It is tempting to feel that the circumstances of one’s loss make it especially excruciating. “Isn’t my suffering worse than any other imaginable?” Awareness of an inexorable sense of absence is what sensitized me to perceive it in the mid/late twentieth century artist Robert Smithson’s visual and verbal art. But in looking into the life of the subject of my book, Inside the Spiral: The Passions of Robert Smithson, I discovered factors in his personal history that made the loss that his life sprang from particularly difficult. What began as a biographically informed monograph became a psychological biography. Analyzing evidence of melancholy affect disguised in his paintings, drawings, sculpture, and film led me to recognizing them as autobiography.
Long dead – at 35 – by the time I began studying him, Smithson was alive in art history and influential to current artists as an idiosyncratic intellectual sculptor and essayist. His most famous creation is the iconic earthwork, Spiral Jetty, (1970) a fifteen-foot wide, fifteen-hundred feet long curving path of earth projecting from an edge of The Great Salt Lake. At the aptly named Rozel Point, the algae, bacteria and molting brine shrimp tint the water an otherworldly red. Such land art has been taken as a statement against the increasing commerce of fine art after the liberatory innovations of the 1960s and a heroic expansion of a work of art into an immersive environment. NO to the former – he was generously funded by his Manhattan gallerist/patron and had no motivation to leave that system – but YES to male sculptors’ cowboy bravado of re-arranging tons of earth.
Equally intriguing as his visual creativity and verbal dexterity are the metaphors of mortality peppering both. Historians and critics seemed not to notice – as if his relentless rumination on voids, ruins, nullity, decay, desolation, etc., was simply chic fatalism, a deadpan counter to Pop Art’s exuberance. It was fashionable in the 1960s to liken museums to tombs. But the consistency of Smithson’s bleak implications suggests sources more personal. Indeed, my process of investigative art history unearthed factors magnifying Smithson’s identification with loss.
Smithson was conceived close to the first anniversary of the death of his predecessor as only child, a son. The process of dying had been horrific: leukemia, before treatment was discovered, produced in children hemorrhaging from every bodily orifice. That is, it was an agony almost as ghastly for parents to helplessly witness as for the diseased to suffer. And the boy was nine years and five months old, unusually old for predecessors of replacement children. In comparison to losing a child who is in the first years of life, a death of one who has been part of the family dynamic for several years and has developed a personality sharpens the loss.
Smithson’s parents, Susan and Irving had married at seventeen and twenty and gave birth to their first son six months later, so upon the death almost a decade later they were still young enough to begin again to form a family. They were undoubtedly still mourning when Smithson arrived, inhibiting their emotional receptivity. But the intensity of grief following a death is not only relative to the survivor’s history with the deceased but the extent of – and responses to – past losses.
The death of Susan’s first child repeated early disappearances she experienced with the premature fatalities of her parents – her father when she was eight months old and her mother when she was seventeen. The child’s mourning both for the lost parent and for oneself, feeling abandoned, and sense of loss of control over existence, leaves a lifetime wound of sadness; Susan had been treated for depression. The psychologist Albert C. Cain and social worker Barbara S. Cain, who in 1964 first identified the replacement child ramifications in parents and the successor, found a prominent element contributing to associated emotional difficulties in “the guilt-ridden, generally depressive, phobic, or compulsive premorbid personalities of the mothers, who themselves had suffered a surprising number of family losses in their own childhood.”*
His brother’s advanced age, violent death throes, and his mother’s history seemed to have exacerbated the identification with loss passed on to him, evidently not resolved at home. The result, in Smithson, was repeated wrestling in adulthood with loss and the conflicted identity it inflicted — manifested in compelling art.
* Albert C. Cain and Barbara S. Cain, “On Replacing a Child,” Journal of American Academy of Child Psychiatry 3 (1964): 444.
Suzaan Boettger, an art historian, critic and lecturer in NYC, is the author of Inside the Spiral: The Passions of Robert Smithson. Published by the University of Minnesota Press, 2023, it was acclaimed by the Brooklyn Railas “Definitive. . . an indispensable book for the study, ‘from the inside, ‘of a major American artistic personality.” (She was not a replacement child.)
Learn more about Suzaan Boettger at her web site here.
Inside the Spiral: The Passions of Robert Smithson is available for purchase here.