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 Miranda and 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.

This holds true for that work today, but Flick’s road to this successful strategy turns out not to have been as abrupt (or effortless) as first impressions suggest. In “Trajectories,” LACMA’s retrospective of the USC stalwart’s photography from the late ’60s on, Flick’s later work emerges as the pinnacle of a studied evolution from tightly designed Weston-influenced prints to conjecturally generated samplings of an essentially performative relationship to the landscape. Born in the Netherlands in 1939, Flick made his home in the East Indies and British Columbia before eventually settling down in Los Angeles.

“Trajectories follows a series of exquisitely composed still shots of parking garages and empty fields for a considerable time before Flick’s seemingly innocuous couplings of disparate pictures first begin. From the start, the work seems to be groping for ways to make sense of the L.A. experience, and pairing generally incongruent images into a boiled-down dyadic narrative seemed to flip a switch for Flick. His grids multiplied outward, and he experimented with different ways of dealing with the implicit narrative of a comic-strip structure filled with slightly varied images of an ocean, a city or a desert. In some of these experiments, Flick nails the exquisite flip-flop between experimental sequential narrative and immediate visual bang. His move into even less controllable, socially risqué (at least in darkroom country) digital media was courageous, but paid off. The Western textual scanning (left to right, top to bottom) imposed by Flick’s claustrophobic panorama strips directs the eye in a strict progression that seems to belie the serendipitous, jittery overall compositions that emerge from the accumulation of aleatory frames. And his almost exclusive focus on the urban L.A. landscape gave the work an urgency and, perversely, a universality that his nature photo grids didn’t approach.

For Angelenos, Flick’s work possesses the same familiarity as TV advertising (the Second Street tunnel) and home movies (an infinity of multi-unit facades). Site-specific audience participation continues to be a controversial cutting-edge formula in the contemporary art world, and although this further layer of interactive narrative only surfaces for people who have driven around L.A. for a few years, it can’t be discounted, as its semi-intentionality and the rhythm of attention shifting in and out of a personal memory mode mesh seamlessly with the photo grids’ other formal and conceptual hooks.

The final work in the show, At Cambria, is an atypical triptych of large grids of minimal, subtly modulating seascape photos. Situated in an appropriately bench-provided gallery, they are immersive, healing and rigorously formal. The inescapable overall narrative implied is that Flick has moved beyond his engagement with ctual and sensually slowed-down roots. But even if these works weren’t so clearly established as having emerged from the most direct, empirical, unsentimental confrontation with the world (through a lens) of which the artist was capable, they embody all the formally complex and socially and politically ambivalent history that led up to their creation. The fact that they lead us to such a serene and contemplative space is totally bonus.

Robert Smithson | MOCA, 250 S. Grand Ave., Los Angeles | Through December 13

Trajectories: The Photographic Work of Robbert Flick LACMA, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles | Through January 9

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