Robert Smithson, Purgatory, 1959. Oil/canvas, 156.5 x 171 cm. Collection JPMorgan Chase. Photo: © 2023 Holt/Smithson Foundation / Licensed by Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY

Uncovering the Tracks

Inside the Spiral: The Passions of Robert Smithson by Suzaan Boettger (University of Minnesota Press, $34.95.)

More than 10 years in the making, Suzaan Boettger’s biography of Robert Smithson has something for everyone—artists, art historians, art critics, psychiatrists, and art collectors. It’s a whale of a book, full of startling revelations, scathing critiques of the New York art world, and examinations of Smithson’s entire body of work from art historical, philosophical, religious, psychoanalytical, and literary points of view.

Flying in the face of the evasive and frequently deceitful interviews that Smithson gave during his lifetime, Inside the Spiral debunks long-accepted claims about the artist’s past, his pedigree, and his sexuality. Boettger’s arguments have elicited choked responses in a number of publications from writers who either lay claim to an inside track on Smithson or who are reluctant to overturn the carefully plotted keys that he set out in order to obscure aspects of his life and work that he didn’t want people to know about, including his lifelong affiliation with the Catholic church, his closeted homosexuality, and his gruesome early figurative work filled with religious/occult symbolism. Even the canonical Minimalist sculptures are up for reinterpretation, as is Smithson’s final anticipation of post-Minimalism in his three extant earthworks.

How did Boettger access all of this riveting, and deeply sad, material? It took years of research and site visits (while teaching at Bergen Community College in New Jersey, Boettger traveled around the Garden State to see the places addressed in the work, including Passaic and the Pine Barrens), hundreds of interviews with people who knew Smithson (or claimed to), and, finally, permission from the Holt/Smithson Foundation to access the early paintings and drawings (some of which have been exhibited in New York over the past decade), notebooks, diaries, and, most importantly, his personal library of over 1,000 books. That library provides the chief ammunition for Boettger’s assertions (each and every one backed up) that all of Smithson’s work, no matter how impersonal or objective in appearance, was rooted in a miasma of family anguish, fascination with magic, the occult, astrology, numerology, and his “fluid sexuality.”

Never having attended college (unlike his Minimalist cohorts Donald Judd and Sol LeWitt), Smithson typifies the voracious reading and often preposterous belief systems adopted by the ambitious autodidact. Equally at home with cheap science-fiction and T.S. Eliot, not to mention Carl Jung, George Kubler, and zany tracts on alchemy, Smithson concocted a heady brew of inspiration, which fed into his first solo show in 1961 at Galleria George Lester in Rome. The non-New York venue made it easier for the later Minimalist to conceal his psychologically tortured past. According to Boettger, he never got over his older brother Harold’s death from leukemia, alluding to it cryptically throughout his career, right up to the bloody red color of Spiral Jetty (1970).

Fortuitously finding a wealthy dealer after cultivating a few collector couples, Smithson was able to create his best-known works thanks to Virginia Dwan, a California heiress who underwrote his Utah work, as well as a trip to Mexico, which resulted in his most celebrated mirror sculptures. At the same time, he realized that one way to cover one’s tracks and get ahead in the art world was to shift to high-brow criticism—some artists, like Judd, were writing the equivalent of reviews of their own shows as well as those of their friends (and enemies); so, Smithson accepted an invitation to write for the new Los Angeles-based magazine Artforum, which soon became the bible of contemporary art when it moved to New York in 1967. At the time of his most famous essay, “Entropy and the New Monuments” (Artforum, June 1966), he hadn’t had a show for at least three years, but it didn’t matter. Boettger takes Smithson seriously as an art writer, even though this was a careerist strategy calculated to shove into the past spiritually engrained and psychologically churning work that dealt with his dead brother and his troubled interior world.

None of that was even hinted at as Smithson held court at Max’s Kansas City on Union Square. With his all-black attire avant la lettre, thick black hair, and cowboy boots, he charmed and insulted the barflies and hangers-on, including fellow artists, never competing with the Warhol crowd in the other room. Later, when Max’s had closed for the night, Smithson’s get-up was perfect for co-cruising with raunchy friends in the new leather bars of Greenwich Village. At one point, discussing his soft-core porn collages of male nudes with titles like Violet Ice and Reinforcement from the Rear, Boettger comments, “One wonders how amusing the [collages’] evocations of alienated or alternate copulations were for both of the young marrieds.”

Nancy Holt did what she could during her lifetime to suppress her husband’s closeted life. Since her death, art historians like Jason Goldman have uncovered the pop-culture sources behind many of Smithson’s “scantily clad beefcakes.” Needless to say, Boettger has disclosed what was previously concealed by the widow and Smithson’s dealers. All this was compounded by the macho-homophobic postures of several of the Minimalists, including Smithson, as well as some vicious commentary by Dan Flavin. To be fair, Boettger reminds us that the 1950s and ’60s were the most repressive period in American history, so Smithson’s cover-ups of his uncovered drawings are understandable, but sad.

Fifty years on, Smithson’s Collected Writings have assumed a canonical character of their own, serving as an interpretative bible to the sculptures. Here, too, Boettger points out the omissions and suppressions, while admitting that, regardless of their evasive, self-serving defenses of de-personalized art, the essays reflect their time and retain an improvisatory, poetic freshness, only slightly sullied by knowledge of the hypocrisies and back-scratching inside the all-male club that he had joined.

Later, of course, in oral history and magazine interviews, with the rise of post-Minimalism, Smithson disclaimed even being a Minimalist. Powerful enough by then, he was successfully able to manipulate posterity and shape it to his own ends—until Boettger came along. Thanks to her, we can now get the whole picture of an artist whose influence remains undiminished.