In its rigor and heft, its scope and illustrations, the new Robert Smithson exhibition catalogue is as compelling as a codex. Published on the occasion of a major traveling retrospective originating at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (MoCA), itconveys the gravity of its subject through an encyclopedic array of entries: an exacting survey of Smithson's career by the exhibition's curator, Eugenie Tsai; a scholarly essay by an internationally esteemed art historian (Thomas Crow); an unpublished interview (conducted by Moira Roth) rescued from the dustbin of history; and shorter, more specific takes on diverse aspects of Smithson's practiceóthe logic of salt in his work; his enantiomorphic chambers; his architectural ambitions; his formative impact on contemporary art. These texts make an unequivocal case for the singularity of Smithson's contribution, detailing a much more complex picture of the artist than that of the cowboy architect behind Spiral Jetty. And yet it's a testament to Smithson's contrariness, his dialectical inversions and marked skepticism about art criticism in general, that the most telling document on his current status lies buried near the book's conclusion. There the reader will find a catalogue of Smithson's library and record collection, nearly fifteen pages of minuscule type recording his protean bibliographic appetites. One surveys these extensive holdings with almost voyeuristic fascination. Yes, the usual Smithsonian suspects are out in full forceóBallard, Borges, and Burroughs, to name the most obvious contendersóbut who would have thought to find a Frantz Fanon represented, or a Kate Millett for that matter? And Frank Sinatra?
Once armed with this information, however, what is one to do with it? Although the contents of Smithson's library have been published several times before (and though their appearance in this retrospective context may seem a fait accompli to students of the "entropologist"), it's worth musing on the strangeness of this editorial gesture. I can think of few artists, contemporary or otherwise, whose book collection warrants this kind of scrutiny. Compiled by the art historian Valentin Tatransky shortly after the artist's death in 1973, Smithson's library has effectively become an emblem for the new literature on him, which more or less treats his archive as a confrontation with history itself. And to be sure, complementing the moca retrospective, three recent books articulate the artist's new historiographic fortunes, including the works of two Smithson scholars, Ann Reynolds and Jennifer Roberts, who are also featured in the catalogue. In Robert Smithson: Learning from New Jersey and Elsewhere and Mirror-Travels: Robert Smithson and History, both authors are plainspoken about their historical charge. In addition to discussing work generally untreated in the standard Smithson fare, Reynolds writes that her book "had a second focus, history itself or, more specifically, the problem of how to address contemporary art in terms of history." For her part, Roberts writes in her introduction that a key goal of hers was "to historicize Smithson's work."
What is at stake in this claim to the archive and history, the collective efforts to construct a historical Smithson now? Like many artists in the '60s, Smithson displayed a profound consciousness of historical time and temporal process in his visual and writerly pursuits alike. And as the student of Continental philosophy knows all too well, the archive is a well-worn if clearly not exhausted critical trope: The archaeological endeavors of Foucault have slipped into the fever dream of Derrida. But the archive represents something quite different for Reynolds and Roberts than these poststructural touchstones from the philosophical domain, as does the relationship they would establish between the archive and history itself. It is their books' respective differences toward history that make them fascinating as documents of current research.
Let me be up front in my admiration for Reynolds and Roberts and their meticulous efforts to muddy the Smithsonian picture. Their work goes far to make strange the Smithson we had all grown accustomed to, the forebear of postmodernism in the art of the '80s. But, as both authors are quick to point out, this kind of historicizing venture is not without its hazards. At its most excessive, some writing on Smithson recalls Nietzsche's description of historians as "inquisitive tourists or pedantic micrologists"óthose who take history as an article of faith and the archive as the quickest path to revelation. With every last scrap in his holdings accorded near-cosmic significance, Smithson is well primed to become the Marcel Duchamp of the postwar set, a figure for whom no amount of documentary excavation ever seems enough. (In making this comparison, I'm reminded of a friendóa Duchamp scholar, it needs to be saidówho once joked that Duchamp scholars were the "Trekkies" of art history, completists in their data mongering and their fetish for historical gossip.) It's for this and other reasons that Moira Roth's interview with Smithson, published in the moca catalogue, proves as methodologically suggestive as it is historically insightful. Dating from 1973, the interview focuses on the centrality of Duchamp for postwar art. Smithson, who betrays more than a passing annoyance with the master, gives vent to what he sees as the false divide that has structured recent histories of art, which presents the modern of the '20s and '30s, represented by Picasso and Matisse, as having been surpassed by the postmodern influence of Duchamp after the war. For Smithson, the notion that the postmodern somehow "transcends" or trumps the modern is just another spin of the historicizing wheel. As such, Roth's interview unintentionally anticipates the questions we now face in Smithson criticism.
To gloss Smithson's own reception is to confirm, paradoxically, the circular turn of this historiographic logic, as well as the urgency behind recent attempts to ground Smithson's practice historically. But it is also to take stock of the shape-shifting that has occurred more generally within the study of postwar art over the past twenty years, whether "modernist," "postmodernist," or "Americanist" in temper and kind. Since Smithson's papers were acquired by the Archives of American Art at the Smithsonian Institution in 1987, there has been a wave of scholarship that's made excellent use of these holdings (including Robert Smithson Unearthed: Drawings, Collages, Writings, by Eugenie Tsai, the exhibition catalogue to Robert Sobieszek's successful show on Smithson's photo works at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; and Caroline Jones's 1996 Machine in the Studio: Constructing the Postwar American Artist). Reynolds's and Roberts's booksóand, to a lesser extent, Ron Graziani's Robert Smithson and the American Landscapeóserve not so much as correctives or rejoinders to these efforts as extensions of their initial discoveries, deepening the historical arguments around the source material of the archive.
Yet any recent attempt to recuperate Smithson's work as the work of history is also a confrontation with another brilliant art critic who, like Smithson, died far too young. The shadow figure who looms at the margins of the new Smithson publications is Craig Owens, and it is toward his larger account of postmodernism that today's authors gesture, with varying degrees of specificity. When Owens published his seminal essays on Smithsonó"Earthwords" (October, 1979) and "The Allegorical Impulse: Towards a Theory of Postmodernism" (October, 1980)óhe could hardly have predicted that his would become the most influential discourse on Smithson's practice for some twenty years. In the later essay, Smithson's work served as the platform from which Owens mounted a larger theory of the postmodern: He argued that language erupts, allegorically, from the center of a range of artistic practices (with Smithson as exemplary), thus undermining the alleged purity of the modernist work of art, which is seemingly resistant to discourse. Owens's approach to Smithson's practice, which finds complements in the writings of Rosalind Krauss and the philosopher Gary Shapiro, leaned heavily on Barthes, Foucault, and Derrida to articulate the art-historical shift that Smithson's work announced.
Nor could Owens have imagined how the opening of the Smithson archive after the publication of the critic's essays has led to something of a backlash against postmodern interpretations of the artist, not to mention the attendant poststructuralist declarations that come with the territory. As Roberts writes of many of the efforts that seem to follow Owens's example: "It is one thing to wave away, with a flick of the poststructuralist wrist, a historical metanarrative; it is quite another to do so to an earth's worth of rocks and ruins." Here we have an image of the postmodern as historically effete, ill equipped to shoulder the weightiness of history. Although Smithson's posthumous reception is largely outside the parameters of both Reynolds's and Roberts's archives, the postmodern is precisely what compelled both to move back within the archive's confines.
But whatever the attitude taken toward postmodernism by Smithson's interpreters, the overarching lesson for method is unavoidable: Smithson's readerly inclinations are at the crux of their interpretations, and the archive will take on the role of history itself. A marked shift in the objects of study has occurred, too: Today's Smithson is less bound up in the semiotic arcana favored by an Owens or Krauss than the hall of mirrors enabled by his enantiomorphic chambers; less compelled by "the museum of language in the vicinity of art" than the iconography of the crystal or the symbolism of his religious imagery.
Ann Reynolds's preface in Learning from New Jersey and Elsewhere begins with a declaration-cum-disclaimer: "My aim is not to offer the definitive, historically correct Smithson but to propose a way to remain historically conscious when writing about contemporary artists. . . . I consider what it was possible to discuss in the 1960s and early 1970s, how these discussions and their objects and images looked, and what could be assumed and therefore remain unsaid." Reynolds, a professor of art history at the University of Texas, Austin, is not interested in a conventional monographic study of the artist but one that foregrounds the Smithson archive as an oeuvre with its own internal logic. Nor is she concerned with the archive per se as theorized by poststructuralism: "I am not working with the archive as a strictly theoretical concept here," Reynolds offers in a note. "For example, I did seriously consider addressing Michel Foucault's work on the archive . . . but in the end decided that such a discussion took me too far from [my] own focus on a particular archive with a particular set of arbitrary but none the less [sic] physical and historical limits." Reynolds's archive, instead, is a collective font of information from which larger claims about Smithson's historical moment are extrapolated:
When considering Smithson's entire archive, its contents become less unique, less individually specific, since they include images, materials, and a record of activities that were part of a large number of people's lives and, consequently, part of a particular period of history that extends well beyond the personal history of the artist or his work. When considered as part of this archive, Smithson's work remains embedded within a broad sampling of its historical context, and it can be more readily recognized as part of this context.
For the time being, I'll leave aside the question as to how artists readóhow they bring this kind of knowledge to bear on their practice. Let's also forgo momentarily the question of how an archiveósomething that is necessarily idiosyncratic and subjective; "arbitrary," to follow Reynolds's wordsócomes to stand as history. General as these questions may be, they remain critical to many of the recent studies of Smithson, which treat the relationship between text and work as axiomatic.
The merits of Reynolds's study are twofold. First, she is deeply rigorous in her attention to objects typically left out of the Smithson literatureóworks dating from 1965 to 1969 that include photocollages and earlier abstract sculpture. In the chapter "Perceiving Abstraction," Reynolds methodically attends to the sculptural work generally lumped under the rubric of Minimalism, with the result that the Smithson detailed here, as throughout the volume, is wholly implicated in questions of vision. Parsing both formal and conceptual differences between Smithson and peers of his, such as Robert Morris, not only does Reynolds recover something of the specificity of Smithson's practice relative to theories of abstraction in the '60s (here she expands the field to include not only the Clement Greenbergs and Michael Frieds and Frank Stellas of the world, but the wayward and hugely popular form of "perceptual abstraction" best known as Op art), but she also weighs in on larger cultural debates of the decade about perceptual psychology. Her analysis of the "Alogons," Smithson's stepped sculptural works, for instance, hinges on a critique of perspective and theories of abstraction: The "Alogons" render alternating perspective figures in sculptural form, in the process thwarting the viewer's expectations of an immediately graspable gestalt. Reynolds's reading of Smithson's Enantiomorphic Chambers, 1965, is likewise incisively drawn. Taken from the rhetoric of crystallography, an enantiomorph consists of two crystalline compounds whose molecular structures mirror each other exactly. Smithson literalized this principle by fabricating two steel structures into which mirrors were installed at oblique angles; when the viewer stepped between them, the expectation of a coherent, binocular image was defeated by the endless play of reflections the chambers set in motion. This and related works, Reynolds tells us, represented Smithson's intervention into a wider, extra-aesthetic discourse on perception, bolstered by the artist's close readings of E.H. Gombrich and M.D. Vernon, among others. Smithson's critique of formalism is well known at this point; but the virtue of Reynolds's study is that it demonstrates the extent to which Smithson troubled formalism's claims and exposed its limitations as a function of a wider social discourse on vision and opticality across the cultural spectrum. And it is her access to Smithson's archiveóto drawings in books, to marginalia, to unpublished journalsóthat allows her to build her case.
The tendency in all of these arguments is to locate within the archive a set of texts that animate Smithson's artistic production and in turn radiate to other places within the culture, subsequently finding expression in alternate arenas of his practice. So, for example, in Reynolds's chapter on Smithson's 1967 New Jersey idyll, "Monuments of Passaic"óa photo essay/performance/grand tour of a kind that infamously proclaimed Smithson's native town of Passaic to be the new RomeóReynolds meshes the artist's fascination with cartography and surveying techniques with his earlier critique of perspective; she does so in order to argue that the experience of contemporary urbanism is itself a kind of enantiomorphic chamber, a scattering of vision that finds an analogous touchstone in Smithson's thinking about "cinematized" filmic technologies. Forging these analogical chains, Reynolds effectively draws out deeper and more complex connections between Smithson's earlier work and the site material for which he is best known. Her reading stitches together seemingly discontinuous points of information that carefully account for the concrete material of the archive.
This point sheds additional light on the second contribution of Reynolds's book: its reliance on a morphological analysis to enable these connections. Reynolds leans on Carlo Ginzburg's notion of morphological history to describe Smithson's archive and working methods; George Kubler's theory of the form class also provides conceptual ballast. This allows Reynolds to distill patterns in Smithson's work that would have remained undetected had her interpretations been more thematic or iconographically driven. In this sense, her version of history for Smithson, for his archive, reaches different conclusions from those proposed by Jennifer Roberts, even as the two make use of the same materials.
Indeed, morphology allows Reynolds to make startling connections across the far-flung regions of Smithson's archive. Consider her discussion of two Life magazine covers. One, dating from 1967, displays a young African-American boy felled by a gunshot wound during the summer of racial crisis in Newark; across the cover's surface, Smithson has scrawled the words primary structuresówhich is also the title of the formative exhibition of abstract sculpture that, for all intents and purposes, launched Minimalism as an art-world phenomenon (an article about the show appeared in that same issue). It's a provocative, jarring juxtaposition; but for Reynolds it's also a demonstration of the ways in which Smithson's archive functions. For her, the organizational logic of the archiveóhis patterns of using information, his virtual cross-referencing of the aesthetic and extra-aestheticófacilitate an analysis that sees all this ephemera as part of a greater whole. The archive, in short, is a system that contains within itself a range of variables wholly continuous with one another. Another cover from Lifeóthe lunar surface photographed by the Apollo astronauts in 1969óyields a comparison to Smithson's cover for Artforum published just a month later: a distribution of mirrors across a square of parched earth, one of a number of illustrations from his "Incidents of Mirror-Travel in the Yucatan." Placing these images together, which speaks to an argument about travel as a form of cultural repetition that suspends an experience of the present, demands a great deal of archival legwork on Reynolds's part. She is systematic, even painstaking in building on her documentary sourcesópostcards, announcement cards, books in the archiveóto forward her argument for the legitimacy of the connection between the two magazine covers. One wonders, though, if mere speculation wouldn't draw these sources together just as convincingly to make the larger historical arguments that, for better or worse, cannot be "proved" in any causal manner.
This flags a potential problem with a morphological approach to the archive: the fact that sameness, or rather similitude, always trumps difference when it comes to artifacts. The great strength of Reynolds's morphology is that it fosters connections, exposes deep structures, and brings together wide-ranging material without reducing it to a caricature of themes. The danger is that morphology has a tendency to totalize, and to level differences. Throughout Learning from New Jersey and Elsewhere, Reynolds walks this line deftly in her call for a nondefinitive yet historical Smithson. But if the archive is a system, it can also become a closed system, as if to confirm Claude Lévi-Strauss's notion (phantasmic, to my thinking) of "pure historicity," which Reynolds cites at her book's conclusion. Because Reynolds's work does not entertain too many extra-archival voices, there are moments when the production of history (with Smithson's holdings at its center) seems to operate like this closed system, or closed circuitóseemingly impermeable to the reach of the present.
A different, though not wholly incompatible, claim to history is advanced in Jennifer Roberts's Mirror-Travels: Robert Smithson and History. Although the text weighs in at fewer than 140 pages, it is a richly textured read. Roberts, an assistant professor of the history of art and architecture at Harvard University, is as nimble as Reynolds in her navigation of the archive, and the ease with which she plumbs its murk is aptly communicated through her dynamic prose. Mirror-Travels also bears the distinction of making some of the boldest arguments in all of the recent Smithson literature, which to some will undoubtedly come across as so much postmodern apostasy. Suffice it to say here that Roberts's claims revolve around Smithson's religiosity and what Roberts argues is a certain will to transcendence, however ambivalently expressed on the artist's part.
One measure of the ambitions of Mirror-Travels is telegraphed through its first illustrationóan image of Smithson's passport, replete with the usual official details of his person: date of birth, height, eye color. We are treated also to a photograph of Smithson's typically grim visage, his lank hair, tightly set mouth, and thick black eyeglass frames offering a portrait of the artist as Serious Type. In other words, we are confronting a biographical subjectóa historical personage, and an unabashedly American one, no lessóat some remove, not only from the postmodern Smithson of yore (whatever happened to the Death of the Author?) but from Reynolds's antimonographic Smithson as well. In scouring the artist's archive, his books and letters in particular, Roberts is acutely sensitive to shifts in his intellectual temperament around the problem of history; as a result her narrative is chronological. In the course of five chapters, her book charts the developmental arc of this attitude, from Smithson's early religious paintings to his crystallographic objects to his essays on the Passaic and the Yucatán to Spiral Jetty.
For Roberts, Smithson's engagement with "continuance"ówhat she describes as "a term he used in opposition to the atomism and presentism of psychobiographical models of art criticism"óprovides the takeoff point for her investigations. More broadly stated, "continuance" expresses Smithson's particular sense of contiguity throughout and between historical epochs, although Roberts is quick to reject any notion of the transhistorical in his art. For her, continuance is the key to understanding Smithson's practice historically, far less so than parsing the Smithson whose work succumbs to the siren song of postmodernism, or makes the obligatory nod to Walter Benjamin, or indulges poststructuralist theorizing. You can sympathize with Roberts's frustration as a historianóher sense that most writing on Smithson has failed to take up the historical associations his works profferóeven as you wish she would accommodate more of his posthumous reception. She has her reasons for leaving much of this to the side, to be sure. There's little doubt that some of the worst offenders in the Smithson industry (in addition to the archival fetishists) take the spirit of the postmodern a little too literally, as if all that talk of the free play of the signifier granted license for its extravagant abuse.
More on that shortly. Instead, with refreshing candor, Roberts describes her own experience in the archive as yielding surprising results about Smithson's relationship to history: "Smithson's work," she writes, "often attempts to define a teleology that incorporates history and yet leads through and out of it into a timeless, posthistorical stasis." In the space of one paragraph alone, Roberts bravely invokes the two t'sóteleology and transcendenceóthat serve as fighting words for partisans of the poststructuralist Smithson, let alone any historian of the modern; but she does so in order to make a historical claim about the artist. The first chapter is an opening salvo in this regard. Roberts takes up Smithson's early religious paintings to argue that a peculiar formulation of the transcendental or eschatological in this work (that which would effectively stem the passage of time) is a confrontation with historyóhistory here meaning the degradations of the contemporary world as well as the contemporary art to which Smithson was endlessly exposed, from Pollock to Kaprow. Much of the information Roberts marshals here will be news to those unversed in the esoteric Smithson, and certainly those who would claim him as a postmodern heretic in his own right; these paintings, after all, produced on the occasion of Smithson's first one-person show (in Rome in 1961), were shown only once in his lifetime. (Eugenie Tsai and Caroline Jones have written about works of the same period, but where Jones is concerned with the peculiar homoerotics of Smithson's quasi-religious drawings and collages, Roberts necessarily has to purge these images from her account. A camp Jesus and a spate of lascivious putti, after all, do not square with the mordant worldview proffered by the artist in this context.) Instead Roberts mines the archive to draw on a variety of sources (letters to the gallerist George Lester, and to the artist and his future spouse, Nancy Holt; Smithson's formulation of the "iconoscope," an "iconoclastic instrument" that functions somewhere between the sacred and profane; a book that bears the most excellent title Animals Without Backbones) in order to portray an artist wrestling with faith as he struggles also to gain a toehold in the New York art world. He is an artist ambivalent, in other words, about the worldliness of that world.
Many fans of Smithson would just as soon shelve his homilies and weird Christian hieroglyphs and get straight to the good stuff, beginning with the crystalline structures. Smithson's figurative works, a strange, near-gothic hybrid somewhere between William Blake and Georges Rouault, are hardly equal to his sculptural métier; but, to her credit, Roberts's careful scrutiny of their formal as well as conceptual acrobatics compels the reader to look more closely. Indeed, her analysis in this chapter is crucial to the overarching narrative of a historically transcendent (transcendentally historical?) Smithson. The second chapter makes brilliant use of this conceit. In one of the most striking passages of art history I've read in a while, Roberts connects a Mannerist altarpiece Smithson studied at length with the abstract sculpture he began making in the mid-'60s, by bridging a discussion of Jacopo Pontormo's Descent from the Cross, 152528, a deposition image composed around the rotational forms of its sacral actors, to the spiraling forms and crystalline structures of works such as Gyrostasis, 1968. What connects them in Smithson's oeuvre, Roberts argues, is their attitude toward the deposition of time: Pontormo's languorous Christ now exhibits a "depositional temporality," whereas the growth process of a crystal is itself called a "deposition." It says something about Roberts's gifts as a polemicist that she can make this leap wholly convincing for the reader. More art history should be written with the kind of imagination and verve displayed here.
Nonetheless, I wish I were more convinced by the iconographicizing turn of some of Roberts's subsequent arguments, and the seamless match she posits between bibliographic references and the work of art. You can't argue with her discoveries in the archive (the fact that Smithson underlined an article on crystallography, say); but you might ask how causal relationships are determined between what's found there and the artist's output. Roberts makes frequent reference to a book being in Smithson's library, of texts read repeatedly and heavily annotated by the artist. But just how an artist readsóhow intentionally or unconsciously he or she instrumentalizes textual sources in making works of art, translates them visually, and to what endsóremains a largely unanswered question in the new Smithson writing. Art historians have grappled with this problem since the founding of the discipline, and it would be unfair to expect either Roberts or Reynolds to advance a global solution to this question in the context of their arguments. Following the specular logic of Smithson's Enantiomorphic Chambers, however, one is tempted to say that form and reflection do not always line up so easily; and the path traveled between text and object may be traversed by all sorts of methodological blind spots. Paradoxically, given the arguments both books lay out, poststructuralism may offer special insight into such readerly processes, processes bound up in the crossing of the verbal and the visual and the author's own horizon of expectation in her encounter with archival material.
The last two chapters of Roberts's bookóon Smithson's 1969 Artforum essay "Incidents of Mirror-Travel in the Yucatan," and Spiral Jettyóraise similar issues. In discussing the Artforum essay, Roberts gives us a primitivist Smithson whose reading of contemporaneous literature on the Mayans "verges on nostalgia for a mythic state of noble savagery." Roberts takes up the nineteenth-century prototype for Smithson's essay, John Lloyd Stephens's 1841 Incidents of Travel in Yucatán, as a document necessarily freighted by a colonialist worldview; she pays particular attention to its characterization of Mayan descendants as indifferent to, and utterly lacking in, a sense of their own history. An excursus on the indigenous (or rather, essentialist) visuality of the Mayansówhat Roberts calls the pathology of lazy eyes and passive sightóis seen to inform Smithson's essay. In turn, his reading of the source, along with scholarship on the Mayans from the same century, dovetails with what Roberts describes as Smithson's disturbing politics of indifference: his lack of interest in the more explicitly political engagements of his artistic peers at a time that seemed to demand it.
Accounts of this type are consistent with Roberts's training as an Americanist, particularly the careful and sustained way in which she decodes the ideological masked behind representation. But I wonder if her argument on Smithson's Yucatán essay would have been different had more nods been made to the piece's strange, near-hallucinatory poetry; had she treated the text not only as a duplication of Stephens's colonialism but as a strong misreading of his words (and here I employ strong misreading in the sense elaborated by Harold Bloom; that is, in the service of breaking with tradition). This is not to disqualify Roberts's argument, which is both provocative and brave, but to suggest that the ironizing tone in much of Smithson'swritten work (not to mention his film; consider East Coast, West Coast, a parodic exchange between Smithson and Holt wherein each artist assumes the role of a stereotypical Californian or New Yorker) has the potential to illuminate another relationship to his source material.
As such, this chapter, "Smithson and Stephens in Yucatan," speaks as much to the fate of irony as a present concern for the art historian as it does to the exigencies of history in recent art scholarship. Does work of this type signal a resurgent positivism in the history of art? I doubt that this is the case for either Reynolds or Roberts; but the field in general may be headed in that direction, meaning that there is a danger these books will be interpreted erroneously. (To be sure, whatever their stated resistance to a more "theoretical" version of Smithson, both authors are extremely sophisticated theoreticians.) Even so, Roberts is well justified in her suspicion of a certain type of argument about Smithson. There are enough readings on the artist in which the relentlessly playful word games and ad infinitum digressions on theory inspire one to break (or better, leap) from the ironist's cage.
I regret to say that Robert Smithson and the American Landscape, by Ron Graziani, associate professor in the School of Art at East Carolina University, is the latest installment in this genre. Though it purports to travel the same historical territory that both Reynolds and Roberts survey, it doesn't advance very far at all. The title of the book seems to the point, its thesis clear-cut: Graziani's ambition is to treat Smithson's work against the backdrop of postwar environmental movements, the "new conservationism" and its relationship to contemporary American landscape as "a form of political economy." Economy, in other words, has been left out of the equation in previous historical analyses of Smithson, and Graziani aims to redress this surprising gap in the literature. So far, so good. But Graziani puts it thus and the stakes seem to shift: "Economy continues to be dumped as overburden in the methodological parameters of his art's history."
The tortured phrasing and alarming solecisms immediately set off warning bells. The truth is, Graziani's straight-up title is largely betrayed by the book's contents. And while one can appreciate his ambition to engage Smithson's posthumous reception, Graziani unintentionally makes the strongest case for why Reynolds and Roberts are right to steer clear of that route. Consider the following sentence:
The critic's position became both a voice whose efficacy of interpretation has made the essence of the formalist hegemony an object of critical thought, yet whose deployment of the modernist version of authenticity was anachronistic or, more to the point, anemic in its rhetorical strategy of intervention.
And that's just the first chapter. Perhaps writing of this type is intended as some sort of Smithsonian homageó"a heap of language" and all that; or maybe it's supposed to be "performative" in some quasi-Derridean fashion (Graziani displays a marked fondness for using shorthands and acronyms to stand in for complex arguments, as when he calls Owens's theory of allegory "the postmodern allegorical impulse" and abbreviates it repeatedly as "PAI"). I'm all for rhetorical indulgences now and thenóI stand accused of them myselfóbut the sheer number of these formulations means this book can be useful only to the most slavish Smithson devotees. Graziani is at his best when he offers his straightforward, sometimes fascinating narratives about the ecology movement and the bureaucratization of the environment, yet the clarity of these passages is obscured by needlessly wordy accounts of art and theory. (An aside: A portion of the blame must lie with the sorry state of academic publishing. The current situation at academic art-history pressesóthe firings, the termination of series, the overworked employeesóis dire, and the effect on art-historical scholarship, particularly editing, is palpable. I am more than empathetic to this state of affairs, but the prolix in this book is inexcusable.)
Beyond its writerly transgressions, Smithson and the American Landscape goes to the opposite extreme of both Reynolds and Roberts when it comes to historical and critical precision. Graziani is to the point when he writes that "narratives of earthworks are mediated histories, both in terms of the archives used and the cultural habits of those writing historical accounts." This kind of insight, which speaks to the historical impurity of an archive by dint of its mediation, is extremely welcome; still, it does not justify a lack of conceptual rigor. In Graziani's hands, Clement Greenberg's formalism is equivalent with Michael Fried's, while notions of the sublime are conflated with the picturesque in a way that renders both terms irrelevant. If this is purposefulóa theoretical gambit on Graziani's partóit ought to be explained clearly. Why, for instance, would a theory of the picturesque, the province of the representable, be meshed with the sublime, that which stands in excess of representation? And how would this kind of reading inform the sociohistorically grounded Smithson that Graziani sets out to describe? By the time the reader reaches the conclusion of Graziani's book, in which he argues that the critical exchange between Smithson and Fried is "not that dissimilar to the competing cyborgs in the science-fiction film, Terminator 2: Judgment Day," any claim to the historical seems tenuous at best.
These comments may sound like a gloves-off response to the new Smithson literature, at least in the case of Graziani's contribution. However, there is an important object lesson to be learned in reading these works together, in seeing them as part of a historiographic piece. The Smithson presented in these pages, as befits his work's hyperreflectivity, is an artist in parallax, irreducible to any singular historical interpretation. Reynolds and Roberts both wisely acknowledge this from the outset, even as each builds her own separate case for his historicity. These multiplying views of a historical Smithson dramatize the perspectivism that determines any negotiation of the archive. The implicit conversation between these histories will necessarily be uneven and discontinuous, despite the overlap of the material under discussion.
Of course it was Foucault who looked to discontinuity as the founding logic of his archive and archaeological method, a practice that traces epistemic rupture as the ground of modern knowledge. That the archive is a historical concept in its own right (today the term evokes the cold shelter of a Corbis as much as the fustiness of a library) suggests that Foucault's insights bear relevance to today's writing on Smithson. It should come as little surprise, then, that you can find the works of Foucault in Smithson's library too.
Pamela M. Lee is associate professor in the Department of Art and Art History at Stanford University.