In 1960, gallerist George Lester first encountered Smithson's paintings after spotting the abstract composition, Quicksand, in the window of Charles Alan Gallery in New York. Captivated and enthralled by the work, Lester pursued the artist and invited Smithson to exhibit his works at the Galleria Lester in Rome; this would be the beginning of a mutual friendship that would continue primarily through written correspondence now housed in the Archives of American Art in Washington D.C. It was during this time that Smithson wrote one of his earliest essays "The Iconography of Desolation," an impassioned rant about the state of the art world that referenced then-contemporary art movements including Abstract Expressionism, Pop and Happenings. The essay reveals the artist's soul searching struggle to come to terms with what art-making could mean in the modern world. The wild mix of imagery found in the twelve-page typewritten manuscript corresponds to the various themes in his art of the period.
The preceding lots, Buried Anger, Man of Sorrow: The Forsaken, Cactus Ghosts, Regretful Murmur, and Two Frogs Guarding the Palace are a bellwether for themes that would appear in the artist's best known and widely celebrated Spiral Jetty ten years later. The large-scale, site specific installation was composed of a combination of black basalt and earth overlaid with white salt emerging from the sanguine Great Salt Lake. The artist felt that by addressing one's union with the Church and personal redemption from sin, one could absolve himself of the responsibility for the conflicts that divided us as an international community and more specifically, a nation.
Mark Rothko, Smithon's predecessor, referenced Christian iconography throughout the development of his own oeuvre. Rothko was profoundly impacted by the violence and destruction of World War II and the Holocaust. In 1944 and 1946, Rothko produced two paintings titled Entombment and Entombment I. These paintings confronted the notion of how one's body was meant be placed in a tomb or grave. Smithson's Buried Anger and Cactus Ghosts can be perceived as the body of mankind buried deep beneath the earth, protected from the violence percolating above. Smithson would later use exhumed earth in his large scale installation in Utah as if it representing the resurrected soul of man seeking salvation.
The artist's drawings from this period are characterized by a linear style that is reminiscent of Byzantine art. The fantastical creatures and swirls correspond to what the artist himself describes as "phantasmagorical drawings of cosmological worlds somewhat between Blake and...oh, a kind of Boschian imagery...They were sort of based on iconic situations...They dealt with explicit images like, the city; they were kind of monstrous as well, you know, like great Moloch figures" (Robert Smithson, interview with Paul Cummings, Writings, July 1972, p. 278-279). The anthropomorphism of these early drawings colors the view of Smithson's later sculptures, long after the artist abandoned figurative work.
Science fiction and fantasy provided themes for the collages Smithson began to make in the 1960s, including the present work, Two Frogs Guarding the Palace. Smithson experimented with collages arranged in formats resembling cartouches. These works composed of mixed media and fantastical creatures dismantled the traditional compositional hierarchy of centrally positioned figures surrounded by a frames or boarders that draw the viewer's eye away from the center.
Smithson's drawings and paintings from 1960-1962 are directly in diaglogue with his later earthworks both through his choice of palate and the role of the earth in his artmaking. His work clearly fits within the trajectory of art-making addressing the angst and tumultuous nature of society through the ultizations of religious iconography. Much like Mark Rothko, Smithson elected to create images that address man's internal conflict with perceived chaos and violence. Finally, Smithson's paintings from 1960-1962 capture the cultural zeitgeist of anxiety and fear and quest for religious salvation pervasive in the Vietnam era in America.