Robert Smithson in his studio, New York c.1960
© Estate of Robert Smithson
Robert Smithson in his studio, New York c.1960
© Estate of Robert Smithson
In the decade or so before Rothko’s death his way of doing art became widely admired by younger artists such as Robert Smithson. In the mid 1950s at the age of sixteen Smithson started attending the Art Students League in New York, a teenage refuge from the stifling small town culture of nearby Passaic New Jersey. In a studio photograph he commissioned in 1961 just before his first one-man show he presents what he knows about himself: poised in the middle of his dialectic of desire he, too, was a captive of a battle between the blind enjoyment of two Others (fig.2).
When Robert Smithson came to New York he brought with him an appreciation of the power of a categorical imperative and for rational thinking partly received from his family history. As a boy Robert had to deal with the knowledge that he was a replacement child for a brother who had died slowly and painfully from leukaemia. The need to make sense of this family inscription was partly filled by his maiden aunt who lived with them, and her cosmological and theological ruminations.
It would seem that it was Aunt Julia, his ‘second mother’ as he called her, who posed a question that came to haunt the young Robert for much of his life: how could God be considered rational if this kind of death was an instance of his laws? Robert also had to account for himself in the context that he, too, was being monitored for the symptoms of leukaemia, he, too, was inscribed in an argument in the Real that threatened his life. Smithson’s appreciation for the way he is inscribed in the cosmos was, in his early years in New York City, matched by his appreciation of Christian icon painting: both were encouraged by his reading of modernist poets and critics such as T.S. Eliot and T.E. Hulme, and literature on Christian mysticism. But even more than Rothko, Smithson was engaged by Jungian self-analysis.
At the age of twenty-three, as Smithson read this literature, he made a series of paintings for his first one-man show, held in Rome in August 1961. The presence of the photographer in the studio just before the show was shipped to Rome allowed him to create a statement, a photograph that identifies his position between The Ikons of Good and Evil. Two enjoying substances flank him in this picture: one is an icon of an Aztec god who enjoys eating the subject, the other is an icon of a crucified Christ. At the time, his letters speak of his wish for visions of a ‘divine suffering’. What he knows through Jung, although not present in the letters, is that he is caught between two archetypes. In one sense he may know that he is caught between a psychotic option and a neurotic option. The Aztec icon depicts the blind enjoyment of a brutally powerful god, one that threatens a consummation of his blood that dissolves him as a subject. The Christ icon shows a god who sacrifices his own blood such that the subject may know the law of a forgiving god.
I would like to suggest that in another sense he was caught between a sadistic option and a masochistic option. The Aztec god is sadistic but allows that the subject is granted a magically infinite body; there is a kind of immortality in being an object of its enjoyment. The Aztec god imposes a sadistic external necessity that the subject accepts as an objective categorical imperative; although the subject’s desire is humiliated, his body cannot be destroyed lest enjoyment cease. In the case of the Christian icon, a son accepts his father’s law regardless of the suffering and humiliation it causes. Christ has to match his desire with the desire of god, and in this masochism the subject is also granted immortality.
These paintings raise many questions. Does Smithson identify with these gods? Does he worship them? Or are they statements of what he has come to know through his attempts at having Jungian visions of an Other place? In the case of the pleasure of this photograph I think it is the latter case: he uses the photograph to demonstrate what he knows about desire, not what he desires by way of identification or defence. The clue to this lies in a third painting seen just above his head on the back wall of the studio. A young sexualised subject lies bound and receptive as an object of desire. In this photograph he sets up a scene in which he is framed by two superegos, two Others whose desires both support and bar him from his desire. This is worth comparing to Rothko. Rothko brought an internal Other in to support him as a subject in a battle with an external Other that was able to smoother or desubjectify him. Smithson brings in an object of desire, an ethical Thing, to support him as a subject in a battle with two Others that could similarly desubjectify him, make him into an object of their blind enjoyment. These Others could also help him to get his object of enjoyment. He is responsible for creating the ethical grounds on which these two conflicting maxims are necessary.
One of the books Smithson read at this time was Jung’s explanation of historical myths as expressions of a process of male maturation in which the libido is switched from mother to wife, a process accomplished by a transformation of childhood archetypal conflicts into a single unified image of God.10
Jung shows him what Kant also maintained: it is the subject that must create the ethical ground, must find a Thing to elevate to the ethical status of law. Unlike Kant, however, Jung does not regard desire as necessarily pathological. There is an ethics of desire, a ‘truth’ to desire that would warrant the making of an icon to it. The painting The Eye of Blood
1961, made several months after the paintings in this photograph, has many formal similarities to the images of a unified libido that Jung provides in the illustrations of his book. Jung prompts Smithson to consider his mythical traumatic relations to two maternal superegos and then establish an ethical regard for his own libido, to maintain an unhumiliated desire for an object. The painting consists of a bloody spiral composed of red paint over magazine collage clippings. He arrives at this image in what he describes as a powerful vision that dispels his demons, and later as a painfully frozen image that leaves him in a deadlock of his own making. The painting borders on being a Thing in the Real; the bloody spiral could overwhelm the collaged objects of reality. It comes close to being an image of the enjoying substance within his own body, and precariously close to an image of the substance of enjoyment found in his two Others of The Ikons of Good and Evil
Why consider this as psychosis rather than neurosis or perversion? Smithson’s dilemma has a parallel with Rothko in that for both their enjoyment threatens a desubjectification. More than a guilt, there is a substantial anxiety that the spiral of blood would erupt in the Real. This is something that needs a strong reality check, a way to retain the Thing in reality rather than in the Real. For this he needs to answer for himself the question ‘what is the rational law of blood?’ Does it answer to his desire, or the desires of the Others, or does it obey the law?
Smithson later married and began what he called his mature work. This work has found its ethical ground, its law. He has concluded that the rationale of the cosmos is entropy; the spontaneous dissipation of energy. The law of entropy, third law of thermodynamics, is taken as the sublime categorical imperative to which all wills must assent. Smithson is Kantian in his search for the sublime Other of the Other, the law under which even the Other is inscribed.
In his first published essay ‘Entropy and the New Monuments’ (1966), Smithson presents the artist as a director of entropy, a maker of monuments to desubjectification. While this has a morbid side, his own monument to entropy, the sculpture Enantiomorphic Chambers 1964 has its erotic potential. Why? With the help of an entropic image of the self (what is sometimes called the ‘barber-shop effect’ of parallel mirrors that reflect to infinity) one can avoid the commands of the Others. A certain amount of controlled desubjectification allows a distinction to be made between the superego and the law, and to see both of them as having a relation to an enjoying substance somewhere over the horizon of comprehension. In the essay Smithson cited and praised a range of contemporary artists who made theatrical monuments to a controlled entropic desubjectification. These sculptures were sublime ethical Things that could be visited in the world. Similarly, Smithson praises the torpor of desire in Warhol’s films and in the formal simplicity of minimalism. The assent to the law of entropy gives ethical dignity; one is not humiliated by the imaginary Other. And, entropy is free from Hegelian or Marxist theories of the historical contingency of the law. Entropy is the proof of the very existence of time itself. He asks his readers to operate on a scale of thought and time so grand as to raise the question of delusion. Entropy emerges as the rational of the cosmos, the universal law to which all supersensible beings must assent, and yet it is also a law of desubjectivication.
Rothko got caught in a psychosis of his own creation and despite the parallels, Smithson does not. One reason this may be is that Smithson theatricalised psychosis and reason in the same measure. His success as a writer depended on his ability to tease out what Kant called the vague space between the imaginary and the rational, in effect creating a theatre of reason and madness on a single stage of desire. Smithson’s stage is inhabited not by specific fantasies but by the structural elements of fantasy, its ‘impossible objects’ such as mirrors and vanishing points. Smithson would engulf everything, an old hotel, a woodshed, the magazine on the reader’s lap and even language itself into a Thing participating in the drama of entropy. But in pushing reality as far as he can into the Real, he always returns empty handed; entropy rules again and he is thrown out, never having really crossed past reality to a place truly of the Other.
I would like to suggest then that Rothko and Smithson take on the categorical imperative as it leads to the Real, but that Smithson’s skill, his sentiment de la vie, is to theatricalise the Real; it is what will make him picturesque. The subject that emerges in the essay has a will to make of art a theatricalised glimpse of the Real in reality. He provides a tour of the pure faculties of desire in the cosmos, inhabited over and over by the pure objects of desire, the vanishing point, the mirror, the horizon line. It is here that he lays his ethical grounds. He understands the sublime, he knows he has to be the author of the law that constitutes his subjectivity.
This ethic can be seen in Smithson’s response to Michel Fried’s defence of Rothko and other abstract painters against the ‘theatricality’ of minimalism.11
Smithson pointed out that Fried’s attack on theatricality was itself theatrical; it was a question of where one sought to be theatrical, Is the artist to be theatrical in art or theatrical in the world? The important thing for Smithson was where the artist sought to make the Thing emerge, and here his assent to a law in the Real allows an ethical relation to the reality of the world. This is evident, too, in Smithson’s interests in the German phenomenological philosopher Martin Heidegger; man is a being-in-the-world who is subject to entropy. And when Smithson turns to the sciences of physics and geology, he finds that all matter is headed toward energy loss and stasis in a crystalline structure. The essay played across a line in a way that appealed to scientists and artists alike. Was this essay an hallucination about science or science about hallucination?
Ithaca Mirror Trail, Ithaca, New York 1969
image (map): 525 x 365 mm image, each (photographs): 510 x 760 mm
Purchased with funds provided by the American Patrons of the Tate Gallery, courtesy of the Tate American Collectors Forum 2002
© The estate of Robert Smithson/VAGA, New York/DACS, London 2006
Ithaca Mirror Trail, Ithaca, New York 1969
Purchased with funds provided by the American Patrons of the Tate Gallery, courtesy of the Tate American Collectors Forum 2002 © The estate of Robert Smithson/VAGA, New York/DACS, London 2006
Unlike Rothko, Smithson takes the Thing out in the world, out in reality. The difference can be seen in a work such as Ithaca Mirror Trails
1969 (fig.3), where he uses the same formal trope as Rothko, a square shape set against a rectilinear ground, a background with an inner square that repeats the frame. But Smithson uses a mirror for a square, and the landscape as a ground.
In this work reality is not indexed by the flat materiality of the canvas support and frame. Smithson has shifted the frame. Reality is the external world, its material support. Into this he places the mirror. Anywhere in the world of reality the Real can be seen, conjured, made to erupt. By repeating this formal trope over and over Smithson gives us the cinematic effect that Žižek suggests we use in Rothko’s work to see the eruption of the Thing in the Real.
For Rothko the tension between flatness and depth is pursued to the point at which the abstraction of limits reveals the presence of the Thing, of enjoying substance located at the heart of the field of the Other and intruding into the subject’s experience. The tension between flatness and depth in Rothko’s work becomes an impossible vacillation that collapses with the approach of the Real. The point with Rothko is that the pure freedom of the categorical imperative goes in the direction of this without limits, and that for Smithson even this direction ends with entropy. Entropy is the without limits that need not entirely desubjectivise the subject. In acting as the universal limit it resubjectivises the subject in the world. It is worth noting here a remark Smithson made in an interview in 1970 where he proposes that the subject is inscribed as a limit not just in an argument of art or language but in the world: to the question, ‘When Yves Klein signed the world, would you say that was a way of overcoming limits?’, he responded, ‘No, because then he still has the limits of the world’.12
Ithaca Mirror Trails was made and documented as a cinematic encounter of the limits of reality in the Real, one that leads on to another and another instance with moments of recuperation of the body in between. For a moment the body is occupied by the Thing and then it is not; it must be done again and again leading to a truly sublime encounter. The trail leads somewhere, to a salt mine with a cave, a feminine womb is mentioned from the mythologies of mining. It is a mine of crystalline salt, a place in reality where all matter has done its duty to the law of entropy, but here there is no art, no photographs in the impenetrable darkness, and for good reason: the effect of the Real is lost. The enjoyment of the Other is non-specular, and rationally not limitless at all. There is only a wonderfully grainy photograph of him coming out of the cave in the afterthoughts of an encounter with the drives. He is theatrical in giving us the non-site of the Real and not a bit of a charlatan, as his aunt Julia used to call him.
If we go back to the photograph of the young Smithson in his studio we see the advance he has made. The drives are not just in art, they are in the world; revealing them as material empirical facts of the world strips them of their pathological character. More than this, it reveals the faculty of desire in man as one and the same faculty in the world. He need not be humiliated in his desire by these powerful often sado-masochistic drives; he can sit in the middle with his own ‘natural’ faculty of desire intact.
Spiral Jetty April 1970
Black rock, salt crystals, earth, red water (algae)
3½ X 15 X 1500 feet
© Estate of Robert Smithson / licensed by VAGA, New York, NY; Collection: DIA Center for the Arts, New York
Photograph: Gianfranco Gorgoni
Spiral Jetty April 1970
© Estate of Robert Smithson / licensed by VAGA, New York, NY; Collection: DIA Center for the Arts, New York Photograph: Gianfranco Gorgoni
The story Smithson presented around the making of the Mirror Trails was a theatricalised struggle to remain subjectivised even after an exposure to the full force of the drives. Several months later he found a site on the Great Salt Lake of Utah, a lake so heavily coloured by red algae that it appears to be a lake of blood. This became the site of his most famous work, Spiral Jetty
Filmed from a helicopter, and with sunstroke threatening his clarity of mind, Smithson walked along the spiral jetty to its end. This was a carefully orchestrated shot, one that he diagrammed with the pilot and cameraman such that when he reached the end he appears to dissolve into the sunlight reflected from the water, reeling in a spiral of blood. The Thing does not erupt in the Real. If anything, he walks back in reality, tired and reflective, even depressed. The walk returns his body to him. If Rothko and Smithson had Jung to show them how to psychoticise their artistic practice, by 1967 Smithson also had Anton Ehrenzweig (1908–66), who shows how to formulate an exit strategy. In The Hidden Order of Art
Ehrenzweig used Melanie Klein’s concept of a ‘dedifferentiation’ leading to an ‘undifferentiation’ that produces an encounter with the Real, but with a return via a ‘schizo-depressive position’.13
Smithson had a way out of the psychotic potential of the sublime, a way back to the picturesque.
In the land reclamation work he undertook in his last years after Spiral Jetty, and in his essay on Frederick Law Olmsted (designer of Central Park in New York), Smithson showed an ambition to be an artist-negotiator between ‘man and land’, between industrialist and ecologist, an ambition to turn his practice away from the sublime and to the picturesque. This phase of work deserves further attention beyond the scope of this paper. But what he proposes as a negotiator is that a categorical imperative can be both a scientific principle and the real harbourer of the drives. We would tend to think of the drives as something pathological, something that is at work only in the hypothetical imperative. Smithson’s point will be that it is when we are most rational that we are also closest to the drives.