Robert Smithson: From the Archives of the Galleria George Lester, Rome
Gallery owner George Lester's first encounter with Smithson's paintings was in 1960 through the abstract composition titled Quicksand, spotted in the window of Charles Alan Gallery in New York City. Captivated and enthralled by the work, Lester pursued the artist, a year later Smithson traveled to Italy for his maiden European exhibition at the Galleria George Lester. The series of paintings and drawings produced for the show were based on themes related to the Passion of Christ and specifically His salvation. Subsequent to Smithson's travels in Italy, the artist felt compelled to continue visually exploring the historiography of Judeo-Christianity.
His paintings dating from 1960-1962 including Vile Flower, Blind Angel, The Scorpion Palace, Untitled: Skull and Bone Ornamenting a Room, Mandrake Stump and The Eye of Blood were composed using a palate of red, black and white highlighting the Catholic sacrament of Holy Communion. The hues Smithson utilized would reappear in the artist's 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.
In the late 1950s through early 1960s, the artist also witnessed his country struggle to rebuild itself in the shadow of World War II and the Korean War. Concurrently, America entered the Vietnam War. Conceivably, Smithson's paintings from this period served to address his own anxieties about the upheaval plaguing America as the nation entered its third international conflict in three decades. Communism was perceived as the ultimate threat to international stability. The United States, its allies, and South Vietnam were directly in opposition with the Communist nations of the Soviet Union, its allies, the People's Republic of China, and North Vietnam. Smithson's paintings utilized the imagery of one's union with the Church and personal redemption from sin as a means of absolving oneself of the responsibility for the conflicts that divided the international community and more specifically, the nation.
Smithson's predecessor, Mark Rothko 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 two years later in 1946, Rothko produced two paintings titled Entombment and Entombment I. Each of these compositions was similar to a Piet' - the image of the vertical Virgin Mary cradling and mourning over the horizontal dead body of Jesus. These paintings confronted the notion of how one's body was meant be placed in a tomb or grave. Correspondingly, Smithson's Mandrake Stump and Vile Flower 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.
Furthermore, both Smithson and Rothko were deeply influenced by Gothic architecture. First, Rothko expressed that darkness and radiance evident in the 12th through 16th century architecture represent "intangible indications of sacred life, like the light of consecrated places such as Gothic cathedrals" (Cited in Abstract Expressionism and the modern experience, by Stephen Polcari, 1991, p. 146). His Seagram Murals from 1958-59 utilized dark, somber, crimson hues reminiscent of medieval cathedrals. Similarly, in Smithson's The Eye of Blood, the geometric elements mimic those evident in medieval architecture. Each irregularly shaped parallelogram around a central circle references the oculus found in churches such as Notre-Dame de Reims in Paris and the Pantheon in Rome.
Smithson's 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 trajecory of art-making addressing the angst and tumultuous nature of society through the ultizations of religious iconography. Much like Abstract Expressionist, 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 zeigiest of anxiety and fear and quest for religious salvation pervasive in the Vietnam era in America.