Biography of
Robert Smithson

Born in Passaic, New Jersey, Robert Smithson (1938 - 1973) is an artist who recalibrated the possibilities of art. For over fifty years his work and ideas have influenced artists and thinkers, building the ground from which contemporary art has grown. An autodidact, Smithson's interests in travel, cartography, geology, architectural ruins, prehistory, philosophy, science-fiction, popular culture, and language spiral through his work. He was fascinated by concepts of duality, entropy, and questions of how we might find our place in the world. In his short and prolific life, Smithson produced paintings, drawings, sculptures, architectural schemes, films, photographs, writings, earthworks, and all the stops in between. From his landmark earthworks, Spiral Jetty (1970) and Partially Buried Woodshed (1970), which celebrate their fiftieth anniversary in 2020 to his “quasi-minimalist” sculptures, Nonsites, writings, projects and proposals, collages, detailed drawings, and radical rethinking of landscape, Smithson's ideas are profoundly urgent for our times. 

In 1954 Smithson received a two-year scholarship to study at the Art Students League in New York City. Postwar abstract expressionism influenced the young Smithson, and the late fifties and early sixties found him immersed in the vitality and experimentation of the burgeoning downtown New York art scene. Smithson’s first solo exhibition, with emphasis on "expressionistic work", took place in 1957 at Allan Brilliant’s gallery in New York. The artist’s peripatetic life took him to Rome in 1961, when George Lester offered him his first solo international exhibition at Galleria George Lester, where he explored quasi-religious subject matter. In 1963, Smithson married Nancy Holt (1938–2014).

His early paintings, drawings, and sculptures made between 1961 and 1963 were imbued with references to concrete poetry, popular culture, and science fiction. Influenced by minimalism, in 1964 Smithson declared his quasi-minimal sculptures made from industrial materials of metal and mirrored plexiglass as his “mature” works, distancing himself from his early expressionistic paintings and drawings. In 1965 he exhibited these works at the American Express Pavilion, New York World’s Fair.

Smithson is best known for his earthworks Spiral Jetty (1970), Broken Circle/Spiral Hill (1971), and Amarillo Ramp (1973). At age thirty-five, while photographing Amarillo Ramp, Smithson died in a small airplane accident, along with pilot Gale Ray Rogers and photographer Robert E. Curtin. Nancy Holt, Richard Serra and Tony Shafrazi completed Amarillo Ramp one month after his passing. Prior to this earthwork trilogy, Smithson created performative entropic earthworks, made to have a finite life rather than transform over long periods of time. The ephemeral earthworks Asphalt Rundown (1969, Rome), Glue Pour (1969, Vancouver), Concrete Pour (1969, Chicago), and Partially Buried Woodshed (1970, Kent State) speak poignantly to issues of time and the human condition.

Smithson’s writings on art, western culture, graphic texts, and interviews, are published in The Writings of Robert Smithson, edited by Nancy Holt (1979, New York University Press, with an expanded version edited by Jack Flam published in 1998).

Smithson's works are in numerous museum collections, including the Art Institute of Chicago, Dia Art Foundation, Museum of Modern Art, New York, National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Recently his work has been in solo exhibitions at the University of Queensland, Brisbane (2018); Montclair Museum of Art, New Jersey (2014); Dallas Museum of Art, Texas (2013); Reykjavik Art Museum, Iceland (2012); and Center for Visual Arts, Emmen, Netherlands (2011). In 2004 an important retrospective opened at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, California, traveled to the Dallas Museum of Art, Texas, and ended at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York in 2005.