Lofting It

Micky Donnelly

“So they (collectors) get an in to a sort of cultural control, and the artist is just a hapless producer who is constantly making these things for this privileged value. That’s why I say the artist is alienated from the value of his work. Somebody else is determining his value for him. This artists take for granted. Their compensation is that they’re spiritual, they’re pure, they’re mad, you know, any number of mythologies.” Robert Smithson – from a conversation with Bruce Kurtz

Whether we like it or not, New York City, or more specifically, Manhattan Island, has become the Mecca of contemporary artists everywhere. Art capital of the world, it boasts of its achievements in a way that no other city does. Physical apotheosis of the grid, when seen from above it takes on a crystalline structure that somehow threatens to burst apart. At street level it sustains and contains an anarchic energy that continually threatens to boil over with every rise in temperature. In the summer, people literally head for the hills. Around 1890 the first limitations on immigration were imposed on the city, barring Chinese, sick people, madmen and anarchists – New York now contains an abundance of all four.

Visually, the city is incredible. The twin towers (Joseph Beuys’ adopted “Cosmos and Damian”) of the World Trade Center dominate the southern skyline. Ultimate symbols of the marriage between Capitalism and Modernism, they stand 1,350 feet high with 43,600 windows between them. From a roof-top observation deck open to the public, Building No. 2 provides the exhilarating opportunity of viewing the city as an “organic” whole. Down below, lurking in the giant shadows, the sculptures in the Center’s plaza don’t stand a chance. Most public sculpture in New York suffers a similar fate, as does a lot of the more “historic” architecture. Throughout the city the new gleaming totems of progress are rising above everything else, including St. Patrick’s Cathedral, a gothic undertaking which sits cheerfully between rows of skyscrapers. New York was probably the first place where God was dwarfed by Commerce, but, in this case, God somehow manages to hold his own.

Right in the middle of Manhattan, island of concrete, steel and glass, lies Central Park, named in the pragmatic American fashion. It, too, somehow holds its own against its surroundings, probably because of its huge size, which is amazing given the fact that it’s a man-made park. It was designed and built by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux in the 1850’s, with the assistance of 3,600 men and 400 horses. Ten million cartloads of earth (more than the 30 million cubic feet moved from the site of the World Trade Centre) were shifted and moulded to the specifications of the designers in order to transform what was then a man-made wasteland into New York’s greatest, and most popular, work of art.

Which brings us to Robert Smithson, who supplied some of the above facts in his intriguing essay “Frederick Law Olmsted and the Dialectical Landscape”, and who, more than anyone else, was responsible for the reclaiming of Central Park as a model for public art. Considering the fact that Central Park is entirely man-made (with a bit of help from nature) it seems somehow more feasible to accept Smithson’s assertion that New York City is as natural as the Grand Canyon. As might be assumed from such a statement, Smithson’s philosophical relationship to nature was deliberately precarious and hedged by contradictions – he pursued a sort of ironic realism that seemed to posit all forms of behaviour (except perhaps stasis) as ultimately “natural”.

Since his death in 1973 in a plane crash while working on his last earth-work piece, Amarillo Ramp, Smithson has become something of a mythical figure in American art, some-one made “equal” to the likes of Jackson Pollock by the posthumous status attached to his work and ideas. This, however, does not necessarily mean anything (myths are two-a-penny in the art world) except that his ideas were probably little accepted while he was alive and are now somehow more accessible, thus making him a candidate for the dubious position of “genius”, a man “ahead of his times”. He was, at least, an extremely intelligent and committed artist who produced a body of work totally grounded in the “spirit” of its own times, and therefore historically relevant (in the sense of addressing pertinent issues), while remaining “original” or “innovative” in its formal means. He also had published, in various art journals, a series of essays and polemical statements (recently re-published as “The Writings of Robert Smithson”)1 – which are, to my mind, nothing less than profound in their implications, especially in the little-discussed area of “public” art and its possible relation to nature.

His retrospective show at the WhitneyMuseum of American Art during March / April 1982 seemed appropriate at this time, both as a considered look at his artistic achievement and also to emphasise by indirect means the enormous drift in the last few years towards non- or anti-intellectual art, mostly in the form of the new “expressionistic” painting. The fact that this show will represent the U.S.A. at this year’s Venice Biennale might indicate that some-one somewhere has not been totally mesmerised by the ubiquitous “New Image” painting at present flooding the international art-market. (Artforum, May 1982, is interesting in this respect – American “Conceptualists” have come out of hiding to testify on their own behalf in reaction against the current failure of criticism to cope with this so-called “New Painting”).

The show at the Whitney included some little-known examples of Smithson’s earlier work, demonstrating his preoccupation with hard, “crystalline” forms and reflective surfaces. His Mirror / Vortex pieces, with their multiple images collapsing in on themselves, are direct visual analogues for the kind of convoluted meanings that Smithson was attempting to capture in his work around 1964 / 66 – meanings always subverted in the end by their own logical extension into absurdity. Alogon No. 1 and No. 2 and Plunge showed how his subsequent use of minimal, serial forms was also complicated by an unexpected “irrational” perceptual factor which seemed to distort both the internal scale of the works and the “feel” of the surrounding space. In more than one sense, Smithson delighted in the use of contradictory elements – illusion and reality, rationality and irrationality, organic and inorganic, history and fantasy. A whole body of works were based on the “dialectic” of Site and Non-Site, using constructed Non-Sites in the gallery to refer to the properties of specific Sites in the landscape. This was a rather contrived opposition (and a lot of the Non-Sites look totally contrived), but one which led to the more sophisticated notions of the “dialectical landscape”, discussed in the essay on Olmsted’s construction of Central Park. This sculpture / landscape interaction was embodied most successfully in Smithson’s own work by the famous Spiral Jetty of 1970 and the Broken Circle / Spiral Hill built at Emmen, Holland in 1971. The Jetty is now underwater and may or may not surface again from the Great Salt Lake, covered in salt crystals which will dissolve and disappear in the first rain – the sculpture has merged with the landscape in a shifting pattern of change, just as Smithson wanted it. Considering his enormous effort to escape the “cultural confinement” of museums, it seemed ironic that these works, and the other earth works completed by Smithson before he died, were represented in the show by colour photographs contained in one small room.

Generally, the work shown, including a selection of drawings, provided evidence of a protean sensibility guided by a powerful intellectual stringency. Above all, Smithson was an artist determined not to be trapped in any one aesthetic system or “fraudulent category”, nor in what he called the art-world “apparatus the artist is threaded through”.This show, accompanied by an excellent book2 about his sculpture, proved that, myth or no myth, Smithson raised important issues in his art that have yet to be resolved – at the time of his death he was involved in plans for huge land-reclamation projects, with a totally unprecedented used of aesthetics as ecology (or vice-versa), which now seem less realisable but even more necessary.

Another artist whose work has attracted its fair share of mythical overtones is Richard Serra, who, incidentally, helped to complete the Amarillo Ramp after Smithson’s death. Serra is famous for his use of extremely heavy and precariously situated pieces of sculpture, which, in the past, have been indirectly responsible for at least one death (two, according to rumour). This, coupled with his uncompromising attitude towards public sculpture (which has involved direct criticism of other sculptors’ work) and also the fact that he has had so many prestigious commissions in that field, has left him with a rather unwelcome reputation as a public menace. The story seems to be that someone who builds such big, “ugly”, heavy sculptures deserves all he gets in the way of abuse, because he can’t be very sensitive in the first place. In fact, posters declaring “Kill Serra” are said to have been stuck onto his two permanent sculptures in Manhattan. These huge rusting arcs of steel placed in public areas are meant to articulate their surrounding urban space and heighten an awareness of the visual relationships between the architectural forms, and various other “incidentals”, in the close vicinity. In this respect, the sculpture I visited at the Holland Tunnel Exit simply did not work, and I wasn’t at all surprised that the general public hated it.

On the other hand, his installation during April at Leo Castelli’s Greene St. gallery (one of three Casteili galleries, getting smaller but plusher as they step up-town) was a total success, apart from the title. Called Marilyn Munroe – Greta Garbo (A Sculpture for Gallery Goers), it was obviously intended to emphasise, in a gallery situation, the type of response to the surrounding space that he is trying to get in his public sculpture. Two long, 10 feet high and 2 inch thick, corten-steel arcs were somehow installed in the gallery (the floor had to be reinforced to take the weight), curving in towards the centre of the space from the four corners. The rusting steel arcs were supported solely by their own weight and curvature (one was much narrower in curvature than the other), and part of the drama of the piece was in the (mistaken) impression that they could easily be toppled.

Walking through the constricted, hour glass shape at the centre, where space seemed to “roll” in and out again, and going through the narrower curved space at one side induced a sort of darkening, passage-like feeling. This was strongly contrasted by the sudden opening out of the wider space on the other side, which was better lit and seemed momentarily to expand away from you both physically and optically. It was a very strange but thoroughly enjoyable sensation, not easily described in words, but something similar to stepping into a sunny clearing from a dark wood; people kept bobbing back and forth round the corner section as if they couldn’t quite get a focus on the unfamiliar shifts in physical perception. There was something almost acoustic about the experience of moving in the gallery space; and, on another level, the sensuous shifts of colour in the rust-patina of the steel encouraged a closer look, so that, at a certain distance, the total physicality of the piece seemed to dematerialise into a “floating” surface.

So, it appeared that from a tough combination of wilful determination and immense physical effort (plus immense cost) Serra had managed to create a subtle and sensitising work of art that somehow left an unusual after-impression – a sort of half-remembered synaesthetic image-feeling of weight and lightness, contraction and expansion.

Another installation which left a strangely persistent impression was Noel Harding’s Scenic Events On A Path Of Upheaval, shown at the 49th Parallel on West Broadway (April-May). It sounds corny but the central focus of the installation was a box full of lettuce moving on wheels back and forth across the gallery floor. It was pulled by a red rope which travelled on pulleys right round the gallery and also pulled a small speaker back and forth across the ceiling. As the lettuce approached, the speaker moved away, trailing its electric lead in jerky movements while playing a quiet mixture of birdsong and percussion music. Along the side and back walls hung a huge length of clear polythene, holding a thin tunnel of water in which dozens of goldfish swam. Other features of the installation were transparent polythene sheets hung at either end of the gallery, and some coloured lights with leaf like shapes projected onto a side wall and changing slowly through time.

This sounds corny as well, but it struck me as one of the most delightful pieces of work I’d ever seen. First impressions were of intricate visual movement and subtle rhythms, and the various elements seemed carefully considered to produce a pleasant and novel effect.The whole thing was so well put together and so immediately enjoyable that the more sinister associations implied by the title took some time to register. Here indeed were “scenic events” – goldfish swimming about lazily, colour movements like light changing in the trees outside a window, a kind of child’s trolley being pulled about – but a sort of Sisyphean quality became apparent, a futile shuffling backwards and forwards. Even worse, there was no food for the goldfish in their tunnel and the lettuce would soon wilt in its little box of soil.

Given free association I would probably have assumed that the “upheaval” must be some projected ecological disaster – no more fish, no more sun and salad, no more birdsong and music, nothing but a plastic environment. However, I read the catalogue which informed me that the piece was about the “landscape of personal pleasure we all move through” in our “domesticated systems (garden vegetables, animal pets, petroleum transformed into plastic)”, and that it was made in response to the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, with the possible international repercussions in mind. It thus became a “collage of ordinary things suddenly isolated from their contexts and made bright and precious by the darkness of aggression and possible impending disaster.”

Part of the success of the piece was that, even with the Falklands dispute at hand as a possible surrogate background-crisis, it transcended any literal interpretation in this sense, but still managed to convey the feeling, in a poetic way, of how fragile our daily pleasures can be.

Harding had another installation on show which seemed rather dull and introverted by comparison with Scenic Events…, as did a lot of the art to be seen in New York. It seems that, for all the resources available in the world’s wealthiest city, most art there, as everywhere, tends towards mediocrity – even when it’s given the big push in the opposite direction.

“Italian Art Now” at the Guggenheim Museum (April – June) promised to be both interesting and entertaining given the international enthusiasm over recent Italian art, but, in the event, it was a bit of a drag. I enjoyed seeing Gilberto Zorio’s Star (To Purify Words) and some of Sandro Chia’s and Enzo Cucchi’s paintings, but most of the work in the show looked shoddy or pretentious. It was interesting to note that Francesco Clemente, top Italian star on the international scene, was not included for some reason – the internal politics of the art-machine are difficult to fathom.

As a sculptor I’m probably biased but I couldn’t help thinking that two of Cucchi’s paintings. The Mad Painter and Battle of the Regions symbolised the problem with painting at the moment i.e. it is being misrepresented by crazy Germans, Italians and Yanks trying to out-do each other in funkiness / punkiness, while artists in other countries scramble for the bandwagon.

Some of the crazy Yanks were represented as the latest development in “Focus on The Figure: Twenty Years” at the Whitney Museum of American Art (April – June). This, as a “historical” show, was official recognition if any was needed that the figure is now back in business. The crazies, particularly Julian Schnabel and David Salle, were the main attractions for their sheer verve, although Jim Nutt, Ed Paschke, and Jonathan Borofsky gave them a run for their money in the histrionics-and-anxiety stakes. Willem de Kooning was also represented by two works and proved that, at one time, he could handle anxiety-in-paint better than any of them, although painterly anxiety now takes second place to imaged anxiety.

By way of contrast, it seems worth mentioning a refreshingly anxiety free piece of work shown at Max Hutchinson gallery during April. Robert Stackhouse’s installation, Herevolutions, was impressive in a kind of honest, stand-up manner – no irony, no tricks. It had a gentle, floating, “multi dimensional” feel to it, achieved by suspending two boat-like forms from the ceiling, casting shadows from them at certain angles, and painting “silhouetted” boat shapes in different colours on the walls. There were also some large, and very attractive, drawings of different types of boats, with an emphasis on the evolution of the boat in both history and mythology, including the personal “mythology” of the artist’s own work.

The vague archetypal / mythological connections that Stackhouse uses in his work seem, initially, to be divorced from our present social reality. However, their psychological impact cannot be denied, and their (quite common) use in contemporary art seems to imply a kind of nostalgia for older and more “honest” cultural and symbolic forms – something almost “universal” that everyone can relate to. Whether or not totalled archetypal symbols are products of common cultural conditioning, they often occur in dreams; and, indeed, dream analogies have been used to describe Stackhouse’s previous work. In this installation one of the problems was that it felt more museum-like than dream like, although some of the drawings contained unusual dream like passages.

In common with most of the other work discussed here, Stackhouse’s piece demonstrated a tendency towards a richness of association and a broadening field of enquiry that seems infinitely more healthy than the “reductivist” attitudes still present in a lot of American art. These attitudes are unfortunately not confined to the Formalist camp, now receding, but were also evident, albeit in a different manner, in some of the self-styled Political art to be seen in New York.

Direct political comment in art seems to be necessary in certain contexts (as in the Anti-Nuclear Show in Parsons School of Design during April) but to deliberately reduce art to political sloganeering, or even to literal political commentary, would be disastrous. In the land of ultra-consumerism, fast food, eternal T.V., sports cults, and media hype, a well-informed, penetrating and sophisticated type of thinking is becoming more and more necessary to stay relatively sane. The political chichi is anathema to this kind of thinking, but will no doubt continue to be used universally for its emotive potential.

If art has any real function at all, it is to provide a model or models, grounded in social realities, for such a type of thinking. Some of the problems and some of the possibilities are indicated briefly in the work mentioned in this report. There were literally hundreds of other shows in New York; I saw a fair percentage of them and most were pretty uninspiring. It was obvious that what’s needed in New York, like everything else, is an art which is penetrating in its insights, broad in its implications, and public in whatever way possible. In this respect, it seems appropriate to let Robert Smithson have the last word …

“The artist must come out of the isolation of galleries and museums and provide a concrete consciousness for the present as it really exists,, and not present abstractions or utopias.. .Art should not be considered as merely a luxury, but should work within the processes of production and reclamation . . . Artists should not be cheated out of doing their work, or forced to exist in the isolation of ‘art worlds’.”

from a Proposal1972

1 “The Writings of Robert Smithson” Edited by Nancy Holt, New York University Press 1979

2 “Robert Smithson: Sculpture” by Robert Hobbs, Cornell University Press 1981


This article was originally published in CIRCA Issue #5 in August 1982