loved.

Category: Writing

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