When thinking of artist Robert Smithson, Times Square porn cinemas, sci-fi horror flicks, beefcake magazines and pulp fiction book covers probably don’t immediately come to mind. Changing the typically one-sided conception of Robert Smithson’s all-too-short artistic career, the recently closed exhibition Pop at James Cohan’s newly opened Lower East Side gallery space reveals the tacky, trashy and yes, even homoerotic inspirations behind Smithson’s early world of the 1960s.
I’ll be the first to admit–I’ve never been a huge fan of Smithson’s work, at least the portion of his creative output introduced to me as an undergraduate art history student. Known as the preeminent Land Artist with his iconic and constantly climate change-threatened Spiral Jetty, Smithson’s art always seemed to me to consist of either land installations that I would likely never visit and boxes of dirt and maps in white-walled gallery spaces. Surely, his overly intellectual and dare-I-say pretentious theoretical art writings forced unwillingly upon art history students didn’t help his cause either.
However, my art history professors sorely left out Smithson’s early Pop work–an underappreciated and often overlooked aspect of Smithson’s genesis as an artist. On display at James Cohan, Smithson’s electrified and collage-influenced color pencil drawings, featuring winged nudes straight out of the golden age of sleazy Times Square, geometric patterns and occasionally dinosaurs, as well as his strangely sexual wall-mounted sculptures, present a revelatory new side to Smithson’s oeuvre.
Spanning from 1962 to 1964, Smithson’s interest in landscape can be glimpsed–albeit subtly–in Pop through his unwavering engagement with the overmediated, oversexed and overstimulated energy of New York. Mirroring many of his fellow Pop artists during the 1960s, Smithson culls directly from the city around him. Rather than comic books like Lichtenstein or mass-produced products and advertisements like Warhol, Smithson instead appears fascinated by newsstand filth–kiosks hawking cheap pulp fiction tales, sci-fi comics and hypermasculine spank bank muscle mags such as Bob Mizer’s Physique Pictorial.
Appearing as a forefather to Raymond Pettibon’s frenetic, frantic and frazzled drawings combining Americanized references such as Charles Manson and baseball, Smithson’s drawings subversively bring together seemingly diverse elements including muscle bound nudes in gas masks, cowboys, Indians and even, Christian iconography with his preponderance of curvy nude women and burly men with angel wings. With their hypersexual and idealized bodies, Smithson’s drawings feature a distinct eroticism, and even homoeroticism, that disappears in his later work.
With their often abstract central panels and frequent brightly colored zig-zags, Smithson’s drawings appear psychedelic and Peter Max-reminiscent even before the hallucinatory genre really hit New York in the 60’s. Even some of the geometric patterns reflect mid-century kitsch such as the pink man-made haze of Pink Linoleum Center, a centerpiece to post-war suburban aesthetics.
Similarly, Smithson’s unrelentingly bizarre wall-mounted mixed media Dada-ist sculptures combine electronic parts with nude women. The two works The Machine Taking A Wife or Honeymoon Machine resemble Marcel Duchamp’s violent and volatile The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors Even, (The Large Glass) in their industrialized sexuality, depicting the clear erotic agency of the machines in contrast to the submissive woman. More than a little dystopian, Smithson’s sculptures reference the terrorizing possibilities of a future as machines become more prevalent and powerful.
However, my personal favorite sculpture has to be Smithson’s Untitled [Record Player], which features a mixed media conglomeration of objects inside a record player case. The top of the case includes a crucifix, flowers and a collection of photographs of Hollywood stars including Elvis Presley. Below, the circular record player is covered with what looks like tiny neon tchotchkes found in crappy arcade games.
With the combination of the sacred religious object–Elvis…oh wait, the crucifix with toys and celebrities, Smithson undeniably engages with the overly mined boundaries between high and low culture. At this point, the conflation of high and low art seems like a tired trope yet, in Smithson’s hands in the 60’s, the combination maintains its vibrancy. I mean, who wouldn’t want to see a sculpture of Venus matched with nude bikers.
While looking at his early work in Pop, the question arises: was Smithson making a critical statement about the too-muchness of mid-century urban culture of the 1960s only to reject it, turning toward the land in his later career for a purer source of inspiration?
I highly doubt it.
To me, Smithson’s drawings and sculptures in Pop look like a playful merging of the sordid and kitschy with the art historically revered. Rather than criticism, Smithson’s early art equalizes both high and low art. By enacting an exuberant celebration of the two, Smithson provides opportunity for viewers to recognize the similarities between high and low art including the idealization of bodies.