Down to Earth

Down to Earth

Robert Smithson in Texas
By Leigh Arnold, Amy Von Lintel, Elyse Goldberg, and Maxwell Anderson
Estate of Robert Smithson and James Cohan Gallery, $25


The artist Robert Smithson famously wanted to move beyond the constraints imposed by gallery walls and pushed into the open air and Earth Art movement in the late 1960s. He was particularly drawn to the 360-degree view corridors of the American West—spaces very different from the deteriorating cities of his native New Jersey and New York City. Here, in uninhabited and remote locations, he created large earthworks like his 1970 Spiral Jetty in Utah’s Great Salt Lake.

But what is lesser known are the four works he created for various prairie and gulf locations in Texas; these are highlighted in the catalogue accompanying the Dallas Museum of Art exhibition Robert Smithson in Texas.

The best known of these projects—and the only one completed—is a 1973 companion sculpture to the Spiral Jetty called Amarillo Ramp. Unfortunately, he died in a plane crash when supervising its construction.

Even lesser known fact: In 1966, he was commissioned to develop concepts for terminal buildings at Dallas-Fort Worth Regional Airport and a large scale earthwork to be installed at the airport fringes.

Most of the catalogue is devoted to Amarillo Ramp and Richard Serra, Tony Shafrazi, and Nancy Holt’s construction on it after Smithson’s death.

But Leigh Arnold, who authored the catalogue, claimed that the airport plan had “far-reaching implications for the artist, leading him to establish new art forms: the concept of aerial art, which became the precursors to his large-scale earthworks.” In fact, Smithson worked on the project as a consultant with the project engineers to “rethink the various meanings behind the idea of a terminal.” He pushed them to think about structures as “incremental units, or crystalline structures” that reflected a “lingering influence of minimalist sculpture.” The project made Smithson think about peripheries and how to communicate these edges to the center of a project. Arnold also claims that this center-periphery dialectic referred to New York as the center of the art world. He proposed mounting cameras that would relay images of the edge to the terminal center.

Many of the earth forms that would make their way into Smithson’s work—wandering earth mounds, asphalt spirals, and gravel paths—were used in the design. The catalogue highlights the airport project in drawings and a sculptural plan in stone. The drawings are simple and not sophisticated as architecture drawings but they do foreground the power of images to convey the idea of landscape and stand for the powerful idea of landscape as art.