13 Pages

Group pioneering: Robert Smithson and circle’s early forays to the field

ByEmily Scott

Beginning in 1966, American artist Robert Smithson and a circle of his friends set out

on a series of field excursions to the outskirts of New York City, motivated in part by

their growing desire to create large-scale artworks on the actual land. Most of these

group trips were to what Smithson termed ‘backwater’ or ‘fringe’ sites in New Jersey,

including defunct rock quarries, suburban wastelands and the desolate Pine Barrens in

the southern part of the state. Smithson would publish two New Jersey ‘travelogues’,

though the more famous of the two, ‘A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New

Jersey’ (Smithson 1967c), is based upon a solo journey undertaken to his former

hometown.1 Smithson’s ‘preoccupation with place’ (AAA, Smithson 1972) was deeply

embroiled with art world debates of the day and is only decipherable relative to a knot

of interrelated critiques he began waging in the mid-1960s: against nineteenth-century

Romantic views of nature, pictorialism and Abstract Expressionism, to name a few

targets. His early site-based activity also responded to emerging land-use patterns and

politics (e.g. the rampant suburbanization of postwar America, the shift of industrial

production from inner cities to exurban reaches, increasing public concern about ecolo-

gical degradation). In contrast to practitioners coming from empirically oriented disci-

plines such as architecture and geography, Smithson invented field destinations as a

creative-critical act. The field, in other words, functioned as a space in and through

which to stage a particular set of critiques. More specifically, New Jersey’s ‘backwa-

ters’ operated as an other space to the New York art world he associated with studio-

based art making and to wilderness, at least as defined by a rapidly expanding

back-to-nature movement toward which he held fundamental objections.