Born in Passaic, Smithson was raised in Rutherford and Clifton. He moved to New York in 1956, returning regularly to visit his parents, who later were buried in Kearney. He also made regular excursions to New Jersey with his wife, the artist Nancy Holt, or with friends for the purposes of his art. Fellow sculptors Donald Judd, Carl Andre, Robert Morris, and Michael Heizer joined the 20-something-
Smithson's provocative and seminal works, made in the mid-60s to early 70s, contributed enormously to the rethinking of the nature and language of sculpture. He remains one of the most influential and original artists whose voice has had a major impact on his contemporaries as well as subsequent generations. Smithson’s complex ideas are expressed in many forms: drawings, projects and proposals, sculpture, earthworks, films, and critical writings. Dissatisfied with the status quo, Smithson did not limit himself to any one form or style of art. Defying convention, Smithson produced works that could not be easily categorized, utilizing nontraditional art materials such as mirrors, maps, dump trucks, abandoned quarries, contractors, and earth to produce his radical sculptures, photographs, films, and earthworks.
Smithson was one of the founders of the art form known as earthworks, or land art, and is best known for the Spiral Jetty, 1970, located in the Great Salt Lake, Utah. The Spiral Jetty embodied one of his goals, which was to place work in the land rather than situated on the land. Smithson's earthworks defined an entirely original notion of landscape. Furthermore, the earthworks were a radical departure from making formal objects situated in a gallery setting. Spiral Jetty was inspired in part when Smithson saw the Great Serpent Mound, a Pre-Columbian Indian monument in southwestern Ohio. It is, however, the contention of Phyllis Tuchman that Smithson’s masterpiece was firmly rooted in the artist’s experiences of his home state.
The more than 60 examples in the exhibition of Smithson’s sculptures, drawings, collages, photo works, and his film Swamp (1969), a collaboration with Nancy Holt,span his time spent in New Jersey. Featuring works that have not been seen before as well as classic examples of his Nonsites, they form a coherent body of work that sheds important light on his practice. Possessing a profound interest in geology and mineralogy, Smithson regularly went rock hunting in New Jersey. In an essay of 1966 titled “The Crystal Land,” Smithson wrote extensively about New Jersey and rock hunting near Paterson, Great Notch, and Upper Montclair to explore “the mineral-rich quarries of the First Watchung Mountain.” Afterwards they walked to the car “through the charming Tudoroid town of Upper Montclair and headed for the Great Notch Quarry.” In Franklin, Bayonne, and Edgewater, Smithson found elements for his Nonsites—indoor earthworks for which various unorthodox materials at that time—limestone, concrete, and rocks—were brought out of their usual environment into a gallery and arranged in bin-like containers ordered from a metal fabrication shop. Photographic documentation as well as typed and handwritten descriptions accompany these works. Another group of sculptures from this period was assembled from mirrors and materials collected on day trips to New Jersey. Furthermore, there are a number of independent works composed of sequential snapshots taken with a utilitarian instamatic camera as the artist walked through a variety of terrains in the Garden State. Also intrigued with cartography, Smithson made art from maps both real and imaginary.
When the range of New Jersey–based works by Robert Smithson is isolated from the rest of his oeuvre and placed on exhibition, it will be clear that the Passaic/Clifton/
The exhibition will be accompanied by a catalogue with an introduction by Gail Stavitsky and a primary essay on Smithson in New Jersey by Phyllis Tuchman. Presenting groundbreaking research and fresh perspectives, Tuchman’s essay focuses on Smithson’s radical, two-pronged approach to landscape art. For example, Smithson’s visits to Franklin, Edgewater, and Bayonne, New Jersey, where he collected materials for his Nonsites, contextualize the sculptures and documentary photographs displayed in museums. Viewing where he had been as well as what he created clarifies matters related to history, economics, philosophy, and temporality. Phyllis Tuchman is an art historian and journalist who has published extensively on Minimalism and other aspects of modern sculpture. She has contributed many articles, interviews, and reviews to Artforum, Art in America, Art + Auction, artnet, New York Newsday, and the Smithsonian Magazine; written a variety of exhibition catalogue essays; and curated a number of exhibitions, including a major George Segal retrospective. Most recently she has contributed to the catalogue for Ken Price Sculpture: A Retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Dr. Gail Stavitsky has worked at the Montclair Art Museum since 1994, where, among other exhibitions, she curated Precisionism in America 1915–1941 and Reordering Reality and Warhol and Cars: American Icons; she served as primary curator for Cézanne and American Modernism and Roy Lichtenstein: