Oral History Interview with Robert Smithson conducted by Paul Cummings for the Archives of American Art in 1972

Robert Smithson
Smithson placing mirrors

The following text is a transcript from an interview with Robert Smithson conducted by Paul Cummings, recorded between July 14 and 19, 1972 at Robert Smithson and Nancy Holt’s loft on 799 Greenwich Street, New York City.

This text has been edited to focus on topics related to the 2021 exhibition Abstract Cartography at Marian Goodman Gallery, New York. The full interview can be accessed on the website of the Archives of American Art. For readability, connecting words—such as ‘kind of,’ ‘sort of,’ ‘like’—and repetition have been removed. Extended sections that have been edited out are indicated with […]. Editorial interpolations are in brackets. Edited by Lisa Le Feuvre, May 2021.


You were born in New Jersey?


I was born in Passaic and lived there for a short time. We moved to Rutherford, New Jersey. William Carlos Williams actually was my baby doctor in Rutherford. We lived there until I was about nine and then we moved to Clifton, New Jersey to a section called Allwood.  Around that time, I had an inclination towards being an artist.

PC: Were you making drawings?

RS: Oh, yes. I was working in that area even back in the early phases in Rutherford.

PC: How did you like all the business of moving around all the time?

RS: Actually, we moved only twice: to Rutherford and to Clifton. I was very interested in that time in natural history. In Clifton my father set up, built, what you could call a suburban basement museum for me to display all my fossils and shells, I was involved with collecting insects and… We traveled a lot at that time. Right after the war in 1946 we went out West. I was about eight years old. It was an impressionable period. I started to get involved in that at that time. I was pretty much unto myself. I was very much interested in field naturalist things, looking for insects, rocks, and whatever.

PC: Did you have any books around that were involved with these topics?

RS: Yes. And I went to the museum of Natural History. When I was about seven I did very large paper constructions of dinosaurs which in a funny way I suppose relate right up to the present in terms of the film I made on the Spiral Jetty. I used the prehistoric motif running through that. So, in a funny way, there is not that much different between what I am now and my childhood. I really had a problem with school. I mean there was no real understanding of where I was at. I didn’t know where I was at that time.


PC: How did you like the Art Students League? What did you do there?

RS: It gave me an opportunity to meet younger people and people who were sympathetic to my outlook. I mean there wasn’t anybody in Clifton who I was close to except for one person. His name was Danny Donahue. He got interested in art. But eventually he did go crazy and was killed in a motorcycle accident. He joined a Brooklyn gang of motorcyclists and … I mean it was a very difficult time, I think for people to find themselves. This was I’d say, around 1956-57. I spent a short period, six months, in the army.

PC: Were you drafted? Or did you join?

RS: No, I joined. Actually, I joined with Danny Donahue, Joe [Eli] Levin, and Charlie Hasloff. Charlie came from Dusseldorf. Both Danny and Joe were excluded, and that left Charlie and me. The reason I joined was because it was a special plan; it was Special Services and it was an art group, art situation.

PC: Oh, really! What was that?

RS: […] It turned out that I went to Fort Knox, went through basic training, spent some unhappy hours in cartographer’s school, and then ended up as artist-in-residence at Fort Knox. I did watercolors for the mess hall there for local army installations. I want to make the point that it was a very confusing period.


PC: How much of the country have you traveled around? I know you’ve been here, there, and everywhere.

RS: I concentrated on it in my childhood and adolescence. My first major trip was when I was eight years old and my father and mother took me around the entire United States. Right after World War II we traveled across the Pennsylvania Turnpike, out through the Black Hills and the Badlands, through Yellowstone, up into the Redwood Forests, then down the Coast, and then over to the Grand Canyon. I was eight years old and it made a big impression on me. I used to give little post card shows. I remember I’d set up a little booth and but a hole in it and put postcards up into the slot and show all the kids all these postcards.


PC: When did you move to New York?

RS: Right after I got out of the Army—which was when, Nancy? I moved to New York in 1957. Then I hitchhiked all around the country. I went out West. I visited the Hopi Indian Reservation and found that very exciting. Looking back on that, quite by chance, I was privileged to see a rain dance at Arabi.  I was about eighteen or nineteen.

PC: Had you been to the museum of the American Indian ever?

RS: No.

PC: You hadn’t? So, it was a new experience.

RS: Yes. I knew about Gallup, New Mexico. I knew about, and made a special point of going to, the Canyon de Chelly. I had seen photographs of that. I hiked the length of Canyon de Chelly at that point and slept out. It was the period of the Beat Generation. When I got back On the Road was out, and all those people were around, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, both of whom I met. And Hubert Selby, I knew him rather well; I used to visit him out in Brooklyn and we’d listen to jazz.


I gave up painting around 1963 and began to work plastics in a crystalline way. I began to develop structures based on a particular concern with the elements of the material itself. This was essentially abstract and devoid of any mythological content.

PC: There was no figurative overtone to it?

RS: No, I had completely gotten rid of that problem. I felt that Jackson Pollock never really understood that. And although I admire him still, I still think that was something that was always eating him up inside.

PC: [This was a] development away from the traditional imagery and yet an involvement with natural materials…

RS: I would say that begins to surface in 1965-66. That’s where I really began to get into that. I mean that I consider my emergence as what I call a conscious artist. Prior to that was my struggle to get into another realm. In 1964, 1965, 1966 I met people who were more compatible with my view. I met Sol LeWitt, Dan Flavin, and Donald Judd. At that time, we showed at the Daniels Gallery; I believe it was in 1965. I was doing crystalline type works and my early interest in geology and earth sciences began to assert itself over the whole cultural overlay of Europe. So that I had gotten that out of my system. Out of the defunct, I think, class culture of Europe I developed something that was intrinsically my own and rooted to my own experience in America.


Around this time 1965-66 I was asked to be on a panel up at Yale with Brian Doherty, John Hightower, and Paul Weiss. The topic was art in the city. At that time my ideas of crystalline structure and lattices and that thing had developed. I had met people who were sympathetic to that view, and who were beginning to emerge themselves. As a result of that, I got a job with Tibbetts-Abbett-McCarthy-Stratton as an artist consultant. That was for the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport, which never came into existence. They eventually lost the contract. I would go there from month to month and talk to the architects. The abstract works that I was working with there were essentially rooted in a crystalline type of mapping. This mapping extended itself to a more global sense, and I got involved in mapping sites, and then the emergence of the landscape.

PC: What was it about the crystalline structures that you picked up on?

RS: I think it goes back to my earlier childhood responses. I have always been interested in collecting rocks and I did have a rather large rock collection. The first thing I wrote was in 1966 for Harper’s Bazaar. The article was called The Crystal Land and it was about a journey to New Jersey to a rock quarry with Donald Judd.

PC: What’s the name of the place out there?

RS: Montclair.

PC: Isn’t there a famous rock place in New Jersey?

RS: Yes. Franklin Furnace. That’s where I did one of my Nonsites.


Gradually I recognized an area of abstraction that was really rooted in crystal structure. In fact, the first piece that I did was in 1964. It was called the Enantiomorphic Chambers. I think that was the piece that really freed me from all these preoccupations with history; and I was dealing with grids and planes and empty surfaces. The crystalline forms suggested mapping.

PC: Mapping in what way?

RS: If we think of an abstract painting, for instance, like Agnes Martin’s, there’s a certain grid there that looks like a map without any countries on it. I began to see the grid as a mental construct of physical matter, and my concern for the physical started to grow. And right along I always had an interest in geology as well.

PC: Did you want to go into geology as an activity?

RS: No, I think the geology developed out of my perception as an artist. It wasn’t predicated on any scientific need. It was an aesthetic. The entire history of the West was swallowed up in a preoccupation with notions of pre-history and the great pre-historic epics starting with the age of rocks and going up, you know, through the Triassic and Jurassic and all those different periods subsumed all the efforts of these civilizations that had interested in me.  

PC: What was happening prior to the clarification of the grid system idea? Had you continued painting? Or did you stop painting? Or were you making things that were a combination?

RS: I stopped. I did drawings actually. They were phantasmagorical drawings of cosmological worlds somewhat between Blake and—I’m trying to think—oh, a Boschian imagery, you know.

PC: There were still figurative overtones?

RS: Very definitely. They were based on iconic situations. I think I made those drawings around 1960-61. They dealt with explicit images like the city; they were monstrous as well, you know, like great Moloch figures.

PC: And the grids appeared in…

RS: It was more of a crystalline thing, more of a triangulated situation. I started using plastics. I made flat plastic paintings. I have one in the front room that I can show you.

PC: How did you pick plastics?

RS: Actually, there was an interim period there when I was doing mainly a collage writing situation. I did writing paintings, you’d call it, you know, I was writing but they included pasting, like I would do—

PC:  —like Burroughs cut out and paste poetry?

RS: Not exactly. I would take a magazine that had, oh, a lot of boats in it and then paste all these boats on a piece of wood or something like that. There was a lot of nebulous stuff I was doing then.

PC: Testing materials?

RS: Oh, I know what I was doing. Actually, there was a show at the Castellane Gallery which sums it all up to a great extent. I started working from diagrams. I would take like an evolutionary chart and then paint it somewhat in a Johns-ian manner, scientific diagrams and paint those. But it was a very confused period around 1961 or so. It [had] a lot of these paintings of—not only paintings but also—oh, it was a curious mélange of things—I took a stuffed pigeon and took it apart and pasted it on a board. Things like that. I took pickle jars and made up specimens and labeled them with curious scientific names. Then I started pasting all these similar photographs.


PC: The Castellane Show was in 1962. When did you get involved with the Dwan Gallery?

RS: That was in about 1965 I’d say. I met Ad Reinhardt in 1965. In 1963-64 I was doing these plastic paintings, these crystalline paintings, and I started to get more into the serial structures that I showed at Dwan in 1966. Ad Reinhardt asked me along with Robert Morris to help organize a show at Dwan—the Ten Show. Then I did a piece called Alogon, the one which the Whitney owns now. In effect it was like the seven inverted staircases. That was in the Ten Show. Around that time I had a lot of dialogues with Sol LeWitt and Donald Judd. A lot of things began to pull together at that time. Prior to my going with the Dwan Gallery I showed the Enantiomorphic Chambers that Howard Lipman owns. That impressed Virginia Dwan. Right after I showed in the Ten Show, she asked me to be in the gallery. And at the same time, in 1965, I had given [the] talk at Yale on art in the city. A lot of my thinking about crystalline structures came through there, I was discussing the whole city in terms of crystalline network. [As I said] an architect from Tibbetts-Abbett-McCarthy-Stratton was sitting in the audience and he asked me if I would like to participate in the building of the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport, trying to figure out what an airport is. I invented this job for myself as artist-consultant. For about a year and a half, from 1965 though 1966, I went there and talked with the architects. That’s where the mapping and the intuitions in terms of the crystal structures really took hold, in terms of large land masses where one is dealing with grids superimposed on large land masses. The inklings of the earthworks were there.

PC: What did you do with the architects, what conversations did you have with them? What activity were you able to do with them?

RS: Most of the building process was done through computers. I was more or less looking at the layout of the airfield. My final proposal was something called Aerial Art which would be earthworks on the fringes of the airfield that you would see from the air.

PC: Flying over.

RS: They would provide me with all the mapping material. We had interesting discussions. I made models of possible airports. But I became less and less interested in the actual structure of the building and more interested in the process of the building and all the different preliminary engineering things. For instance, the boring holes to take earth samples. I later wrote an article called Toward the Development of an Air Terminal, which was all speculation on the different aspects of building. I was interested in the preliminary aspects of building.

PC: Were you with them toward the end,  building particular sculptures or earthworks? Or were you really involved with them on a theoretical. . .

RS: . . . on a theoretical level. In 1966 I showed a model at the Dwan Gallery right after my show, a model for a tar pool in a gravel enclosure. I would say that it was mainly theoretical at that time. But right along, right from that point, well, around 1966 there was an inkling or an intuition that earthworks might be an interesting idea to get into. I had also suggested to the architectural company to let Robert Morris and Carl Andre and Sol LeWitt do something, and they each presented proposals which I included in the aerial art program. I wanted to do a spiral actually, a triangulated spiral made out of concrete. And then there were also other projects; there was another spiral of a reflecting pool, in other words, a basin.


PC: There were always things that seemed to be happening. You were in Primary Structures at The Jewish Museum in 1966. As well as Art in Process at Finch.

RS: Yes. That piece I did up there was called The Cryosphere, and that essentially is hexagonal units that were linked up somehow in my mind with a notion of ice crystals. Then I made a breakdown of the actual, almost a statistical analysis of the piece which I included in the catalogue, marking down the qualities of the paint that I had painted it with.

PC: Have you gotten involved in the mathematical structure? Or the mathematical ideas in some of the crystalline developed structures? Or not?

RS: The title Alogon—the piece that I showed in the Ten Show—comes from the Greek word which refers to the unnamable and the irrational number. There was always a sense of ordering, but I couldn’t really call it mathematical notation. But there was a consciousness of geometry that I worked from in an intuitive way. But it wasn’t really in any way notational.

PC: It wasn’t like a theoretical map or any sort?

RS: No. It was a lattice structure, you know, that could be conceived of in a crystalline way.

PC: Apropos of that one title, how do you develop the titles for your things? Some of them seem to have very long names. Are they specific references?

RS: Like the Enantiomorphic Chambers? That refers to two shapes that tend to mirror each other. In other words, the left and right hand could be considered an enantiomorph. It was a bi-polar notion that comes out of crystal structure. They are two separate things that relate to each other. I would say that in the Enantiomorphic Chambers there is also the indication of a dialectical thinking that would emerge later very strongly in the Nonsites.

PC: What about all this endless series of group exhibitions that you’ve been in around the country over the years? Do you find them useful for you? Or are they exposure?

RS: At that time, I thought there was a need for them. I think that there was something developing—this was in the mid-sixties—that wasn’t around before, in terms of spaces, and in terms of exhibitions. The works were making greater demands, I think, on interior spaces. The small galleries of the late fifties were giving way to these large white rooms and they seemed to be a growing thing.

PC: But by the late sixties everybody worked out of the buildings.

RS: Well, that’s what happened. There was always this element toward public art. But that still seemed to be linked somewhat in large works of sculpture that would be put in plazas in front of buildings. I became interested in sites, in a sense these sites had something to do with entropy. This is one dominant theme that runs through [my work]. You might say that early preoccupation with the early civilizations of the West was a fascination with the coming and going of things. I brought that all together in the first published article that I did for Artforum, which was the entropy article. I became interested in low profile landscapes, once again the quarry or the mining area which we call an entropic landscape, a backwater or fringe area. The entropy article was full of suggestions of sites external to the gallery situation. There were all kinds of material in there that broke down the usual confining aspect of academic art.

PC: Also, the material has no sense of scale, doing things that were out of doors, very large, almost competing with any architectural activity that might be around.

RS: I was also interested in a suburban architecture: plain box buildings, shopping centers, that sprawl. And I think this is what fascinated me in my earlier interest with Rome, let’s say, this collection, this junk heap of history. But here we are confronted with a consumer society. I know there is a sentence in The Monuments of Passaic where I said, “Hasn’t Passaic replaced Rome was the Eternal City?” So, there is this almost Borgesian sense of passage of time and labyrinthine confusion that has a certain order. I was looking for that order, an irrational order that developed without any design program.

PC: But it becomes, in a way, an altering of nature someplace, doesn’t it?

RS: Well, that’s something that I think in the course of one’s preoccupation with abstraction, the tendency toward abstraction, this is lodged, I think, in books like [Wilhelm Worringer’s] Abstraction and Empathy where the tendency of the artist was to exclude the whole problem of nature and dwell on these abstract mental images of flat planes, and empty void spaces, and grids and single lines and stripes, that thing tended to exclude the whole problem of nature. Right now I feel that I am part of nature and that nature isn’t really morally responsible. Nature has no morality.

PC: How do you feel a part of it? I get the feeling that you have a different sensibility now than, say, in the late fifties.

RS: To an extent. I think it’s extended over greater stretches of time. It’s almost as though I was involved in a personal archaeology all though this, going through the layers of, let’s say, the last 2,000 years of civilization and going back into the more archaic civilizations—the Egyptian and Mayan and Aztec civilizations. I did travel. I hitchhiked to Mexico when I was about nineteen and visited the pyramids outside of Mexico City.

PC: Was that because you knew about them? Or you wanted to go to Mexico?

RS: I always had this urge, there was something about that civilized refuse around. That entropy article was more about a built in obsolescence. In fact, I remember I was impressed by [Vladimir] Nabokov, who says that the future is the obsolete in reverse. I became more and more interested in the stratifications and the layerings. I think it had something to do with the way crystals build up too. I did a series of pieces called Stratas. Virginia Dwan’s is called Glass Strata which is a lot of pieces of glass; it’s eight feet long by a foot wide, looks like a glass staircase made out of inch-thick glass; it’s very green, very dense and layered up. And my writing proceeded that way. I thought of writing more as a material to put together than as an analytic searchlight.

PC: But did the writing affect the development of things that you made?

RS: Language tended to inform my structures. If there was any notation it was a linguistic notation. I, together with Sol LeWitt, thought up the Language shows at the Dwan Gallery. I was interested in language as a material entity at that time, as something that wasn’t involved in ideational; a lot of conceptual artists become essentially ideational and –

PC: How do you mean as a material?

RS: As printed matter. The information has a physical presence for me rather than . . . I would construct my articles the way I would construct my work.

PC: I’m curious about that. Does it relate to philosophy? Or to semantics? Or do you find it relates to a more aesthetic attitude toward art?

RS: I think it relates to a physicalist or materialist view of the world, which of course leads one into a Marxist view. So that the old idealisms of irrational philosophies began to diminish. Although I was always interested in [Jorge Luis] Borges’ writings and the way he would use leftover remnants of philosophy.

PC: When did you get interested in him?

RS: Around 1965. That taking a discarded system and using it as an armature. This has always been my world view.

PC: Do you think it’s so much the system that’s the valuable aspect, or the utilization of it?

RS: It’s a convenience, you might say. It’s another construction on the mires of things that have already been constructed. My thinking became increasingly dialectical. I was still working with the resolution of the organic and the crystalline, and that seemed resolved in dialectics for me. I created the dialectic of site and Nonsite. The Nonsite exists as a deep three-dimensional abstract map that points to a specific site of the surface of the earth and that’s designated by a mapping procedure. These places are not destinations; they’re backwaters or fringe areas

PC: How do you arrive at those different areas?

RS: I don’t know— it’s a tendency toward a primordial consciousness, a tendency toward the prehistoric after digging through the histories.

PC: Do you work from a large map? Or do you work from having been in that part of the world?

RS: A lot of the Nonsites are in New Jersey. I think that those landscapes embedded themselves in my consciousness at a very early date, so that in a sense I was beginning to make archaeological trips into the recent past to Bayonne, New Jersey.

PC: So, in a sense it was a real place that then became abstracted into a Nonsite?

RS: Yes. And which then reflected the confinement of the gallery space so that the site itself was open and, although the Nonsite designates the site, the site itself is open and really unconfined and constantly being changed. And then the thing was to bring these two things together. To a great extent that culminated in the Spiral Jetty. But there are other smaller works that preceded that—the investigations in Yucatán.

PC: How did that come about?

RS:  Here was an alien world, a world that couldn’t really be comprehended on any rational level; you know, the jungle had grown up over these vanished civilizations. I was interested in the fringes around these areas.

PC: What do you mean, fringes?

RS: Like these backwater sites again, maybe a small quarry, a burnt out field, a sand bank, a remote island. I found that I was dealing not so much with the center of things, but with the peripheries. So that I became very interested in that whole dialogue between the circumference and the middle and how those two things operated together.

PC: But most of the sites are not in metropolitan areas, are they? They're usually in the country.

RS: Most of them are in New Jersey; there's one in Bayonne, there's one in Edgewater, one in Franklin Furnace, one in the Pine Barrens. Since I grew up in New Jersey, I would say that I was saturated with a consciousness of that. And then, strangely enough, the other ones - I did a double Nonsite in California and Nevada, so that I went from one coast to the other. The last Nonsite actually is one that involves coal and there the site belongs to the Carboniferous Period, so it no longer exists; the site becomes completely buried again. There's no topographical reference. Its submerged reference based on hypothetical land formations from the Carboniferous Period. The coal comes from somewhere in the Ohio and Kentucky area, but the site is uncertain. That was the last Nonsite; you know, that was the end of that. So, I wasn't dealing with the land surfaces.

PC: How did you develop the idea of the sites and Nonsites, as opposed to building specific objects?

RS: I began to question very seriously the whole notion of Gestalt, the thing in itself, specific objects. I began to see things in a more relational way. I had to question, you know, where the works were, what they were about. The very construction of the gallery with its neutral white rooms became questionable. I became interested in bringing attention to the abstractness of the gallery as a room, and yet at the same time taking into account less neutral sites, sites that would in a sense be neutralized by the gallery. So, it became a preoccupation with place.

PC: One thing you never finished discussing was the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport.

RS: Well, they eventually lost their contract. The pieces were never built. Although there was an interest, I don’t think that they fully got out of me what they thought they would have gotten. But as far as my relationship there goes, it was very worthwhile for me because it got me to think about large land areas and then, I think to a great extent the dialogue between the terminal and the fringes of the terminal—once again, between the center and the edge of things—has been a going preoccupation, part of the dialectic between the inner and the outer. That range of thinking preoccupies me quite a bit.


PC: You really like mining sites and quarries and that material. How do you develop the ideas?

RS: Somebody one time defined entropy as what happened when Humpty Dumpty fell down and everybody tries to put everything together, tried to put him together again. There is that continuity. I was trying to develop a reflection in terms of the physical world, so that these two things could coincide. The mental and the material, within a sense inform each other. I would say that what one gets is a dialectics of entropy. There's always this aspect of contrast and conflict with the mirror pieces. You have this raw material played against the very abstractness of the squares in the mirrors. Then gradually, of course, the mirrors would suggest water — the major pieces that I work toward, like the Spiral Jetty and the Broken Circle in Holland, all involve water.

PC: Do you write as much now as you did through the late '60s?

RS: No, because I feel that the problem right now is very different. I've been writing—it's been mainly trying to coordinate projects, and writing letters which have to make sense to people who don't know anything about art. I find that I'm writing very brass tacks instructional epistles.

PC: Would the writing influence the development of specific pieces? Were they rather separate, or were they very involved?

RS: I think they interrelated. They interconnected sometimes; in many instances I think the writing provided a context that wasn't readily available, that I was going toward, and it tended to reinforce what I was doing. I wrote mainly out of a need to discover things for myself. They were more a speculative writing that did serve to inform my works.

PC: I’m curious about the whole writing process. Building something like the Spiral Jetty must have required a certain amount of planning and coordination, and people, and equipment, and all those things. Where does that whole process come into the development of what one finally looks at, sees, or walks on, or drives on, or doesn't see?

RS: More and more, the whole notion of the art as a thing in itself completely dropped away from my interests. And I saw that as why I was never really a minimal artist. I was never involved in that notion, the thing in itself. I always saw these relationships. With the Spiral Jetty, it was a matter of making contact with the community out there, researching the area. I went out with Nancy [Holt], and we did all the work ourselves, going through courthouses and meeting with land officials, and searching for contractors that would do it. I wanted to make a film, so it was a matter of coordinating the film situation right into the very process. Spiral Jetty took all these seeming disparate things, and then brought them all together in conglomeration of different kinds of work. There were all these facets of art that I think you'd see the boundaries of the enclosed gallery situation. I've always been fascinated by what's open and what's closed. [Those] two things began to operate on a more social level. I became less involved in simply a personal pursuit, and more and more involved. Art is a necessity, rather than a luxury. Art is real estate, more than commodity. The more intimate works, the earlier period, they were fabricated in small factories. There seemed to be a growing relationship with not the New York art world, but with [places] like Brigham City [Utah].

PC: How did you select [the Great] Salt Lake?

RS: I had read a book about salt lakes in Bolivia, and I heard that they had red water in them. I'd always been trying to do a large work, but I didn't want to do it as a gesture. I wanted to have a real physical mass if I did it. The Dwan Gallery was then ready to back such a project because of the Earth Show that took place. I wrote an article Sedimentation of the Mind: Earth Projects, which created a context that gave direction to this thing, which made it easier for people to back it. I got the financing from the Dwan Gallery, and went out and did it quietly.

PC: The thing that intrigues me is the fact that you did make a film of it. There are also still photographs, or were the still photographs taken from the film?

RS: The still photographs were made by Gianfranco Gorgoni, who documented the piece. I, in a sense, directed the photographs. The Spiral Jetty was built in 1970, in April, and I returned in June with Gianfranco. We had to rent a helicopter, and I had to get the right angles and the right shots, and that thing. He actually took the photographs of the finished work. I showed that documentation in the Museum of Modern Art Information show. That was the first public indication that it was there.

PC: I'm curious about everything that led up to the actual work of building it. How long did it take, and what problems did you run into?

RS: The negotiations took about two months. I went out there, I didn't have anything really specific in mind. The Nonsites really were a matter of investigating the external landscape situations. Prior to that, at Kent State in January of 1970, I did a piece called Partially Buried Woodshed, which was the covering-up of this 80-foot rectilinear woodshed with earth. The idea was to keep piling earth on top of the roof of this building until the central beam cracked, and then that was that. Then all of the site investigations in the Yucatán trip. I was very conscious the site in a sense had to tell me what to do. I wasn't working out of a one-sided abstract mode. I had to think about the geology and the ecology and all that thing.

PC: So, there was no real preconceived idea?

RS: There was no preconceived [idea]. Although the spiral was there, in a work called Gyrostasis, which is actually going to be in the Smithsonian Institute, [at the] Hirshhorn. That was the triangulated progression. Once again, it was more crystalline than organic, and also more mental than physical.

PC: One of the things that has interested me, to use the word you used, is documentation. So many people recently seem to be involved in doing things that are generally inaccessible and they end up showing drawings and charts and photographs and films and models, and that thing, almost in the way that an architectural firm might present to a client. You know, "This is what we can build for you for X amount of money, and X space," you know?

RS: The whole aspect of documentary interests me. I've been interested in film for quite a long time.  I think my notion of documentation is really that there's a dialectic between the signified and the signifier, that these two things function as an equation. In other words, the photograph X is really a map, it's done with a camera. But it's an aspect of the piece, it's a facet of the piece, it's a part of a consciousness of the piece that's generated through all these various forms of other kinds of works that relate to the piece. In other words, whether it be drawings, photographs—

PC: Where they're really mediums—

RS: There's a generative aspect to different kinds of responses. Whether it be writing, photographs, all these things seem to generate from something that's very physical and very much there. And I mean, the way the piece is viewed. I know Air West now flies over the Spiral Jetty on its way out of Salt Lake [City] to Seattle, and they point it out. There are all kinds of ways of responding to it. The Jetty might be underwater at one time, it might not be underwater, everything is in a constant state of change.  This is a stabilizing factor. The reason I've insisted on a physicality even in terms of language. Language is a physical thing.

PC: How do you see that?

RS: To me it's opaque, you know? It's a buildup. Language seems to be like stratas in the earth. It's there, has some meaning. A book is like a little strata to me, in the way the words—the way the sentences go—

PC: —go on the page.

RS: It's like there's layers and layers of stuff, and it's printed material.

PC: That's interesting, because so many people think of books as the linear idea rather than the—

RS: No, it's like the Earth, it's all stratified. It's the Great Circular Book that Borges talks about. So, I see language like that. I wrote something for Aspen Magazine, actually called Strata. Dan Graham edited it. It's more of an archaeology of reproduction of classification, an investigation of how things are ordered. I would give descriptions of glass cases with rocks in them, or something to that effect. Or how this map represents the Pre-Cambrian period, what it looks like, whether it's a graph on the museum wall, or whatever. You know, all this pileup with information about something external. In other words, so that it becomes a map of a map that points to—

PC: Points to more things than is necessarily apparent, you know?

RS: In fact, Rosalind Krauss, the critic, said that the Spiral Jetty itself was a document because of the changes it goes through.


PC: Since many of these places are generally inaccessible, what meaning does the documentation have to people who can't fly out to Utah or go to New Jersey, or wherever? If they see it only in terms of drawings, photographs, films. Do you think that gets across what you want to do and say?

RS: I think if it's done effectively. If you make a good photograph or a good movie. That's one aspect of it; it's a generation of material that tends to accumulate around the piece, like the salt crystals. All this material is developing and proliferating and massing itself up, from newspaper articles to photographs to drawings.  I wrote an article about it myself; it'll be in a book that [the publisher George] Braziller's putting out, called Art and the Environment.  I made the movie and photographs, and drawings.  I consider all these things, starting with language, right on through to the Jetty itself. To an extent, everything is a document.


A photograph, or a movie, has a tangibility. The piece has a tangibility. I've been out there with people who really don't have a perception of physicality, so they might not be able to respond to it on that level.

PC: That's one of your largest projects?

RS: No, that’s the largest. The piece [Broken Circle/Spiral Hill] in Holland comes close. It's the extension of the Jetty into the lake, that gives it its great size. The piece in Holland I consider quite substantial. That was made in conjunction with [the periodic outdoor exhibition] Sonsbeek. I was asked to do something for Sonsbeek Park but I felt that I couldn't do anything in the park. Already that was a work of art in itself. I needed a more differentiated landscape in order to work with. The park had already settled in, and the work that would fit into that [was] more conventional large sculptures, basically movable objects but very big ones. I wrote to [the curator] Wim Beeren, and told him to try to get me something where—well, first I started with the Zuiderzee. I thought I could use dredging machines in the Zuiderzee, and that didn't work out. I was going to work in the peat region, peat mines, and that didn't work out. He contacted a person, Sjouke Zijlstra, in Emmen who was a geographer.  He let me know that these quarries were in the northern part of Emmen, sand quarries. When I got there, everything clicked, and after a week of negotiations, we started work immediately, which was very good. I think that the show itself was important. There are flaws in the show, but it was a show that did extend all throughout Holland. It wasn't confined by a park or a museum, which I thought was a very good thing to do. One of the major problems right now, is to overcome that confined shell.


PC: What about current activities?

RS: I haven't really worked on a major piece since the Broken Circle. That's about a little more than a year ago now. I’ve been trying to since find a way out of the current art world context, into another context.

PC: In what way?

RS: Well, my involvement with the reclamation project, and the strip mining areas is an example. I went up to Maine recently, to look for property up there to possibly do something up there. I'll probably be going out to California, there's a possibility of doing something on the Salton Sea in southern California. I really would like to see myself involved directly in involved in the industry, where the industry actually make needs my art as a necessary part of their reclamation projects, where industry takes on a more acute sense of the visual. I do find perhaps the whole ecological crisis has brought about, in terms of art in the landscape, [the fact that] one has to start thinking about exactly where the art comes from. You can buy your steel plate to make a piece of steel sculpture, but I would be more interested in tracing that back to its origins, back to the smelting and all those elements, and getting them all in the whole apparatus of the company, rather than a gallery. I think the big issue is whether or not art is going to remain an isolated entity within the confines of the art world. Whether it will inflate itself the point of aesthetic fatigue with all this proliferation of objects in SoHo. Or whether it will find a new context. That's really what interests me most. I’ve been going around talking to people. I talked to the head of the Bureau of Mines in Maine who was very sympathetic, and felt that the mining industry could use somebody like me.

PC: You seem to get a fairly happy response from people you go to see around the country.

RS: It has to do with changing attitudes. I'm not interested in alienating the ordinary person. I think there's a tradition in art, where there's a need to try to shock, in terms of a Dada approach, deepen the artist's alienation. I'm not interested in that. I'm interested in having the art effect as many people as possible, and yet keep it as something that really has a strong impact. I would like as many people to be involved with it as possible, from different walks of life. I enjoy talking to these people because they are involved in concrete problems. I could retreat from these problems, and take a pure stance, but I find that doesn't interest me.

PC: Have you had interest in ecology for a long time?

RS: I think it's developed. Ecology to me has, like, replaced—I mean, that's the official religion right, that's another religion, because of all the different views of the landscape. The artist has been locked in his studio so long, preoccupied with these formal problems that can only end up in another vacuum. This is in a sense is post-studio art, it's post-gallery art, it's post-museum art. It belongs to a greater situation. There are more people that have to get involved. It's not collectible.

PC: Do you find that the materials and the situations suggest a great deal? Or do you have ideas that wander around looking for specific situations?

RS: I think it's a little bit of both. When I was painting, immediately you start working with titanium white, you know what I mean? You wonder where that comes from. That was always a boring thing to think, the idea that you go to your corner art store and buy some titanium white. It's all processed and manufactured. To follow that process, of the making of that paint back to its point of origin, and then finding the material as close to the initial source as possible, getting back to that material, then everything starts. Then the very physicality of those rocks with the salt and the water generates all these levels and proliferations of reproduction or documentation. There are people in Utah that see it; it may not be in Manhattan, but there are people out there. It's a different audience that responds to it. I think that artists have tremendous mobility now. The airplane has created such a—

PC: —new way of thinking and looking at things.


PC: Do you like the activity of traveling?

RS: Yeah, I think that's very much part of it, that's in itself a kind of art. Vacations are another thing, that's a whole other study. 

PC: In what way?

RS: They seem a new affluent form of contemplation. It's very hard for me to sit on a beach, or something. when I go away, I prefer to be really engaged and working. In fact, when I'm in New York, it's almost like a vacation. It's an interesting area, the whole notion of guidebooks, the values that come out of that. Tours.

PC: Your Jetty's become part of a tour now, for all those people who fly over it.

RS: Yeah, right, but it's there. students are always going there. there's not a day where I don't get some reference to it. it's very interesting to me, actually. I feel very close to it myself. It's something that all the other work was pointing toward, but all that work is part of it, with all its byways.


Edited by Lisa Le Feuvre, May 2021.

How to cite

Cummings, Paul. "Interview with Robert Smithson"  Conducted 1972 July 14-19, by Paul Cummings, for the Archives of American Art at 799 Greenwich Street in New York on July 14 and 19, 1972.