A Sedimentation of the Mind: Earth Projects – Robert Smithson

The earth’s surface and the figments of the mind have a way of disintegrating into discrete regions of art. Various agents, both fictional and real, somehow trade places with each other – one cannot avoid muddy thinking when it comes to earth projects, or what I will call ‘abstract geology.’ One’s mind and the earth are in a constant state of erosion, mental rivers wear away abstract banks, brain waves undermine cliffs of thought, ideas decompose into stones of unknowing, and conceptual crystallizations break apart into deposits of gritty reason. Vast moving faculties occur in this geological miasma, and they move in the most physical way. This movement seems motionless, yet it crushes the landscape of logic under glacial reveries. This slow flowage makes one conscious of the turbidity of thinking. Slump, debris slides, avalanches all take place within the cracking limits of the brain. The entire body is pulled into the cerebral sediment, where particles and fragments make themselves known as solid consciousness. A bleached and fractured world surrounds the artist. To organize this mess of corrosion into patterns, grids, and subdivisions is an esthetic process that has scarcely been touched. [. . .]

Primary Envelopment

At the low levels of consciousness the artist experiences undifferentiated or unbounded methods of procedure that break with the focused limits of rational technique. Here tools are undifferentiated from the material they operate on, or they seem to sink back into their primordial condition. Robert Morris . . . sees the paint brush vanish into Pollock’s ‘stick,’ and the stick dissolve into ‘poured paint’ from a container used by Morris Louis. What then is one to do with the container} This entropy of technique leaves one with an empty limit, or no limit at all. All differentiated technology becomes meaningless to the artist who knows this state. ‘What the Nominalists call the grit in the machine,’ says T. E. Hulme in Cinders, ‘I call the fundamental element of the machine.’ The rational critic of art cannot risk this abandonment into ‘oceanic’ undifferentia-tion, he can only deal with the limits that come after this plunge into such a world of non-containment.

At this point I must return to what I think is an important issue, namely Tony Smith’s ‘car ride’ on the ‘unfinished turnpike.’ ‘This drive was a revealing experience. The road and much of the landscape was artificial, and yet it couldn’t be called a work of art.’ … He is talking about a sensation, not the finished work of art; this doesn’t imply that he is . Smith is describing the state of his mind in the ‘primary process’ of making contact with matter. This process is called by Anton Ehrenzweig ‘dedifferentiation,’ and it involves a suspended question regarding ‘limitlessness’ (Freud’s notion of the ‘oceanic’) that goes back to Civilization and its Discontents. Michael Fried’s shock at Smith’s experiences shows that the critic’s sense of limit cannot risk the rhythm of dedifferentiation that swings between ‘oceanic’ fragmentation and strong determinants. Ehrenzweig says that in modern art this rhythm is ‘somewhat onesided’ – toward the oceanic. Allan Kaprow’s thinking is a good example – ‘Most humans, it seems, still put up fences around their acts and thoughts’. . . . Fried thinks he knows who has the ‘finest’ fences around their art. Fried claims he rejects the ‘infinite,’ but this is Fried writing in Artforum, February 1967 on Morris Louis, ‘The dazzling blankness of the untouched canvas at once repulses and engulfs the eye, like an infinite abyss, the abyss that opens up behind the least mark that we make on a flat surface, or would open up if innumerable conventions both of art and practical life did not restrict the consequences of our act within narrow bounds.’ The ‘innumerable conventions’ do not exist for certain artists who do exist within a physical ‘abyss.’ Most critics cannot endure the suspension of boundaries between what Ehrenzweig calls the ‘self and the non-self.’ They are apt to dismiss Malevich’s Non Objective World as poetic debris, or only refer to the ‘abyss’ as a rational metaphor ‘within narrow bounds.’ The artist who is physically engulfed tries to give evidence of this experience through a limited (mapped) revision of the original unbounded state. I agree with Fried that limits are not part of the primary process that Tony Smith was talking about. There is different experience before the physical abyss than before the mapped revision. Nevertheless, the quality of Fried’s fear (dread) is high, but his experience of the abyss is low – a weak metaphor – ‘like an infinite abyss.’

The bins or containers of my Non-Sites gather in the fragments that are experienced in the physical abyss of raw matter. The tools of technology become a part of the Earth’s geology as they sink back into their original state. Machines like dinosaurs must return to dust or rust. One might say a ‘de-architecturing’ takes place before the artist sets his limits outside the studio or the room.

From Steel to Rust

As ‘technology’ and ‘industry’ began to become an ideology in the New York Art World in the late ’50s and early ’60s, the private studio notions of ‘craft’ collapsed. The products of industry and technology began to have an appeal to the artist who wanted to work like a ‘steel welder’ or a ‘laboratory technician.’ This valuation of the material products of heavy industry, first developed by David Smith and later by Anthony Caro, led to a fetish for steel and aluminum as a medium (painted or unpainted). Molded steel and cast aluminum are machine manufactured, and as a result they bear the stamp of technological ideology. Steel is a hard, tough metal, suggesting the permanence of technological values. It is composed of iron alloyed with various small percentages of carbon; steel may be alloyed with other metals, nickel, chromium, etc., to produce specific properties such as hardness and resistance to rusting. Yet, the more I think about steel itself, devoid of the technological refinements, the more rust becomes the fundamental property of steel. Rust itself is a reddish brown or reddish yellow coating that often appears on ‘steel sculpture,’ and is caused by oxidation (an interesting non-technological condition), as during exposure to air or moisture; it consists almost entirely of ferric oxide, Fe 2 0 3 and ferric hydroxide, Fe(OH) 3 . In the technological mind rust evokes a fear of disuse, inactivity, entropy, and ruin. Why steel is valued over rust is a technological value, not an artistic one.

By excluding technological processes from the making of art, we began to discover other processes of a more fundamental order. The breakup or fragmentation of matter makes one aware of the sub-strata of the Earth before it is overly refined by industry into sheet metal, extruded I-beams, aluminum channels, tubes, wire, pipe, cold-rolled steel, iron bars, etc. I have often thought about non-resistant processes that would involve the actual sedimentation of matter or what I called ‘Pulverizations 1 back in 1966. Oxidation, hydration, carbonatization, and solution (the major processes of rock and mineral disintegration) are four methods that could be turned toward the making of art. The smelting process that goes into the making of steel and other alloys separates ‘impurities’ from an original ore, and extracts metal in order to make a more ‘ideal’ product. Burnt-out ore or slag-like rust is as basic and primary as the material smelted from it. Technological ideology has no sense of time other than its immediate ‘supply and demand,’ and its laboratories function as blinders to the rest of the world. Like the refined ‘paints’ of the studio, the refined ‘metals’ of the laboratory exist within an ‘ideal system.’ Such enclosed ‘pure’ systems make it impossible to perceive any other kinds of processes other than the ones of differentiated technology.

Refinement of matter from one state to another does not mean that so-called ‘impurities’ of sediment are ‘bad’ – the earth is built on sedimentation and disruption. A refinement based on all the matter that has been discarded by the technological ideal seems to be taking place. The coarse swathes of tar on Tony Smith’s plywood mock-ups are no more or less refined than the burnished or painted steel of David Smith. Tony Smith’s surfaces display more of a sense of the ‘prehistoric world’ that is not reduced to ideals and pure gestalts. The fact remains that the mind and things of certain artists are not ‘unities,’ but things in a state of arrested disruption. One might object to ‘hollow’ volumes in favor of ‘solid materials,’ but no materials are solid, they all contain caverns and fissures. Solids are particles built up around flux, they are objective illusions supporting grit, a collection of surfaces ready to be cracked. All chaos is put into the dark inside of the art. By refusing ‘technological miracles’ the artist begins to know the corroded moments, the carboniferous states of thought, the shrinkage of mental mud, in the geologic chaos – in the strata of esthetic consciousness. The refuse between mind and matter is a mine of information.

The Dislocation of Craft – And Fall of the Studio

Plato’s Timaeus shows the demiurge or the artist creating a model order, with his eyes fixed on a non-visual order of ideas, and seeking to give the purest representation of them. The ‘classical’ notion of the artist copying a perfect mental model has been shown to be an error. The modern artist in his ‘studio,’ working out an abstract grammar within the limits of his ‘craft,’ is trapped in but another snare. When the fissures between mind and matter multiply into an infinity of gaps, the studio begins to crumble and fall like The House of Usher, so that mind and matter get endlessly confounded. Deliverance from the confines of the studio frees the artist to a degree from the snares of craft and the bondage of creativity. Such a condition exists without any appeal to ‘nature.’ Sadism is the end product of nature, when it is based on the biomorphic order of rational creation. The artist is fettered by this order, if he believes himself to be creative, and this allows for his servitude which is designed by the vile laws of . Our has lost its sense of death, so it can kill both mentally and physically, thinking all the time that it is establishing the most creative order possible.

The Dying Language

The names of minerals and the minerals themselves do not differ from each other, because at the bottom of both the material and the print is the beginning of an abysmal number of fissures. Words and rocks contain a language that follows a syntax of splits and ruptures. Look at any word long enough and you will see it open up into a series of faults, into a terrain of particles each containing its own void. [. . . ]

The Wreck of Former Boundaries

The strata of the Earth is a jumbled museum. Embedded in the sediment is a text that contains limits and boundaries which evade the rational order, and social structures which confine art. In order to read the rocks we must become conscious of geologic time, and of the layers of prehistoric material that is entombed in the Earth’s crust. When one scans the ruined sites of prehistory one sees a heap of wrecked maps that upsets our present art historical limits. A rubble of logic confronts the viewer as he looks into the levels of the sedimentations. The abstract grids containing the raw matter are observed as something incomplete, broken and shattered. * * *

The Value of Time

For too long the artist has been estranged from his own ‘time.’ Critics, by focusing on the ‘art object,’ deprive the artist of any existence in the world of both mind and matter. The mental process of the artist which takes place in time is disowned, so that a commodity value can be maintained by a system independent of the artist. Art, in this sense, is considered ‘timeless’ or a product of ‘no time at all’; this becomes a convenient way to exploit the artist out of his rightful claim to his temporal processes. The arguments for the contention that time is unreal is a fiction of language, and not of the material of time or art. Criticism, dependent on rational illusions, appeals to a society that values only commodity type art separated from the artist’s mind. By separating art from the ‘primary process,’ the artist is cheated in more ways than one. Separate ‘things,’ ‘forms,’ ‘objects,’ ‘shapes,’ etc., with beginnings and endings are mere convenient fictions: there is only an uncertain disintegrating order that transcends the limits of rational separations. The fictions erected in the eroding time stream are apt to be swamped at any moment. The brain itself resembles an eroded rock from which ideas and ideals leak.

[. . . ] Any critic who devalues the time of the artist is the enemy of art and the artist. The stronger and clearer the artist’s view of time the more he will resent any slander on this domain. By desecrating this domain, certain critics defraud the work and mind of the artist. Artists with a weak view of time are easily deceived by this victimizing kind of criticism, and are seduced into some trivial history. An artist is enslaved by time, only if the time is controlled by someone or something other than himself. The deeper an artist sinks into the time stream the more it becomes oblivion; because of this, he must remain close to the temporal surfaces. Many would like to forget time altogether, because it conceals the ‘death principle’ (every authentic artist knows this). Floating in this temporal river are the remnants of art history, yet the ‘present’ cannot support the s of Europe, or even the archaic or primitive civilizations; it must instead explore the pre- and post-historic mind; it must go into the places where remote futures meet remote pasts.


This essay was originally published in Artforum, New York, September 1968.

Spread the love