Book Review: Robert Smithson

Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings, edited by Jack Flam
University of California Press, 1996
Paperback, 385 pages

Jack Flam's collection of writings by artist Robert Smithson, who died in a plane crash in 1973 at the age of 36, separates the writings into three categories: published writings, interviews, and unpublished writings. Presented in chronological order, the published writings trace the evolution of the artist's brief career, from his early geometric, gallery works to his penultimate earthwork Spiral Jetty. The interview portion is highlighted by one conducted with Paul Cummings for The Archives of American Art/Smithsonian Institution one year before Smithson's death. Unlike the artist's own writings - which tend to be fascinating in subject but dense and difficult in style - the interview with Cummings is conversational and accessible, and therefore more illuminating in some respects. The unpublished writings are split into two sub-categories - poems and prose - and overall seem to be more directly about his own art than the published writings, which deal with subjects from geology to the industrial monuments of Passaic, New Jersey. If one has an interest in Smithson's art, this book is a good place to start, as it helps illustrate the direction of his art, a direction with almost unlimited potential that was sadly cut short.