Earth Art vs.1960s Minimalism: A Comparative Look

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A Comparative Look at Robert Smithson’s Earth Art and 1960s Minimalism By Marcus Pearson
05/25/10

While walking through the Guggenheim Museum you walk past several different works of art. A nice painting here, a cool sculpture there, some interesting lights, it’s all pretty neat. You then walk into a room with two seemingly opposite types of art. On one side of the room you see a rock pile and a few pictures of some big rocks. The other side has some odd looking sculptures and several paintings that don’t look like much at all. You think that maybe the curator of the museum got mixed up and had his gardening supplies delivered to the boring shaped room of the museum instead of his house. You ask the guard what was going on in this particular room. He says that on one side is the Earth Art of Robert Smithson and on the other is several examples of Minimalism art. You are still confused of why the two pieces are in the same room so you ask him to explain the relationship. He says that on the surface they might appear to have no similarities but they in fact have many. He directs you to an essay written by a Western Oregon University undergrad named Marcus Pearson. . . Although Robert Smithson was a very influential Earthwork artist, he did not begin his career working with 3 dimensional objects. Smithson started his career painting. He painted throughout high school in the New Jersey public schools and while studying at the Art Students League while taking night classes. At 18, in 1956 he attended the Brooklyn Museum School after he served in the army for a short while. The next year he moved to New York City and was in the center of the art world. During these early years he produced primarily homoerotic work, making collages out of clippings that he got from beefcake magazines, sci fi, and some early Pop Art. His first paintings were Abstract Expressionist in character. Smithson had a particular interest in natural history as a boy and visited the New York Museum of Natural History quite often. Nancy Holt (whom he would later marry) encouraged him to pursue his interests though his art, much like she did with biology. Smithson began to collect samples from different locations and create sculptures. “He gathered things like sponges and chemical samples which he then displayed in an art format to demonstrate that art is an inert substance based in nature that can be organized and structured into meaningful relationships.” (http://www.answers.com/topic/robert-smithson)

A clear example of this type of art be seen in one of his later works, Corner Mirror with Coral (fig. 1). This piece also demonstrates the use of mirrors which Smithson used frequently in his early career. One of his first works with mirrors was Enantiomorphic Chambers (fig. 2). He experiments with the viewer’s perception of the work, by turning the mirrors at odd angles so they do not reflect the viewer. Instead you see reflections of reflections, showing an illusion without in fact being one. The term Enantiomorphic used in the name means, “a pair of crystals, molecules, or compounds that are mirror images of each other but are not identical, and that rotate the plane of polarized light equally, but in opposite directions.” (http://www.thefreedictionary.com/enantiomorphic) This is simply seen in his work as there are two parts that look the same but are not identical, with mirrors reflecting in opposite directions.

It is easy to see he put a tremendous amount of thought into each piece he created. He continued to work with mirrors throughout his career. During the mid 1960s Smithson, submitted several works to galleries which he called “non-sites”. These works were rocks, dirt, sticks and other organic from certain places around the globe that he gathered and occasionally placed in geometric boxes, or arranged in piles on the floors with mirrors. With these arrangements of the collected materials, he often provided an aerial map of the actual site...
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