Robert Smithson & Marcel Duchamp

September 2004

It is interesting how Robert Smithson’s critical writings gain increasing recognition and yet there is no genuine discussion of his ideas in the contemporary art world. One explanation may be that, though the force and brilliance of Smithson’s mind cannot be denied, the actual positions he adopted are way out of line with so many of the most dearly held assumptions of contemporary art.

This thought comes forcefully to mind when scanning the table of contents of the catalogue of the recent Robert Smithson retrospective at the Whitney Museum. In it we find published, for the first time, the complete text of an interview that Moira Roth conducted with Smithson in 1973, shortly before his untimely death in a plane crash while over-flying his Amarillo Ramp sculpture.  The subject of this interview is no less than Marcel Duchamp, whom many would consider the central figure in contemporary art thinking.  Yet this interview, widely known through an abridged version in the October 1973 issue of Artforum, and later included in the artist’s Collected Writings, never appeared in its entirety until now.  Why?  Reading the interview, one immediately realizes that it presents a carefully thought through assessment and devastating rejection of Duchamp and his influence on many of the most prominent names in contemporary American art. Yet, again, the appearance of this interview does not seem to occasion any discussion in the circles of contemporary art.

Smithson’s criticism of Duchamp is intense and delivered in the form of a reproach. His central view is that Duchamp is “mechanistic” in his treatment of “nature” and “the everyday world”.  As an example, Smithson argues that Duchamp is tryingto “mechanize the sex act” in his masterpiece the ‘Large Glass’.  This “mechanistic” view leads Duchamp to “a certain contempt for the work process” and “offers a kind of sanctification for the alienated object… in order to mystify it” [as in the Readymades]. Smithson concludes by stating that Duchamp’s Readymades “are just like relics… some kind of spiritual pursuit that involved the commonplace”, leading him to adopt an aesthetic of quasi-religious “transcendence”. Underlying these remarks is Smithson’s awareness that Duchamp’s cultural outlook is dominated by Calvin and Descartes.

In the interview Smithson sketched an alternate artistic vision, discovered, as he affirms, in his ‘Nonsites’, in which art was situated “in its relationships to the outside world” where “the dialectic became very strong” and the artist is “thrown back on natural processes”.

And what of Duchamp’s legacy? Smithson calls it “Duchampitis”, and applies the label toJasper Johns, Robert Morris, Andy Warhol, Jim Rosenquist, Jim Dine, and no doubt many others.

Ultimately, this interview reveals that what Smithson could not abide about Duchamp was his deep resentment of the great achievements of modern art (Cezanne, Matisse, etc.), what he calls Duchamp’s “postmodernism”. This, again, may seem paradoxical to present-day readers because Smithson is always seen as one of the leaders of a ‘60’s iconoclastic rejection of painting. It is true that Smithson rejected a certain ‘formalist’ interpretation of painting.  However, should Smithson’s criticism of painting, as he saw it being practiced by many of his contemporaries, be taken for an attack on art itself? Duchamp had stated that he didn’t believe in art.  Moira Roth, on the other hand, in her brief introduction to the interview, makes a special point of saying that for Smithson art meant everything.

Early in the interview, Smithson states “The thing about Duchamp is that he’s amusing, but I for one don’t find him amusing. I am not amused”. There is a serious issue in this remark. Smithson is generally admired for his iconoclastic persona and for what is taken to be his abandonment, along with Judd, Nauman and others, of the supposedly “high art” of painting, associated with the modern masters such as Cezanne, Matisse and, closer to him, the Abstract Expressionists.  This abandonment supposedly rests on a desire to break with subjective experience.  In the case of Judd, the rupture is definitive and irretrievable.  With Nauman, it triggers a desperate attempt to refocus on subjectivity through an exploration of psychological alienation.  However, it should be clear to anyone who has read Smithson’s writings, particularly what he has to say about the ‘Nonsites’, that this tradition of subjectivity was his central concern and that he saw it against the background of, and in continuity with, Pollock, Rothko, Newman and the other great painters and sculptors of the modern movement who preceded them.  In this connection, if Smithson was critical of the ‘formalist’ painting tendencies of his day, it was perhaps because he saw this approach to painting as an attempt to ‘objectivize’ art and, thereby, exclude the ‘subject’ which concerned him.

Once this is acknowledged, we are left with the feeling that, if Smithson had lived, or if we had truly paid more attention to what he was saying, then a lot of subsequent contemporary art could have been dispensed with.

Paul Rodgers