The late Robert Smithson is probably best known for his massive earthworks, namely “Spiral Jetty” and “Broken Circle/Spiral Hill,” as well as for his critical writings on Minimalism, mirrors, and monuments. Pop, an exhibition currently on view at James Cohan’s new Grand Street location, explores a more obscure phase of the artist’s tragically brief career: his figurative engagement with popular culture. These early works, 16 color pencil drawings and sculptures from 1962–64, were instrumental in Smithson’s path towards his ultimate vision.
A little background is important when understanding how Smithson went from drawing nude biker gangs to building “Spiral Jetty.” Before his focus turned to sculpture, he aspired to be an illustrator, taking cartooning, life drawing, painting, and composition classes at Manhattan’s Art Students League while attending high school in Clifton, New Jersey. Following his debut in 1959, Smithson’s second solo show occurred in Rome in 1961 at Galleria George Lester. He displayed a series of deeply religious paintings in red, black, and white with names like “Jesus Mocked,” “Creeping Jesus,” and “Feet of Christ.” Concurrently, Smithson was creating photo collages and pencil and ink drawings that he described as “phantasmagorical drawings of kind of cosmological worlds … a kind of Boschian imagery.” Indeed, these works show the type of apocalyptic earthly delights that would have thrilled the Dutch painter, like trees transforming into humans. But by 1962, Smithson was firmly moving away from the mythological and religious and was instead combining classical iconography and pop culture.
Which brings us to Pop. In the entryway, viewers are confronted with a piece that helps decode the rest of the show. “Sleeping Venus, Giorgione” (1964) is a pencil-and-crayon re-creation of the 1510 painting by the Italian artist, who also died in his 30s. Smithson surrounds her carefully detailed reclining figure with neon starbursts, suggesting that her sexual energy is exploding. The addition of lowbrow comic book explosions around the highbrow Renaissance figure heightens her eminence, like the gold surrounding biblical mosaics in the Hagia Sophia. The endowment of religious significance to kitsch and camp figures is key to Pop, and Smithson went on to continue this exploration in his later earthworks.
The primary focus of Pop is the series of pencil-and-crayon drawings in the main space, each following the formula of a central rectangle containing a geometric or humanoid element (“Striped Center,” “Pink linoleum center,” “Pink psychedelic center,” “Man in colonial American dress and Indian”) surrounded by a figural frame. Curator Eugenie Tsai, who has written extensively about Smithson’s early work, calls these pieces “comparative mythologies,” in which the artist creates a connection between classical and contemporary archetypal figures. Smithson himself compared them to cartouches, ancient Egyptian symbols of identification. Unlike hieroglyphs, Smithson’s figures are only “sort of involved in a kind of way,” as he told curator Paul Cummings in 1972, meaning that they do not convey an iconographic language. Like his earlier drawings, these untitled works combine the sacred and the secular, only this time their source material is B movies, pin-ups, magazines, comics, motorcycle gangs, and porn. “Untitled [Venus with lightening bolts]” (1964) features bikers, both nude and leather clad, a blond angel with electric wings making a phone call, a flying pistol, and a gartered angel eerily foretelling a favorite Victoria’s Secret look. These figures only become campy through pose, accessories, or color; without any of those details, they could be sculptures Smithson would have viewed during his 1961 trip to Rome.
On a far wall are three plexiglass collages showing the sexual power of technology. “The Machine Taking a Wife” (1964) connects a photo of a machine and one of a woman’s nude chest via a large rectifier tube. As indicated by two yellow lightning bolts, the connection is electrifying. A similar scenario exists in “Honeymoon Machine” (1964), in which a nude woman’s high-voltage ecstasy is suggested by a hot pink frame, while the circuit in “Radio Cyclops” (1964) jolts open an eye. These works reflect a disjointed field of vision that foreshadows Smithson’s shattered glass and mirror works, as well as his interest in plastics.
Finally, in a small rear room remain the final few drawings and a small record player. The box for the latter is covered in pictures of men and women, collaged words, and dollar-store details. Inside, the platter has become a hot pink pond, filled with neon swans and naked plastic infants. If you haven’t already been convinced, this final coup once again says this is not the Robert Smithson you thought you knew, but you are so glad to know him now.
1964, the year Pop ends, marked the beginning of Smithson’s self-proclaimed “function as a conscious artist. … I think I started doing works then that were mature. I would say that prior to the 1964-65 period I was in a kind of groping, investigative period,” he told Cummings. Anthropomorphism would be completely eliminated from his art: he would turn away from the body and face the land. Pop is a reminder that every artist has work like Smithson’s, work that is experimental and imperfect in its own way, but indispensable to their growth.
Robert Smithson: Pop continues at James Cohan Gallery (291 Grand Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through January 17.