21 September 2013

Concrete Islands: Tony Smith meets the Interstitial Sublime

In somewhat uncanny coincidental timing with my prior post, David Salomon at the Design Observer writes about another key influence on Robert Smithson, on the artist’s creative shift that brought him to create The Spiral Jetty and other such earthworks. That being architect and sculptor Tony Smith’s revelationary nighttime drive on the unopened New Jersey Turnpike back in 1951.

I'd thought to write about it a long while back, because it's an intriguing bit of late modernist minutiae, but (like so many other things) it ended up falling between the cracks. Some readers are probably already familiar with the incident, or more specifically of Smith’s account of it. For the unfamiliar, here’s how Smith described the event to Samuel J. Wagstaff, in an interview published in Artforum magazine:

"When I was teaching at Cooper Union in the first year or two of the '50s, someone told me how I could get on to the unfinished New Jersey Turnpike. I took three students and drove from somewhere in the Meadows to New Brunswick. It was a dark night and there were no lights or shoulder markers, lines, railings or anything at all except the dark pavement moving through the landscape of the flats, rimmed by hills in the distance, but punctuated by stacks, towers, fumes and colored lights. This drive was a revealing experience. The road and much of the landscape was artificial, and yet it couldn't be called a work of art. On the other hand, it did something for me that art had never done. At first I didn't know what it was, but its effect was to liberate me from many of the views I had had about art. It seemed that there had been a reality there which had not had any expression in art.

"The experience on the road was something mapped out but not socially recognized. I thought to myself, it ought to be clear that's the end of art. Most paintings look pretty pictorial after that. There is no way you can frame it, you just have to experience it. Later I discovered some abandoned airstrips in Europe -- abandoned works, Surrealist landscapes, something that had nothing to do with any function, created worlds without tradition. Artificial landscape without cultural precedent began to dawn on me. This is a drill ground in Nuremberg, large enough to accommodate two million men. The entire field is enclosed with high embankments and towers. The concrete approach is three 16-inch steps, one above the other, stretching for a mile or so."

It was a fortuitous coincidence that the interview would be published in December of 1966, the same month that Dan Graham’s “Homes For America” project would first appear in the pages of Arts magazine. And that some of the ideas that linked these two items would be echoed a year later by Smithson when he published his pivotal “A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey” text in the December 1967 edition of Artforum.

This was the era when the New York that Robert Moses had transformed began to wane, shedding jobs and residents who headed for where the future was said to be shaping up – the “crabgrass frontier” of the suburbs. And the New Jersey Turnpike – as a long, major artery supporting traffic into and out of the city – was designed and built to meets the needs that arose from that population shift. Smith, Graham, and Smithson each hailed from New Jersey, and naturally couldn’t help but notice the radical reshaping of the landscape that was taking place during those final years of the country’s postwar economic boom. Landscapes – “artificial” and “synthetic.” New monuments, new ruins (“in reverse”). Colossal infrastructural construction, the serial repetition of modular iterations of post-Levittown suburban housing development. Each artist took it all in with mixed degrees of aesthetic disinterestedness.

Tony Smith with "Cigarette" [ via ]

In perhaps the most interesting part of the DO article, Salomon offers a dissection of Smith’s impression of his nocturnal experience on the Turnpike, one that’s inextricably part of postwar American car culture. One that gets at one a key essence of late modernity, that of the automobile, acceleration, and the vast infrastructural networks built for the sake of facilitating travel:

“Why did that architectural encounter leave such a strong impression on Smith? The drive took place over time; it could not, like a painting (or architectural drawing) be taken in all at once. Nor could it be reduced to a specific form or location. Generating an overall impression of the event (as of a building) required one to sequentially (and simultaneously) use powers of attention, memory and imagination. However, it differed from conventional architectural experience in important ways. Smith was sitting down, engulfed by the architecture of the car, moving rapidly through a dark environment. And psychologically he was trespassing; not for material gain, but for the sake of his enjoyment. It was an event without clear function.”*

Tony Smith was a full generation older than the other artists, old enough – hypothetically – to have been their instructor during those years that he was teaching at the Artists League in New York City. Coming to sculpture late in his career after years spent in architectural design, the work that Smith produced was seen (by some, at least) as being roughly in league to that of nascent Minimalist movement. Graham and Smithson, on the other hand, would each prove instrumental in conceptualizing the key directions that art might go in Minimalism’s wake. All three, or each in his own ways, intuited from their environment previously uncategorized domains of artistic activity, formulated a notion of what Rosalind Krauss would classify as “the Expanded Field” some dozen years later.**

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*  I find myself at this point thinking of Tarkovsky’s Solaris, specifically of the scene that befuddled so many critics and viewers -- the long driving sequence that falls in the film’s early reel. Why, many have wondered, did Tarkovsky choose to devote so much time to such a mundane, unimportant aspect of the story? The scene has been interpreted by some as a meditation on the passage of the character from the rural countryside into its alienating opposite -- the built environment of modern concrete and steel metropolis (in this case, Tarkovsky filming in Tokyo circa 1971). Not that that explanation makes the sequence any less tedious or whatever; but there you have it.

**  with the essay in question, Krauss attempted to go beyond the standard dialectics that were so common in much of the art-thought of the postwar period. But dialectical thinking had very much been the order of the day. Donald Judd, in his Minimalist quasi-manifesto “Specific Objects,” had written that the most interesting artwork circa the early 1960s was that which was “neither painting nor sculpture.” If anything, Smith’s experience on the NJ Turnpike prompted him to start thinking in terms of objects that were neither sculpture nor architecture.

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