Queer Caucus for Art Newsletter, October 2005

”Robert Smithson Resurrected in New York”

Review of the Smithson retrospective organized by MOCA, Los Angeles:
Whitney Museum of American Art,
June 23-October 23, 2005

The Whitney Museum of American Art pulled out the final stop of the extensive exhibition of Robert Smithson’s work, and expanded his oeuvre with the physical realization of “Floating Island to Travel Around Manhattan.” Smithson’s 1970 plan for a project was brought to life in New York from September 17 through the 25th as a barge was pulled around Manhattan with landscaping reflective of Central Park, with trees that even included a weeping willow as indicated in his drawing. This work stems from the drawing “Floating Island to Travel Around Manhattan” (1970) on exhibit in the first gallery at the Whitney. While exploring Smithson’s drawings, photographs, sculptures and projections in the exhibition, one soon realizes that for every work there is a interconnectedness with his other works -- drawings to sculptures, drawings with films, and other projects like Nonsites connected to another place and time outside of the exhibition spaces. Eugenie Tsai has demonstrated the heterogeneity and range of Smithson’s work and has shown that he cannot simply be regarded as the artist who rejected the site of the gallery in the Spiral Jetty and other earth work projects. Smithson covered a wide range of media and wrote extensively. For him, manifesting thought into the physical reality was at the crux of most of his artworks. In 2005, to see one of his projects created from a drawing he made 35 years ago is a testament to the power of his creative thought and is a fitting tribute to this retrospective.

Also in New York this past weekend, not only was “Floating Island” traveling around Manhattan, there was also a daylong symposium on Smithson. Participants included Nancy Holt, Eugenie Tsai, Chrissie Isles, and Robert Fiore, cinematographer of Spiral Jetty who said of Smithson: ”We talked about doing a lot of projects together ... he had a lot of projects that he didn’t have a chance to do.”

One piece in particular reconfirmed for me the importance of drawing in the realization of his work. It was identified in the exhibition as a Movie Treatment (1970), and titled “Running the Spiral Jetty, Great Salt Lake.” The drawing is broken into scenes or frames with directions for the film Spiral Jetty. It includes the written notations -- “sun breaks through” and “copter pulls away till figure vanishes in the rock + earth.” Before filming Spiral Jetty Smithson created intricate drawings and annotations-these drawings he called “movie treatments.”

It is the film Spiral Jetty though that is the critical project that links Robert Smithson’s major art forms -- his drawing, writing, nonsites and earth work sculpture -- together. To continue from the first gallery space to the rest of the exhibit one has go through the film Spiral Jetty -- yes, physically through the viewing space where the film is projected. The film includes important still images that recur throughout the history of Smithson’s art production on display.

The Spiral Jetty earth work itself is but one step in the materialization of Smithson’s vision that is fully realized only in the film. It is in this medium alone that Smithson is able to fold his personal/artistic history into the geological/mythological history of the site. Along with his theme of the spiral, Smithson addresses his other enduring themes of blood, the eye, mapping and the idea of entropy. While viewing the film one is taken back to a geological time stratum and is at the same time brought very consciously back into a sense of presentness through Smithson’s insertion of himself into the landscape in the sequence where he runs the length of the jetty, observed by the surrogate eye represented by the bubble shape of the helicopter, visible on the ground as a shadow. The film brings together many strands of the themes that informed Smithson’s previous projects. The eye was primary in the immediate development of the Spiral Jetty project and the sight as primordial creation connected his eye to the Earth and the Sun. A decade before, he created the collages The Eye of Blood (1960) and Feet of Christ (1961) where each of the wounds becomes the eye of a spiral.

In addition to the Eye of Blood and Feet of Christ, and many other drawings which were on view in the next gallery, Smithson on a number of occasions in his writing refers to “mental spirals” by which he seems to mean the process of thought being externalized as drawing, text, and sculpture, i.e., material. As with all of Smithson’s projects the film Spiral Jetty represents a “materialization” of his artistic ideas and thoughts. These thoughts are then literally mapped out in drawings or actualized in text. The drawings are animated through the construction of the Jetty, which in turn is documented by the film. The realized earth work sculpture becomes the subject and stage of the film.

In order to understand the way in which his process with writing and image had evolved by the time of the Spiral Jetty project, it is useful to look back at his published works. In a conversation with Dennis Wheeler:

Wheeler: What do you think of vision then, not vision in the sense of divine inspiration but say the sense of man's vision ...?

Smithson: When you investigate tangible, physical fact this will set up a mental experience which is like the mirror. And how I perceive this is metamorphosed through my mental state, and then I translate that mental state into a physical state. In other words, I’m not just presenting materials, there's a kind of transformation that takes place.

Here Smithson clearly points to two critical concerns which he had explored in many of his projects, but which he masters in the filming of the Spiral Jetty. The first is his concern with vision as mental experience, like a mirror, and the second is the subsequent translation of mental state to physical state. Here he reaffirms his interest in the “mental experience that somehow coincides with the physical world.”

Running the spiral is the artistic act which completes the spiral jetty project for Smithson and in the film this has the visual effect of making him literally merge and disappear into the landscape. Here is Smithson writing on this in 1972:

Was I but a shadow in a plastic bubble hovering in place outside mind and body? Et in Utah ego. I was slipping out of myself again, dissolving into the unicellular beginning, trying to locate the nucleus of the end of the spiral.

It is in this connection of the coincidence of mental and physical experience that the resurrection of “Floating Island” completes his vision from 1970 and weds Smithson back into the landscape of New York. Not only does the project encircle Manhattan and continue his form of “marking” and “mapping” endemic to many of his projects, but the trees from the barge will be planted in Central Park, an act of physical merging that will continue the externalization of Smithson’s creative visualization.

Jim Bergesen

The Culture of Queer:
A Tribute to J.B. Harter
Lupin Foundation Gallery
Contemporary Arts Center, New Orleans
July 23 - September 18, 2005

The late J.B. Harter, who was a curator for a time at the Louisiana State Museum, was also a prolific painter of portraits and male nudes. This exhibition will examine queer identity as expressed in Harter’s work, and in works by 9 contemporary queer artists in Louisiana. The Louisiana artists are Ralph Bourque, Brad Dupuy, Jenny Kahn, Audra Kohout, Michael Meads, Keith Perelli, Roberto Rincon, Maxx Sizeler and Tom Strider.

In addition, selections from the permanent collection of the Leslie/Lohman Gay Art Foundation, that also collected Harter’s work, will include seldom seen “queer art” works by Andy Warhol, Robert Mapplethorpe, Jack Pierson, Arthur Tress, Bruce of Los Angeles, Tom of Finland, and New Orleans’ own George Dureau.

Overall, the exhibition will examine how the term “queer,” once considered derogatory, has been adopted by academia and, more recently by popular culture, to refer to contemporary GLBT communities.

An illustrated catalog is available. After the showing at the CAC, the exhibition will travel to New York City to open the new galleries of the Leslie/Lohman Gay Art Foundation.

The Culture of Queer is supported by the John Burton Harter Charitable Trust. Additional support comes from d.o.c.s., a studio gallery of contemporary art; Palma Gallery, John D. Rawls, Jack Sullivan, Stuart Smith and Barry Cooper.

[We reprint here most of the press release for an exhibition which was on view in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast on August 29th. As stated in the co-chair’s letter, the show was on a higher floor at the Center and was not flooded. Nonetheless, the building and the art on display are at risk by the pervasive damp and mold and lack of climate control. This reprinting is done in honor of the artists, curators, and others who have made valiant efforts to preserve lives and the historical record. A summary of the exhibition with a few images is still up on the Center’s website at www.cacno.org, along with a blog for friends of CAC.]

Queer Caucus for Art newsletter, October 2005
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