Robert Smithson: Birth of an Artist

The guidelines provided by Robert Smithson’s instructors at the Art Students League of New York, virtually the only formal art education he received, were essential to his land art.

Robert Smithson: Birth of an Artist
Robert Smithson, Broken Circle/Spiral Hill, 1971, Emmen, Netherlands. © 2001. Photo: Serge Paul

Robert Smithson (1938–1973) is best known for his sculpture and earthworks, but he never stopped sketching and creating graphic works. Throughout the whole process of building his iconic Spiral Jetty in Utah’s Great Salt Lake in April 1970, Smithson kept redrawing it, almost to the last minute, in order to find the right shape to fit into the surrounding landscape. The shape and outline of the sculpture were essential, but Smithson was equally attentive to composition, colors, contrasts, shadows, reflections, etc. While building Broken Circle/Spiral Hill in a Dutch sand quarry in 1971, for instance, Smithson told a critic, “It involves the whole area. I integrated the piece into the site, and the characteristics of the site are very interesting to me. As you can see, the sand here is a mixture of white and yellow, and the water is a rather bright green. On the far side, you can see a facing of orange and yellow sand.” Not unlike the sublime and picturesque landscape designers of the eighteenth century, Smithson viewed his sites and earthworks as consistent three-dimensional compositions. In this sense, the guidelines provided by his instructors at the Art Students League of New York, from September 1954 to May 1956, virtually the only formal art education he received, were essential to his land art. Robert Smithson Art Students League

Robert Smithson Art Students League
Robert Smithson in a 1956 yearbook portrait, Clifton High School

On June 4, 1954, Robert Smithson was ending his sophomore year at Clifton High School, New Jersey, when he won the first prize in a poppy poster contest of the American Legion Auxiliary. The event was supervised by his art teacher, Mary Gardner, who also sponsored the Cartoon Club. Smithson won a scholarship to attend classes at the Art Students League. As a young science-fiction enthusiast, Smithson “had ideas of being an illustrator of some sort.” Ironically, four months later, the ALA launched its nationwide “Operation Book Swap,” offering children to trade ten comic books for one hardcover classic. The collected comics were then burned publicly. This McCarthyite crusade was fueled by the publication in April 1954 of Seduction of the Innocent, by the German-born child psychiatrist Fredric Wertham, who considered comics as an incitement to juvenile delinquency and corruption.

In July, Smithson left with his parents for a two-week road trip to Yellowstone across the Badlands and Black Hills, visiting Little Big Horn in Wyoming and Mammoth Cave in Kentucky. Robert Smithson clearly inherited his taste for travel and discovery from his father, Irving Smithson, who embarked for five months as a messman on a cargo ship bound for Egypt at age eighteen and “hitchhiked around the country, rode the rails and everything when he was younger.” He made his last solo trip in 1945, and for the next ten years, following routes traced by his son Robert, took his family on an annual road trip across the country. Irving Smithson (1905–1973) started out as an automobile mechanic, then a representative for Autolite, the auto-parts manufacturer, moved into real estate, and eventually became executive and vice-president of mortgage companies in the 1950s.

In September, Robert Smithson started his junior year in high school and began classes at the Art Students League. Once a week, he took a bus from Clifton to Manhattan’s Port Authority Bus Terminal, the same line he took thirteen years later for his seminal travelogue, “The Monuments of Passaic” (Artforum, December 1967). The sixteen-year-old student chose to attend John Groth’s weekly class of “life drawing, illustration and composition,” every Friday from 7 to 10 p.m. John August Groth (1908–1988) started teaching at the ASL in 1942. Recruited as a correspondent for the Chicago Sun, the illustrator and cartoonist covered the liberation of Paris, in which he rode “the first American Jeep to enter the city” on August 25, 1944, preceding his friend and rival, Ernest Hemingway, who was writing for the Chicago Tribune. Groth was also the first reporter to interview Pablo Picasso two days later. “Always wearing a safari vest,” he had a reputation as an adventurer, highlighted by Hemingway’s introduction to his illustrated war diary, Studio: Europe (1945). Recently returned from the Korean War, Groth had just published his second opus, Studio: Asia (1952).

Smithson soon became friends with Eli Jonathan Levin, who was then called Jo, and other students from the High School of Music and Art. Smithson and Levin embraced Groth’s romantic ideas that echoed their own belief in “inspiration, spontaneity, and self-expression.” Both admired his “speed line” technique, based on the method of a deceased ASL instructor, Kimon Nicolaides (The Natural Way to Draw). According to Levin’s 2012 autobiography, Disturbing Lessons in Art, “At the League, Groth was teaching us in a large studio on the very top floor, five flights up. There was an elegant staircase that was later torn out to make room for an elevator. Groth’s classroom, removed from outside reality, was always welcoming and warm, the classes like an enjoyable party.” Groth asked his students to always carry a sketchbook with them and “do five gesture drawings a day” that he would check and benevolently criticize each week. Following this advice, Smithson would always keep a sketchpad close at hand. Groth also advised Smithson and Levin to visit the little library in the League basement, where they discovered books on Daumier (Groth’s favorite), Heinrich Kley, Goya, Degas, Grosz, Da Vinci, Raphael, Michelangelo, and others. According to Smithson, “John Groth was a worthwhile teacher and he had a good sense of composition.” The appreciation was mutual since Groth noted on the back of an undated Scholastic Art Awards application form, “One of three students of my ten years at the League whose work and talent give real promise of future success.” According to Groth’s “qualities” chart, Robert Smithson was “exceptionally original,” “unusually bright,” did “more work than required,” was “highly cooperative,” “rarely disappointing,” “very clear in [his] aims and their pursuit,” “rarely ill,” and “pleasing,” but needed “some supervision.” When Smithson became famous, Groth was proud to have recognized his student’s qualities at such a young age.

Robert Smithson Art Students League
An excerpt of John Groth’s recommendation letter for Robert Smithson. Robert Smithson and Nancy Holt papers, 1905-1987, bulk 1952-1987. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

On Saturdays, Smithson often took a bus back to Manhattan to meet his new friends, visit galleries and museums, and hang out in Greenwich Village coffee shops. Exalted by Manhattan’s art life, he avoided high school activities and events. Smithson later expressed his growing frustration with the prescriptive educational system of the 1950s.

I grew rather hostile to school. In high school, actually, I started going to the Art Students League. I won a scholarship. In my last year of high school, I managed to go only half a day. I was just very put off by the whole way art was taught. . . . Well, my high school teacher would come up with statements like—I remember this one quite vividly—that the only people who become artists are cripples and women. . . . Everything was kind of restricted. There was no comprehension of any kind, no creative attitude. It was mostly rote—a very unimaginative teaching staff, constricted and departmentalized. At that point I didn’t have any self-realization, so I really couldn’t tell, except that the Art Students League did offer me a chance to at least come in contact with other people. I made a lot of friends with people in the High School of Music and Art in New York. Robert Smithson Art Students League

Smithson’s art teacher in Clifton, Mary Gardner, may however have spoken these words in the mode of irony or disenchantment, misinterpreted by the young man. According to the artist Nancy Holt (1938–2014), Smithson’s former middle school classmate and future wife, they went separate ways in high school until a mutual friend from Clifton, Lorraine Harner, then studying English at Columbia’s Barnard College, arranged a meeting in a café on her campus in September 1959. On February 21, 1955, however, Smithson missed the junior prom at the Fiesta in Wood-Ridge, where Nancy was elected queen. In July 1955, he traveled west one last time with his parents. A photograph dated July 12 shows him with a cowboy hat on his head and a camera around his neck riding a mule down the Grand Canyon.

In October 1955, in order to finance his second year at the ASL, Robert Smithson presented a series of woodcuts “done in a kind of German Expressionist style” on a huge roll of paper illustrating his life between high school and the streets of Manhattan. He was awarded an Elizabeth Carstairs Scholarship. What started out as an extracurricular activity became the young man’s main focus. With his scholarship in hand, and despite Gardner’s reluctance, Smithson managed to convince the newly appointed principal, Dr. Elinor E. Hanna (1905–2001), to release him each afternoon for additional classes before the evening ones. The Art Students League of New York had provided an opportunity for artists such as Jackson Pollock to receive professional art training, acquire certain techniques, socialize and confront ideas with fellow artists without committing themselves to a traditional college curriculum.

Robert Smithson Art Students League
Daniel Donohue and Robert Smithson in Clifton, NJ, early 1957. Photographer unknown. Courtesy of Nancy Holt.

During the week, Smithson took classes in life drawing, painting, and composition from semi-abstract painter Richard Bové (1920–2020), an instructor he selected for his freedom of line. This class was held on Monday and Tuesday evenings from October to December 1955, then on Wednesday and Thursday evenings, from 7 to 10 p.m., until late May 1956. On Friday evenings, from September to May, Smithson took John Groth’s cartooning class. On Saturdays, invited by his son, Avron Soyer, then studying at Music and Art, to visit his studio, Smithson and Levin also took sketching classes with Isaac Soyer (1902–1981). Smithson regularly visited the Hansa Gallery, a nearby artists’ cooperative. Its new director, Richard Bellamy, gave the young artist encouragement and advice. Smithson also received a scholarship from the Brooklyn Museum Art School. He attended a few classes, but eventually dropped out because of the distance. Smithson, Levin, and some friends from Music and Art would meet at Soyer’s Columbus Circle studio and portrait each other. The group would also discuss art and visit museums. Showing a curiosity for art, Smithson’s high school classmate, Danny Donohue, attended Soyer’s class with them. In Clifton, Donahue and Smithson “did a joint project, a tape recording, for a psychology class . . . essentially a questioning of the premises of religion drawn mainly from Freud and H. G. Wells.” Independently, Donohue attended the illustration and commercial design class taught by William Charles McNulty (1884–1963), known as VON-A, from September 1955 to January 1956, on Wednesdays and Thursdays from 7 to 10 p.m.

After John Groth’s Friday class, a group of about fifteen young men and women, mostly students from Music and Art and Columbia University, met at the home of Gilbert F. Carpenter (1920–2003) on Madison Avenue and 94th Street. “Bert” was a PhD student at Columbia who taught art in the Columbia College humanities program. One of his first-year students, Alan Brilliant, suggested to launch this informal evening seminar. Among the participants in this discussion group, Brilliant has cited Carl Goldstein, then a freshman at Brooklyn College, who was invited to join the group by Tam Gibbs and Steve Cogan of Music and Art. Other Music and Art students, all seniors in 1955–56, were “Barbara Schwartz, Deborah Heller, Fran Dropkin, Joe Tuchinsky, Rena Wallach, Mimi Gross, Joe Levin.” Jo Levin and his then-girlfriend, Mimi Gross, the daughter of sculptor Chaim Gross (1902–1991), had introduced Smithson to Brilliant, who was then looking for “interested and interesting artists and scholars who would go to the same New York art gallery each week, then get together to discuss the exciting Abstract Expressionist exhibits which were being shown at Midtown’s most avant-garde galleries.” According to Brilliant, Smithson, who was more comfortable in one-on-one discussions, “spoke only two or three times in a two-hour period.” When the debates dragged on and no bus could bring him back to Clifton, Smithson stayed overnight at Brilliant’s apartment, a few blocks from Carpenter’s. Levin, Smithson, and friends did not spend all their time in museums, galleries, and bookshops. Before the legal age of eighteen, they sought out the artists who inspired them in the bars and clubs they frequented, including the Cedar Street Tavern, where Smithson met many artists, mostly Abstract Expressionists and Beat writers. Smithson knew what Carl Andre meant when he once said that the Cedar Tavern was “where he got his education.”

Before his eighteenth birthday, Smithson had to choose between serving the regular two-year draft and voluntary enlistment. Miles Kreuger, a Music and Art student with a passion for musicals, steered him toward the Special Services, the entertainment branch of the U.S. military. Recruits were required to complete 6 months of active duty and spend the remaining 18 months assigned to a local army reserve or national guard unit. Robert Smithson, Danny Donohue, Jo Levin, and Charles Haseloff, a Music and Art student, took the Army physical together in the last week of December 1955. Only Smithson and Haseloff passed the test and enlisted. Smithson’s last class at the League was held on May 26, 1956. 13 friends of the ASL and Music and Arts, including Jo Levin, Steve Cogan, Ruth Liebman, Jonathan Garlock, Charles Haseloff, and Kathryn MacDonald, wrote dedications for Smithson. Levin left the following note: “Dear Bob, it’s a good thing we met, or we both would have had a bad time. I think we’ve discovered more together than could have been done any other way. The most important thing is that all we’ve done is the basis for what will be genius (and is genius). Jo Levin”. Robert Smithson graduated from Clifton High School on June 25, 1956. On July 1st, he joined the Army with Charles Haseloff. They began basic training at Fort Knox, Kentucky with Miles Kreuger, George A. Hecht, the son of the publisher, and John Cassavetes, who were part of the Special Services group.

This hitch did not stop Robert Smithson from exhibiting that summer with Jo Levin, Danny Donohue, and three other young artists at Breezemont Park, a day camp in Armonk, New York, then owned and run by Beatrice Gelbaum Laurain, a nurse and musician, and her husband, Jean Laurain, a French athlete. Entitled The Coming Generation, this first group exhibition was reviewed by Meyer Levin (1905–1981), Jo Levin’s father, novelist and critic, in the Syracuse Post-Standard (September 5, 1956): “Center-men in The Coming Generation show are Jo’s two pals from over the river in New Jersey, Daniel Aaron [sic] and Bob Smithson. He met these boys at the Art Students League, and all three became fast chums, haunting the coffee shops of Greenwich Village when they were not in their evening art classes, and getting crushes on the same girls. . . . Danny, who may be the most talented artist in the lot has already ‘given up painting’ with the intention of becoming a writer. . . . While the other youngsters are representational, Bob has gone abstract with violent, tortured orange and black forms that look like pieces of jagged bone and rusty metal, but all excellently organized into powerful forms.” Levin’s description is consistent with surviving works such as Untitled [Ruined Building] (1955), Untitled [Construction Site], and Untitled [War Scene] (c. 1955).

Danny Donohue died before he could choose between a career as an artist or a writer. Tactfully described by Alan Brilliant as “a sensitive young man,” Daniel Harrison Donohue (1938-1958) killed himself while fleeing the police on a motorcycle on June 3, 1958. Sitting at the back, his companion survived. Smithson later explained, “There wasn’t anybody in Clifton who I was close to except for one person—Danny Donohue. He got interested in art, but eventually he did go crazy and was killed in a motorcycle accident. He joined a Brooklyn gang of motorcyclists and just . . .  I mean it was a very difficult time, I think, for people to find themselves.”

Rejecting the clerk typist class to which he was assigned at Fort Knox, Smithson was eventually asked to create posters, “watercolors of Army installations for the mess hall.” Pleading that continued service would impair his creativity, Smithson obtained a discharge from the reserves. He left Fort Knox on November 2, 1956 and returned to Clifton. In a column published on February 2, 1958 in The Philadelphia Inquirer and Alabama’s Birmingham News, Meyer Levin praised Robert Smithson’s determination to become an artist at this point.

Smithson’s family lives in New Jersey. Art is something strange to this typical suburban family, and the parents, worried at their son’s insistence on becoming an artist, called to ask my advice, since I was at least a writer and knew something of that other world. I told them I was just as worried about my own son, because art is a hard life, but that if a young man really wanted to work at it, he should not be stopped. So, Smithson’s father gave over to him, when the boy came back from a six-month Army training hitch, a little workshop in the basement. Bob shut himself in and painted like fury. Robert Smithson Art Students League

One of Meyer Levin’s remarks then struck Robert Smithson, who mentioned it fifteen years later, as if to emphasize retrospectively its premonitory character. “I remember Meyer Levin saying that I was the type of person that couldn’t go to school, that I would either make it very big or else go crazy.” Since Smithson “had no intention of going to college,” he was left with one option and made it very big.

Robert Smithson Art Students League
Robert Smithson, Spiral Jetty, 1970, Rozel Point, Box Elder County, Utah. © 2006. Photo: Serge Paul Robert Smithson Art Students League

Smithson’s first role models for commitment and escape were his father and people like John Groth. Groth and Smithson were both artists of the real, but while Groth strove to capture action in his art, Smithson essentially tried to reveal time—geological time, suspended time, entropy, etc.—, not only as a concept but as a physical experience. In 1972 Smithson explained, “I’m not really interested in conceptual art because that seems to avoid physical mass. You’re left mainly with an idea. Somehow to have something physical that generates ideas is more interesting to me than just an idea that might generate something physical.” When this need for materiality led him to turn to sculpture in the mid-1960s, his career took off. At the same time, Smithson started writing about art. In 1965, he published his first critical essay on Donald Judd, a prominent ASL alumnus. In 1968-69, Smithson’s Non Sites, massive geometric containers filled with rocks or minerals presented in galleries with maps and photographs of their collecting sites, brought him to the forefront of his generation. On April 17, 1969, Robert Rauschenberg, another ASL alumnus, helped Smithson execute his second Upside-Down Tree on the beach in front of his house on Captiva Island in Florida. Smithson was on his way to Yucatan, where an intensely physical art journey through the jungle awaited him. And in 1970, the Spiral Jetty made him the signature artist of the movement he himself termed “Earthworks.” Robert Smithson Art Students League

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