Robert Smithson
Lance Olsen

Every object, if it is art, is charged with the rush of time.

Picture a father taking his wife and 8-year-old son on a road trip in 1946 through the astonishments called the Black Hills, the Badlands, Yellowstone, Redwood National Park, the Grand Canyon. Picture that boy upon his return building a cardboard booth to display the postcards he stockpiled along the way. There he is charging neighborhood kids a dime a show. There he is 8 years later entering the Art Students League in New York City on a scholarship to study in the evenings. Picture him mimicking Abstract Expressionism: the gestural brushstrokes, the surrealist impulse, the mythic undercurrents. Picture him experimenting with collages composed of homoerotic clippings from beefcake magazines, science fiction films, Pop Art. There he is squatting among reeds on the banks of the Passaic, fresh out of high school, cigarette between his lips, curious about what will happen to him next. Picture him entering the Army Reserves for no other reason than to dodge boredom for a little while. Picture him undergoing basic training and taking up his post as artist-in-residence at Fort Knox, Kentucky, to paint watercolors of local installations for the mess hall. There he is one year later hitchhiking southwest, visiting a Hopi Indian reservation, hiking the Canyon de Chelly, dropping down from Arizona into Mexico and peyote visions, a string of acid revelations, the idea dawning on him: who the fuck needs college when you can live like this, travel like this, learn like this, read everything that falls into your hands? At 19 he’s wandering through his first one-man show at the Artists Gallery in Manhattan, at 21 striking up a conversation with Nancy Holt at a party in a friend’s loft. What does he see in the understated woman with dark brown hair and Buddha’s smile he’d known as a kid back in Jersey? What does her presence in his story mean? She’d gone off to study at Tufts and returned a post-minimalist and maybe she provides him historical continuity and maybe she’s a kindred spirit and maybe a foil and maybe a ground. Picture the ineluctable relationship developing between them. Picture her his perpetual straight man, him the irascible autodidact with a bad Elvis haircut. Picture them heading to Italy to explore Byzantine art together. There he is chewing through Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs, Freud, and Jung. There he is asking for more. Picture him in 1963, married, resolving to shed painting and turn to plastic sculptures that are about nothing except their own shapes and colors and the materials they are made of because such things are beauty without baggage, without any dense reasons for being beautiful. And there he is, his career starting to solidify around him, participating in a transformative undertaking that will never come to fruition at the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport: a huge spiral configuration on the fringes of a runway that would only become recognizable as art from the air. Picture him looking, wildly, everywhere, at everything, struggling to discover a way to arrest attention in the midst of diversion and disturbance, appropriating and reinventing 18th- and 19th-century conceptions of landscape architecture, examining how Lancelot Capability Brown remodeled the great estate parks of the English gentry to resemble neat micro-versions, not of nature, but of nature’s Platonic ideal, how Eliot turned The Waste Land into a decaying three-dimensional object, what Cézanne did to trees, mountains, clouds. There he is installing Non-Sites first into this gallery and into that: earth-and-rock-and-mirror-and-glass assemblages whose constituent parts he collected from specific geologic areas across the country. And suddenly the Spiral Jetty is there. And suddenly it is behind him. And there he is collaborating with Nancy on a film about its construction. And there he is one year earlier documenting a walk they took through a muddy swamp in Bergen County, Nancy filming with her Bolex camera, guided only by what she can see through the lens and his verbal instructions. Why are these films? What are they about? Maybe the act of perception itself, about what comprises determined noticing. Maybe how existence is always process, a way of moving, rather than a coming to rest. There he is several months later sitting on a bench facing the Washington Square fountain, hazily anxious, cigarette between lips, curious about what an artist does after he has already done what his entire life has prepared him to do. What does an artist become after he has already become himself? Picture him visiting one strip-mining company, another, presenting drawings and proposals for future earthworks. Picture each being graciously rejected.

What direction will he go now?

And now?

And he is belted into a small plane, pilot beside him, photographer behind, 15 miles northwest of Amarillo, Texas, on July 20th, 1973. Picture a naked blue day, him busily documenting his newly staked-out project in an artificial lake (now dry, now virtually unvisited) in the middle of the desert: a 140-foot diameter rock (yes) spiral that will rise 15 feet from the water, commissioned by Stanley Marsh, a local rancher, fellow artist, millionaire, and bon vivant who with his wife owns over 200 square miles of the Lone Star State.

Picture something going quickly, furiously wrong. Maybe it’s an unfamiliar noise that catches his attention, maybe an abrupt shift in weight. Maybe he perceives the line of the horizon pitch without warning, feels a shudder running through the cabin.

What is he thinking now?

And now?

What is moving through his mind as the rocky hillside a few hundred feet away reaches up toward him?

Lance Olsen is author of 20 books of and about innovative fiction, including, most recently, Calendar of Regrets (FC2, 2010) and Head in Flames (Chiasmus, 2009). He teaches experimental narrative theory and practice at the University of Utah.

One Comment on “Lance Olsen”

  1. 1 Letter to an Unknown Submitter | BIG OTHER said at 7:56 am on May 14th, 2013:

    [...] Lance Olsen’s “Robert Smithson” [...]

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