Robert Smithson: writings, sculptures, earthworks

Martin, Timothy Daniel. 1999. Robert Smithson: writings, sculptures, earthworks. Doctoral thesis, Goldsmiths, University of London [Thesis]

Text (Robert Smithson: writings, sculptures, earthworks.)
GOL_thesis_MartinT_1999.pdf - Accepted Version
Available under License Creative Commons Attribution Non-commercial No Derivatives.

Download (28MB) | Preview

Abstract or Description

The thesis examines the writings, sculptures and earthworks of the American artist Robert Smithson (1938 - 1973). Its aim is to reconstruct and analyse the major theoretical concerns that informed his practice. Various critical and theoretical aspects of his writings are examined in order to show how each was developed in relation to his reading. After demonstrating the relations between his library and his critical concerns, it then analyses the ways in which these concerns informed his artistic practice. These reconstructions and analyses also build up a broader picture of the ways in which Smithson's work changed in its underlying concerns over the course of his career.

The thesis traces Smithson's concerns over six different areas of intellectual enquiry. The first chapter is concerned with religion, and focuses on his early work of the period 1959-63. This includes a detailed reconstruction of the influence of Catholicism and the English Imagist movement on his conception of art and art history. The second chapter traces his sources and arguments as an art critic, specifically his use of Mannerism as an interpretative critical paradigm for Minimalism. It also examines his rejection of formalist criticism, showing how his differences with the critic Michael Fried were pursued using a form of deconstruction different from the methods of Jacques Derrida. The third chapter addresses his concern with philosophy, particularly his use of the dialectics of materialism / idealism and mind / matter. It then examines his understanding of phenomenology to show how his conception of the' Site / Non-site' provided an alternative philosophical basis to that of Conceptual art.

The fourth chapter concerns linguistics, showing how Smithson utilised the work of Wittgenstein, Carnap and communications theory in developing his own physicalist theory of language. It discusses how he adapted these analytic theories of language to suit his materialist and phenomenological concerns. The fifth area of concern to be traced is that of psychoanalysis. In order to analyse Smithson's psychoanalytic understanding of vision, an early sculpture is interpreted in terms of Jacques Lacan's theory of the mirror stage and the objet (petit) a. After discussing Smithson's reading in psychoanalytic theory, it is shown how this theory was played out in his conception of the earthwork sculpture Spiral Jetty. The sixth and final chapter traces his preoccupation with making a socially engaged earthwork art. An examination of his general political views leads to a discussion of how Smithson developed a politically oriented conception of earthwork art that drew eh1ensively on his understanding of psychoanalysis and structuralist anthropology. It is shown how he tried to develop a general theory for the arts in which they acted to mediate in social conflicts.

Item Type:

Thesis (Doctoral)

Identification Number (DOI):


writings, sculptures, earthwork, Robert Smithson



Item ID:


Date Deposited:

26 Jul 2023 13:55

Last Modified:

08 Aug 2023 15:18


View statistics for this item...

Edit Record Edit Record (login required)