Inside the Spiral: The Passions of Robert Smithson | Leonardo/ISASTwith Arizona State University

Inside the Spiral: The Passions of Robert Smithson

Inside the Spiral: The Passions of Robert Smithson
by Suzaan Boettger

University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, MN, 2023
440 pp., illus. 90 b/w, 30 col. Trade, $140.00; paper, $34.95
ISBN: 1517913543; ISBN: 9781517913540.

Reviewed by: 
Robert Maddox-Harle
August 2023

Inside the Spiral is one of the most informative and well written biographies I have ever had the pleasure of reading. To use the American vernacular, Suzaan Boettger can write like “hot-damn”! Many books I read are overly Americo-centric when they should be far less insular and globally inclusive. This characteristic is absolutely excusable for Inside the Spiral. Whether we like it or not, New York City was the arts “centre of the universe” in the 1960 – 70s. Smithson was a key player, and personality during this milieu, totally American, and other than his early exhibition of paintings in Italy, and much later the Earth commission in the Netherlands, was totally American based.

Boettger has done an exceptional job in researching and presenting us with the closest I believe possible, to the “essential” Robert Smithson. I have always thought of biography as a sort-of, poor second cousin to autobiography. Boettger has changed my misconception completely. If Smithson was still alive and wrote his autobiography, we would understand far less about the artist and man than from Boettger’s autobiography. She has delved deeply, at many, many levels into his life and work, and presented Smithson, “warts and all”, where as he, because of his secretive, paradoxical, and deliberately deceptive nature would not have exposed his soul, so-to-speak, in the way that this biography has. “So, Smithson’s misrepresentations, inconsistencies, and inaccuracies about the previous fifteen years of his life, both explanatory and chronologically ... are confounding” (p.189).

The book has five main sections, preceded by an informative Prologue, and then followed by Gratitudes, Notes, A Selective Bibliography, and Index. The five sections are:

Prehistory and Early Painting

Clandestine Fantasies, 1962-1964

Mutation of Artistic Persona, 1965-1968

Professional Consummation, 1969-1970

Expansion and Returns, 1971-1973

The book is nicely illustrated with both black & white images of Smithson’s artworks, photographs of Smithson and his associates, and a centre section with excellent colour plates of his Earthworks, and especially images of his far less known “early period” paintings and drawings.

I am always a little wary when biographers, who are not psychotherapists, start constructing stories about the personality they are writing the biography about; much has been written which is misleading or simply wrong in this regard. As a relevant aside, the Polish artist Zdzislaw Beksinski was a young boy growing up a few kilometres from the infamous concentration camp, Auschwitz during WW2. A psychotherapist’s analysis of his personality and influences failed to even mention this profound influence on his art, which is characterised by death, dystopian images, and decay. The reason this is relevant to the current review is that Boettger has largely underpinned her analysis of Smithson on the psychoanalytical influence on an individual known as “the replacement child syndrome”, which drove and haunted Smithson in his life and art, especially his pre-minimalist works. This together with his devout Catholicism were the “demons” that influenced his artwork. Even his early minimalist gallery sculptures, after he clandestinely moved forward from painting to sculpture, were underpinned by these influences. Many of the sculptures were coloured black, or black with red, and even though supposedly “objective” works, devoid of the artist’s subjective psychopathology, were infused with the continual haunting of Harold! Smithson was obsessed with the colour red, the colour of blood!

Fortunately Boettger has drawn on the knowledge of reputable and highly regarded psychologists aiding her in her analysis of Smithson’s “replacement child” influence. His brother Harold died two years before Robert was born, of a horrible (bloody) haemorrhagic leukaemia illness. This tragedy of course adversely effected Smithson’s parents, and so the “replacement child syndrome” became operational and profoundly influenced Robert for his whole life. “Feeling himself to be persecuted, the victim of having to serve as a replacement, he could rightly resent what Harold’s death and his parent’s idealized memory of his brother put him through. His “religious” images radiate fury at being his brother’s keeper” (p.67). His religious images were the majority of his earliest drawings and paintings.

This next important matter this biography exposes, perhaps obliquely, is the absurd fallacy (à la Derrida, Barthes et al.) that artworks have no author (anymore!?). The works are not individual, idiosyncratic subjectively authored but rather informed by cultural and societal influences. This concept is so self-evident and obvious, always was and always will be, but it is my contention the authorial ownership of a work is clearly a combination of both.

Even though Smithson slyly subscribed to this notion in his minimalist sculptures and soon to appear Earthworks, he could not hide the angst regarding Harold’s influence, nor his deeply knowledgeable interest in the Occult, Alchemy, Numerology, and Astrology.

If there was ever an artist paradoxically eschewing any subjective influence in the artwork but employing the deepest personal subjective authorship of the work, it was Robert Smithson. These arcane influences always alluded to Harold’s ghostly presence hanging over Robert’s head, so to speak. These influences were in the form of numerological references to Harold’s name or astrological references to Harold’s birth details. I personally enjoyed this addition to the analysis because my own work is considerably influenced by such arcane insights. “This book is about agency where it has not been seen. Reading his visual and verbal creations in relation to his biography shows that Smithson, the ironic intellect, produced work that at the same time functioned as expressions of personal conflicts, often conveyed through ancient symbols’ condensation of effect” (p.336).

Smithson’s Earthworks for which he is most famously known, are not purely objective minimalists works at all. The Spiral jetty, Amarillo ramp, and Broken Circle (broken circles, spirals, circumferences, and centres) are at the core of occult knowledge and are, what together with Harold’s influence, are what indisputably drove Smithson’s creative pieces even though he would paradoxically affirm and deny these influences? “He revived the forgotten mystical symbols of the spiral and ouroboros, revising them in the new genre of sculpture, of earth (p.335). “At the sudden end of his career, Smithson’s most distinctive legacy in the visual arts was his inventive sculpturing of land, although equally if not more influential would be his statements written and spoken” (p. 330).

As I mentioned earlier, Boettger has done a brilliant job analysing one of the twentieth centuries greatest and perhaps enigmatic artists. This book will surely become the definitive work concerning Robert Smithson, the man, and the artist.