By Catherine Wagley
By Catherine Wagley
By Wendy Gilmartin
By Jennifer Swann
By Claire de Dobay Rifelj
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Catherine Wagley
By Zachary Pincus-Roth
I’m as big a fan of Robert Smithson as anyone. When I was in undergraduate art school doing the mandatory recapitulation of the history of modern art, Spiral Jetty — Smithson’s signature fiddlehead scrawl on the beachfront of the Great Salt Lake — was one of a handful of early-’70s artworks that seemed to blow open the accepted possibilities of art, portending an era when all our preconceptions about identity, art, society, perception — life itself — would be drastically reconfigured in new and liberating ways. Psych! Of course, it isn’t entirely Smithson’s fault that he got saddled with this baggage, but his plane-crash death in 1973 pretty much cemented him as a geeky hepcat martyr for an embattled (and soon co-opted) genre — the Buddy Holly of post-studio art.
Nevertheless, the impression I get from MOCA’s "Robert Smithson" exhibit — the first comprehensive career survey in America — is of a canny, ambitious and gifted visual artist who worked hard (and eventually succeeded) at becoming an Important Figure making Significant Contributions in the context of Art History. This doesn’t diminish his accomplishments as an artist in any way, but it goes a long way in explaining what a big deal art-world insiders make of it all — Smithson was working a set of expectations about the trajectory of modern art that was dear to the hearts of Artforum subscribers and MFA-program designers alike. So much has been said and written about Smithson’s earthworks over the years that actual slag piles and mirrors have become obscured by a dense fog of theory. Coupled with the fact that many of them are physically remote and/or decayed, this makes them — literally and figuratively — very hard to see. Unless you were to make the pilgrimage to the boondocks of Utah and have an actual close encounter, any contact with Smithson’s legacy has been pretty much an experience of open-and-shut textbook reverence. Happily, the MOCA show’s very comprehensiveness strips away much of the conventional wisdom about Smithson and allows us to see his work with fresh eyes.
The most revelatory parts of the exhibit are Smithson’s early work, dating back to his high school days commuting from Jersey to study at the Art Students League and hang at the Cedar Bar. Sweet woodcuts of juvenile delinquency morph into abstract-expressionist landscapes, stream-of-consciousness doodles, and goofy homoerotic collages. Smithson made a go of Ab-Ex for several years before lack of recognition and his own intellectual restlessness led him further afield, where he smoothly absorbed poppier influences from Jasper Johns to Warhol to the more flamboyant strain of Finish Fetish. Works like 1964’s Homage to Carmen Mirandaand Malibu are West Coast eye candy at its finest, and, though it must have seemed embarrassing juvenilia in the highly serious ’70s art world, an indication of the bicoastal currency that would reappear through the remainder of his brief career.
A major factor in the show’s success is this retroactive identification of aspects of Smithson’s more celebrated oeuvres — and, after the candy-apple Donald Juddisms of 1964-65, he begins on a rising arc of minimalist fame and iconic familiarity. Among the surprises are a sort of Jungian alchemical symbol and color vocabulary rooted in Catholicism that carries straight through to his last works. Another is how pot-addled (in the best way) they are, much like his esteemed writings. But nothing is quite the monkey wrench that the proto-psychedelic beefcake of 1963’s Untitled (Second Stage Injector) — which would look cutting-edge in the next Whitney Biennial — throws into the mechanism of Smithson’s stardom among beleaguered macho sculptors (who, in spite of their nonverbal tendencies, also hold Smithson to be something of a messiah).
The same collage also reveals Smithson’s tremendous — though sly, dry and idiosyncratic — sense of humor, otherwise most evident in his slide lectures, interviews and films. All of these experimental media are well-represented in the exhibition, but hindsight also casts a humanizing glow forward in time to reanimate the iconic geometric sand piles etc. that make up the rest of the show. The effect of this new, improved, fleshed-out persona is to redeem Smithson’s work, take it from its lofty art-historical credibility down to a realm where it can be confronted on its own intellectual, sensual and spiritual terms. And not fade away.
Fade up On the stuttering, organically digitized visual experience that is L.A. freeway driving frozen into a tight (though almost random) grid, a sequence lifted from the Southland’s endless commuteography and rendered by Robbert Flick into a simultaneous narrative artifact. When I first ran across his intricate sequential photoworks — mosaiclike compressions of Flick’s automotive peregrinations, in which he zigzagged the Thomas Guide with a tripod-mounted video camera pointed out the driver’s side, then edited the results into dazzling horror-vacuii contact sheets — I was impressed with the seemingly effortless sociopolitical and formal impact the work delivered. By merely mimicking the structure of staccato overlapping glimpses of the Los Angeles landscape that constitute a drive down the Alameda Corridor, Pico Boulevard or the Rose Bowl parade route, Flick has been able to capture the social, economic and architectural extremes of L.A. life in a form that is as unexpectedly opulent as it is engagingly plot-driven.
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