If you love Jersey (and who in Baristaville doesn’t?), have a taste for local nostalgia, an appreciation for nature and perhaps a fascination with the collision of built and natural landscapes, make sure to catch the unusual collection of work by native son, pioneering artist Robert Smithson (1938–1973), currently on display at the Montclair Art Museum. Born in Passaic and raised in Rutherford and Clifton, Smithson’s affection for the evolving terrain and culture of his home state is a visceral presence in this first ever Jersey-centric exhibit of his work.
Robert Smithson’s New Jersey, which opened yesterday and runs through June 22, represents an ambitious and successful undertaking by MAM to assemble more than 60 of Smithson’s sculptures, drawings, collages, film and photo works (including never-before seen Suburbia, pictured at right) spanning his career, from the mid-60s to early 70s until the artist’s tragic and untimely death in a plane crash.
Smithson’s radical work utilized nontraditional art materials — such as mirrors, maps, dump trucks, abandoned quarries, contractors, earth and stone. Not easily categorized, he expressed his complex ideas and artistic visions through a range of mediums and set the stage for a new expression of the nature and language of art, capturing the essence of time and place like had never been done before. Guest curator Phyllis Tuchman, who worked with MAM’s chief curator Gail Stavitsky, said that Smithson’s work has an element of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. The exhibit allows the viewer to reminisce and take a dive into the world of old New Jersey, to a time before Route 3 cut through the Meadowlands, when the sprawl of development and toxic waste had not yet hijacked nature.
After he moved to New York City in 1956, Smithson made regular artistic excursions to New Jersey with his wife, artist Nancy Holt (who passed away on February 8, 2014, but collaborated closely with MAM on this exhibit). In a 1966 essay titled The Crystal Land, Smithson wrote extensively about New Jersey and exploring “the mineral-rich quarries of the First Watchung Mountain” near Paterson, Great Notch, and Upper Montclair. In the same essay, he made reference to walking through “the charming Tudoroid town of Upper Montclair.” Smithson also collected limestone, concrete, and rocks in Franklin, Bayonne, and Edgewater (back in the hey-day of favorite North Jersey attraction, Palisades Amusement Park). He brought his materials out of their usual environment, into the gallery where he arranged them in custom-designed containers, creating a new way to express landscape.
“My passion for Smithson’s work grew significantly, once I visited the actual sites,” said Tuchman, who also grew up in Passaic and personally knew both the artist and his wife. “The work continues to gain power as the locations evolve and change. Following his footsteps allowed me to enter his head and understand the pieces in their contexts. The art exists in the world, outside the museum, allowing the viewer to be a part of Smithson’s work by exploring the locations first hand. This connection is what this exhibit is all about.” The exhibit catalogue — an impressive work of its own — details the locations, for those inclined to go exploring.
Decades after his death, Smithson continues to be recognized as one of the most influential and original contemporary artists, and his vision and voice are revered by a new generation. His work resonates with one of Montclair’s own hard-to-categorize artists, Passaic River anthologist Wheeler Antabanez, who also celebrates the gritty beauty of New Jersey.
Back in the fall of 2009, I was sitting outside, eating at Raymond’s with my soon-to-be wife. Host of the Church Street restaurant Ray Badach told me about Smithson’s work and encouraged me to check him out, but by the time I got home the artist’s name had exited my mind on a tide good food and cafe contentment. It wasn’t long before we found ourselves back at Raymond’s enjoying another fine meal. I ordered pancakes, but when our waitress came out, she handed me a brown paper package with compliments from Raymond. I tore it open and found a volume of Smithson’s Collected Writings with an inscription from Ray in the front. Of course I took it home and devoured it, enjoying especially the Passaic River connections. Smithson saw the bridges, pilings and derricks as monuments. He described many of the landmarks along the Passaic as “pictures of pictures,” which is a view that I can very much relate too. Ever since receiving the book, Robert Smithson has been popping up in conversations, on television, radio and all sorts of unexpected places in my little world. I guess I’m going to have to get myself over to the MAM and check out the exhibit.
Robert Smithson’s New Jersey is part of MAM’s Centennial Year, which focuses on New Jersey art. Curator Gail Stavitsky puts Smithson’s work into context of their larger scope in her curatorial essay. “For 100 years, the Montclair Art Museum has had a special interest and focus on the artists of our region, many of whom have created their art in direct relation to the surrounding Jersey landscape and ethos. George Inness and Charles Warren Eaton were inspired by the serene and gentle beauty of the landscape. Robert Smithson many decades later reflected another iconic view of our region, that which shows the impact and ravages of industrialization, suburban sprawl and loss of those once bucolic areas. Together, these artists and the thousands who have followed, reflect back to us the issues and images of their current environment in often provocative ways. This is the artist’s gift.”
Every first Thursday of the month, MAM is open 5–9 p.m. with free admission. There will be guided tours of the Smithson exhibit at 5:30 p.m., 6:30 p.m., and 7:30 p.m. The evening features live entertainment from students at the John J. Cali School of Music at Montclair State University, a cash bar in partnership with Pig & Prince Restaurant & Gastro-Lounge and a range of activities. For more information about Free First Thursday Nights, click here.
Let us know if you’ve visited any of the sites that Smithson has memorialized — either in yesteryear or lately — and what your impressions are of our ever-changing local landscape. It would honor the memory of Robert Smithson to do so.