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Robert Smithson (1938-1973)
Robert Smithson (1938-1973)
Robert Smithson (1938-1973)
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Robert Smithson (1938-1973)
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Property of an Important Private Collector
Robert Smithson (1938-1973)

Double Nonsite, California and Nevada

Robert Smithson (1938-1973)
Double Nonsite, California and Nevada
signed and dated 'Robert Smithson 68-69' (on the reverse of the Masonite backing of the map)
map, five painted steel boxes, lava from the Marl Mountains, California and obsidian from the cinder cone near Truman Springs, Nevada
map: 31 3/8 x 31 in. (79.7 x 78.7 cm.)
square box: 34 x 34 x 12 in. (86.4 x 86.4 x 30.5 cm.)
trapezoidal boxes: each 60 x 12 7/8 x 12 in. (152.4 x 32.7 x 30.5 cm.)
floor installation dimensions: 71 x 71 x 12 in. (180.3 x 180.3 x 30.5 cm.)
Executed in 1968-1969.
Dwan Gallery, New York
Private collection, Europe
Anon. sale; Christie's, New York, 3 June 1998, lot 43
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner
P. Schjeldahl, "New York Letter," Art International, vol. XIII, no. 4, 20 April 1969, p. 63 (installation view illustrated).
L. Lippard, Six Years: The dematerialization of the art object, New York 1973, p. 56 (map element illustrated).
R. Hobbs, Robert Smithson: Sculpture, Ithaca and London, 1981, p. 240 (installation view illustrated).
R. Pelfrey and M. Hall-Pelfrey, Art and Mass Media, San Francisco, 1985, p. 320, fig. 13.4 (installation view illustrated).
E. Tsai and R. Smithson, Robert Smithson Unearthed: Drawings, Collages, Writings, New York and Oxford, 1991, p. 112.
1965-1975: Reconsidering the Object of Art, exh. cat., Los Angeles, Museum of Contemporary Art, 1995, p. 213 (installation view illustrated).
R. Smithson, Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings, Los Angeles and Berkeley, 1996, p. 217 (map element illustrated).
J. Meyer, ed., Minimalism: Themes and Movements, London, 2000, p. 155 (installation view illustrated).
R. Graziani, Robert Smithson and the American Landscape, Cambridge, 2004, pp. 84-85.
Robert Smithson, exh. cat., Los Angeles, Museum of Contemporary Art, 2004, p. 196 (installation view illustrated).
E. Casey, Earth-mapping: Artists Reshaping Landscaping, Minneapolis, 2005, p. 25, fig. 1.10 (map element illustrated).
J. Stückelberger, "Mirror Reflections: Robert Smithson's Dialectical Concept of Space," RACAR: Revue D'art Canadienne / Canadian Art Review, vol. 31, no. 1/2, 2006, pp. 90 and 92, fig. 2 (installation view illustrated).
J. Harris, The Utopian Globalists: Artists of Worldwide Revolution, 1919-2009, West Sussex, 2013, p. 251.
P. Ursprung, Allan Kaprow, Robert Smithson, and the Limits to Art, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 2013, p. 193.
New York, Dwan Gallery, Robert Smithson, February 1969.
Turin, Galleria Civica d'Arte Moderna, Conceptual Art-Arte Povera-Land Art, June-July 1970.
Ithaca, Cornell University, Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art; Minneapolis, Walker Art Center; Chicago, Museum of Contemporary Art; La Jolla, Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego; New York, Whitney Museum of American Art; Venice, La Biennale di Venezia XL; Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris; Helsinki, Sara Hilder Museum; Duisburg, Lehmbruck Museum; Belgrade, Museum of Modern Art; Otterloo, Kröller-Müller Museum, Robert Smithson: Retrospective, November 1980-January 1984, pp. 20 and 42, no. S14 (detail and installation view illustrated).

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Joanna Szymkowiak
Joanna Szymkowiak

Lot Essay

Distinguished by its restrained aesthetic and fascinating geological components, Robert Smithson’s Double Nonsite, California and Nevada is a quintessential example of the artist’s pioneering series of Nonsites of 1968-1969. Stemming from rock-hunting excursions that Smithson took with artists Michael Heizer and Nancy Holt during the summer of 1968, the present work demonstrates the key attributes of this important series, in which rugged raw materials from geologically diverse areas (“sites”) are transported into the pristine arena of the gallery space (the “nonsite”). Arranged in Minimalist configurations, Smithson allows the interplay between the rough-hewn texture of the rocks and the sleek geometry of their containers to play out before the viewer’s eye. In the present work—which is possibly the only “double” Nonsite the artist ever created, with material coming from not one, but two “sites”—Smithson places shiny pieces of black obsidian foraged from Mineral County, Nevada near pumice-like cinders from the Marl Mountains of California’s Mojave Desert. Arranged in white steel boxes around a central square, Smithson mimics the formation of an active volcano in order to symbolically indicate the prehistoric origins of both materials (the black obsidian results from cooled lava near the volcano’s epicenter while the cinders are usually formed around its periphery). Typically, Smithson also includes a map of the geographical location from which the rocks are derived. In this case, he includes two maps that have been superimposed and rendered in photographic negative, one from each location in California and Nevada. As one of the most significant Nonsites Smithson created in 1968, Double Nonsite, California and Nevada has featured in many exhibitions, articles and books of the artist’s work.

Though not a Minimalist artist per se, Smithson’s work does incorporate Minimalism’s industrial materials in precise geometrical units. Yet Smithson’s work invokes larger concepts beyond mere formalist rigor and classical lines. The nature of time, the fallibility of recorded data and the infinite, unknowable nature of the universe are all invoked in Smithson’s work, which is tinged with an edgy sense of ironic humor. In Double Nonsite, California and Nevada, Smithson knowingly experiments with Minimalist forms while injecting them with the tactile, real-world quality of his found materials. The uncanny sensation of encountering Smithson’s heap of rocks, so neatly arranged in their white bins, makes for a unique viewing experience. The touchable quality of the shiny black obsidian, whose smooth glossy surface is ridged with jagged, broken sections, invites the viewer’s hand, which longs to reach out and caress its sleek yet furrowed exterior. The glasslike quality of its reflective surface—at the same time, shiny and opaque—appeals to our magpie sensibilities while belying its origin as prehistoric lava that has cooled into glasslike rock. The obsidian is placed within a square-shaped white metal box at the center of the piece, while four other boxes filled with pumice-like rocks surround it on all sides. The porous quality of these rough-hewn stones, called volcanic “cinders,” and their light-weight, airy feel differs from the sleekness of the black obsidian and its dense, heavy weight. By contrasting the textures of these two materials, Smithson hints at larger oppositional forces at play in his own work, which is a central component of this period. In their ability to merge the natural world with the artificial, the Nonsites imply a range of “doubles” ranging from prehistoric vs. modern, inside vs. outside, contained vs. wild, known vs. unknown, and many more.

In 1967, Smithson began searching for natural materials around industrial sections of New Jersey, where he had witnessed dump trucks excavating large sections of earth. Over the course of the following year, Smithson made roughly a dozen Nonsites from foraged raw materials, which he exhibited at the Dwan Gallery in October of 1968 and again in February of 1969, where Double Nonsite, California and Nevada was shown. Alongside artists such as Michael Heizer and Walter de Maria, Smithson’s work radically transformed the nature of traditional sculpture by bringing earthen materials from the natural world into the gallery space, and vice versa, by creating epically-scaled earthworks, such as the incomparable Spiral Jetty (1970) and Broken Circle (1971). Aside from these works, Smithson’s Nonsites are among his most cherished and critically-acclaimed works, incorporating such diverse geological materials as petrified coral, chalk, coal, mica and sandstone. Using Heizer’s parents’ cabin in Lake Tahoe as a base, Smithson explored several geological formations that summer, including the ancient volcanic crater located near Queen Valley, in Mineral County, Nevada, where he gathered obsidian, and another location five hours to the Southeast, in the Marl Mountains of California’s Mojave Desert.

The feeling imparted by Smithson’s raw materials in Double Nonsite, California and Nevada, that were excavated in such remote locations lends an element of far-flung romance to the piece. Though perhaps not Smithson’s intent but that nevertheless imparts an important, unmistakable quality to the work, there is a feeling of awe-struck wonder conveyed by such unusual materials, conjuring up the strange beauty of the Mojave Desert and its unfathomable, prehistoric origins. Not unlike the 19th Century landscape painters who traversed the Western United States to render its sublime mountain peaks and vast, impassable canyons, Smithson’s materials conjure an unknowable out-of-this-world, out-of-this-time quality. “I’m interested in expanding the limits beyond the interior of a room so that one can experience a greater scale in terms of a work of art,” Smithson has said. “[O]ur usual idea of looking at art as an object in a room without any kind of other references...just gives you one object. My method operates more in a dualistic frame of reference that gives rise to an infinite number of possibilities” (R. Smithson, quoted in A. Nagel, “Robert Smithson Removed From the Source,” RES: Anthropology & Aesthetics, Vol. 63/64, Spring/Autumn 2013, p. 287).

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