To introduce this excerpt, the very first pages of my book Inside the Spiral: The Passions of Robert Smithson, I will start with the first words following the end of the book, the acknowledgments, which I call “Gratitudes”.. – Suzaan Boettger
Once upon a time, running out of my wooden Victorian house in Oakland, California, I stopped at the sidewalk to yank open the door of the barrel-vaulted tin mailbox on a wood post (countryside on upper College Avenue). Curled inside was the just-published large-format paperback The Writings of Robert Smithson, edited by Nancy Holt and designed by Sol LeWitt, Gianfranco Gorgoni’s close-up photograph of Smithson’s famously pock-marked face spanning the front. Ordered weeks earlier, it was delivered the day before its official publication. Later, I inscribed inside that cover in turquoise ink: “This book arrived in the mail on my birthday, 1979, as I was on my way to deliver my first lecture—on earthworks.”
That’s how long I’ve been looking into Robert Smithson. Years later, having moved across the continent to NYC for grad school for my doctoral dissertation, I wrote about how he came to devise Earthworks and extended for my first book, Earthworks: Art and the Landscape of the Sixties, 2002. Then, after spending years writing on environmentalist art, I just couldn’t let Smithson go from my life and work. In the spring of 2015, I began devoting myself to the “investigative art history” of his work — and as it became necessary, much more.
This is to say, in following my captivation by his art and recognising that it was often in codes and symbols, I realised that it revealed itself when understood as covert autobiography. Well, isn’t all art more or less an expression of the artist’s self? Yes, but Smithson’s autobiography is quite direct, if latently and deceptively. So, I had to peel layers of his self-revelations mixed with obfuscations and investigate his early life and that of his parents. The project – manuscript – then became a biography.
The first sentence of the first chapter is a reminiscence by artist Peter Hutchinson. “In the early ’60s, I met a similar alien mind, Robert Smithson.” But I didn’t want to ask you, dear readers, to plunge right into the nitty-gritty of his early years. Hence, you will read below the preceding Prologue’s first pages that set the stage.
I envy you. You get to discover in a shaped, compact, and lively form what it took me ages to uncover, piece together, and structure: evidence both visual (paintings and snapshots of him that I discovered!) and verbal (not only his copious essays, but many previously unpublished letters!) that Smithson is more fascinating than anyone realised, for reasons that until Inside the Spiral, no one knew.