Smithson, Tuymans; Art & Explication

Mirrors and Shelly Sand, Robert Smithson, 1970, Dallas Museum of Art, Google Images rectantular snip

Beauty is a form of genius—is higher, indeed, than genius, as it needs no explanation. — Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray



Robert Smithson’s Mirrors and Shelly Sand (images above) is a long, low, floor-lying crest of sand (approximately 30 feet by 5 feet), which is divided in equal parts by 50 double-sided mirrors.[1] Division and reflection—reflection in the sense of light, images, and ideas being thrown back without being absorbed—are central concepts here. As regards division, there is, for example, the juxtaposition of informality (a heap of “shell-y sand”) and precision (the evenly spaced, well-polished mirrors).[2] There are the intimations of our distance, of the distance, from us to some more natural state, from a museum gallery to the beach. At the new Met Breuer museum, where Smithson’s work was exhibited as part of the inaugural Unfinished show, these feelings of division, of alienation, and of un-absorption, were underscored by how Mirrors and Shelly Sand divided its narrow space, separating the strolling dazed on the one side from the strolling dazed on the other.[3]

A particularly nice feature of the Met’s display: the room’s one window looked out on a segment of the flat façade of a typical “post-war” New York City apartment building, its white bricks, windows, and air-conditioning vents themselves evenly spaced. If there is something quietly maniacal about Smithson ordering that fifty mirrors be evenly spaced on a pile of sand, there is something equally maniacal about this apartment-building façade and its reminder of the millions of others like it.[4] The layout has nothing to do with any human interest in autonomy, beauty, reverie, or, say, laughter. The point is to maximize square footage, minimize construction costs.

installation view of Robert Smithson's Mirrors and Shelly Sand, from HyperallergicBefore one of my several visits to the Met show, the sand was carefully swept so that the edge of the pile was not ragged and informal, but neat; the whole a perfect lozenge of sand. I do not believe this was part of Smithson’s original concept, but—as with setting a Shakespeare play in Mussolini’s Italy or wherever—the neat sweeping added its interpretation, a further reminder of the artificiality of the artwork and of various demands for order, to include those that come from within ourselves.[5] (In an afterword I will further compare our experiences in art galleries to theater-going.)


Mirrors and Shelly Sand may be read as an analogy. In New York City most notably, but also in many large cities in the United States and elsewhere, there is a stark contrast between the natural landscape and the human-made structures, the buildings most of all. In New York, for example, there is a fluidity, complexity, and understated quality to the harbor and all the neighboring waterways, the low hills, long shorelines (beaches), the modest trees.

Mirrors and Shelly Sand echoes a tension of Manhattan—the tongue of sand, the carefully spaced and ordered glass rectangles.

Periodically, the previous residents, the Indians, burnt the underbrush, to fertilize the soil for agriculture and to expose the game animals for easier killing. In modern times, on top of the natural environment we keep piling rectangular boxes of iron, brick, and glass. These boxes are laid out in a grid that serves industrio-commercial purposes while scorning the landscape and the flora and fauna, edible animals and human beings included. Or, we might say, all that is left of the human is avariciousness or the need to dominate, and our need to be housed so that we can serve capital. Views, light—things sold by real-estate agents. Beauty—confined to boxes like the Met Breuer, Avery Fisher Hall, Bergdorf Goodman. Smithson was from New Jersey, and one might say that the low-lying Mirrors and Shelly Sand is a suburban rather than urban landscape, but certainly it echoes a tension of Manhattan—the tongue of sand, the carefully spaced and ordered glass rectangles.[6]


Installation view of Met Breuer Unfinished show, HyperallergicII

The present set of four or four hundred notes were inspired by viewings and considerations of two of the more than one hundred art works on view at the Unfinished show. The other, in addition to Mirrors and Shelly Sand (a work of the late 1960s), is Luc Tuymans’s 2002 Untitled (Still Life), about which more anon. These two works, as presented at the Met, have focused my attention on the role of explication in art appreciation. From this perspective, Tuymans’s work (on left side in installation view at right) may be seen as part of a radical and recent development in art. It involves the production, exhibition, and sale of art works that . . .

Taryn Simon, Press III, Paperwork and the Will of Capital (2015),, Gagosian galleryI am reminded of the paper, flower-like tchotchkes that used to be sold, and perhaps still are. As I recall, you could see that they were, or had the potential to be, flowers, but it was when you sprinkled a little water on them that they would bloom, realize their full paper-flower “life.” Similarly, work such as Tuymans’s Still Life—or, say, Taryn Simon’s constructions and photographs of treaty texts and flowers (Paperwork and the Will of Capital, 2015; partial view at right)—do not realize their potential when we first view them, but only after we have read an explication or several.[7]

For many viewers, this just involves reading the few sentences on a wall near to where the work is on display or a few paragraphs made available by a gallery or appearing in a review of a show. It is also possible for our own minds to develop explications, on their own, not dissimilarly to how I have developed explications of Mirrors and Shelly Sand. The difference, however, is that Smithson’s work blooms absent any explication. Indeed, as shall be discussed, with such works—Rembrandt’s portraits being another example—explication, even as it edifies, may dull, instead of bring to life, the beauty and strength of the creation.

Work such as Tuymans’s Still Life do not realize their potential when we first view them, but only after we have read an explication or several.

As regards Tuymans’s Still Life, before we have even glanced at an explication we can and do have visceral responses to the works, somewhat as we can have to Mirrors and Shelly Sand. But—either with or without the explications—our visceral responses are not likely to be sufficiently strong as to absorb our full attention, however briefly. Or—alternatively—we may have quite another kind of “visceral” response: to these works’ seeming banality (which may include, for example, with Simon’s treaties and flowers, conventional prettiness or elegance, or cleverness). There is a kind of chill wind—intimations of impotence. Of our “social impotence,” I am going to term this.

A “problem” here is not that such intimations lack strength, but rather that they are distasteful, off-putting. They drive us away from the works, into other galleries. Responses to Tuymans’s work (though not to Simon’s prettier constructions) may recall the responses of art aficionados of the past to various realist works such as Gustave Courbet’s Un enterrement à Ornans (Burial at Ornans) or Thomas Eakins’s paintings of doctors performing surgery. Why would an artist choose such a subject? viewers asked. “We” want artists to show us greatness and beauty, to take us away from the unpleasant and all-too-common realities (to include our social impotence) that we know all too well. Dipping into an 1880 review of Eakins’s The Gross Clinic: “The more we study it, the more our wonder grows that it was ever painted in the first place, and that it was ever exhibited in the second.”[8]

What do I mean by “social impotence”? As regards contemporary life in the United States, an example that comes quickly to mind is how, if your flight is cancelled by an airline—say, because its plane has a mechanical problem—a low-level employee will provide you with a telephone number to call to try to find another way to get home or on vacation. The corporations that take our money (and for which we may find ourselves working—handing out phone numbers and the like—long days, many years): these organizations no longer feel obliged, economically or socially, to take responsibility for their shortcomings or for ensuring that their middle- or working-class customers feel that they, we—the customers—are of any value. One might write similarly, and at greater length, about the disintegration or long-standing absurdities of democracy, not only as a result of the power and demands of capital, but also because of the scale of our societies and the complexity of our governmental processes.[9] An individual may feel some potency as a member of a group—LGBT Power (a fictional example), the NRA, the AARP—but this would be in subsuming her or his individuality, his identity, to the group.[10] I am no longer “William Eaton,” but rather a kind of thing, label, mass phenomenon—a gay, gun-toting retiree.

An artist may be prostituted by the art market even as her art campaigns against prostitution or makes an example, however exquisite, of her chastity (or concupiscence).

Let us touch, too, on the impotence of artists, how difficult it is for them to find an honorable, autonomous relation to the art market and to society as a whole.[11] We may connect this to the impotence of prostitutes, who (like Presidents and other elected officials) sell themselves or their capacity to serve others’ interests, and in the process they must set aside many interests of their own besides earning money and being regarded as successful.[12] Thus, for example, a hypothetical artist is prostituted by the art market even if—or all the more if—her art ostensibly campaigns against prostitution or makes an example, however exquisite, of her chastity (or concupiscence). The prostitution is guaranteed because the art market is, at base, about selling things for money (to be paid by collectors, museumgoers, taxpayers), and because the market’s knowledge and appreciation are rooted in price, in preserving and creating monetary values. If “your” anti-prostitution art attracts visitors or buyers, great! You’re something, some number of dollars (at auction!). If not, your work is not anti-prostitution; it’s nothing.

For their parts, museum-goers may (if they wish) at times sense the extent to which they are pawns in this game. There are, for example, the many shows that have the never-publicly-stated objective of developing or maintaining the status and monetary value of artists in which the institution or its major supporters have made large investments.

The less-tutored are not so prepared or inclined to study and contextualize art works, and thus they may be able to have for longer a visceral response to the works.

From this perspective, Mirrors and Shelly Sand may be said to fit into an older and more heart-warming tradition. It can be—and, in a sense, be fully—appreciated or felt on a visceral level by a museumgoer who knows not the least thing about the work or the artist or the machinations of the art market and how this market is just one of the many tentacles of the octopus (global capitalism) and useful, inter alia, for those with money to launder or taxes to avoid. It fact, it may be easier for the untutored to appreciate these art works themselves than it is for the well-read and analytical, our vision befogged by theory, by reflections on capitalism and corruption, or by an artist’s, curator’s, or essayist’s explications. A less tutored eye does not get a purer view; the untutored are still looking through the particular telescopes that their own experiences, beliefs, genes, etc., have made for them. And the expert may have the advantage of knowing that he is looking through such a telescope and of knowing facts about how the telescope has been made and how it may narrow one’s vision.[13] But, above all, since the less-tutored’s intellects are not so prepared or inclined to study and contextualize art works, the less tutored may be able to have, or have for longer, a visceral response to the works.[14]

We have already seen that Mirrors and Shelly Sand can be explicated in intriguing ways, but, in developing our explications or absorbing others’ explications, we distance ourselves from the work’s most wonderful power. Similarly, a discussion of a Rembrandt portrait, for example, might call our attention to his mastery of chiaroscuro and to the formalist way of viewing Western art as being about the play of dark and light (and would this relate to our fixation on good and evil?). All this could be quite interesting, while also distancing and more than unnecessary. A Rembrandt portrait has an extraordinary power to reach through our eyes into our souls and to temporarily transform how we see human beings or the faces around us. Insofar as we are lead to think about chiaroscuro, et al., this power may be diminished.[15]


The more general point is that, with art, as with many other phenomena, we use our intellects to create distance and order, to reflect and deflect, instead of feeling or simply “being in the moment,” as a New Ager could say. And thus, through explication we lose contact with what may not only be most wonderful about great works of art, but also most valuable—a capacity to reach through our eyes into our souls (as music with our ears). But we might also wish to say that explication’s role is to create distance, to reduce the possibility that we may be too affected, infected. And taking this one step further: from our desire to understand art works or to have them explained to us, we may gain insight into how, more generally, we use pursuits of understanding to distance and disengage ourselves from direct experience, from our feelings, even of beauty, the sublime.

My attachment to order is much less than my attachment to finding and devising orders, one after another—as, along a mountain stream, one might leap from boulder to boulder, and for no reason beyond joy.

And yet, paradoxically—and we are nowhere if we cannot embrace paradox—as an intellectual I cannot and would not downplay my attachment to—how grateful I am for—opportunities to analyze phenomena I encounter, and to explore my own and others’ reflections on these phenomena. In my case at least, my attachment to order is much less than my attachment to ordering, to finding and devising orders, one after another—as, along a mountain stream, one might leap from boulder to boulder, and for no reason beyond joy, and hoping against hope that the stream never ends.

The goal of such activity may—if not too often!—pretend to be about finding some way to make the world a better place or to make me or someone else a better human or better artist or better art-appreciator. Long ago there were a few Greeks who spoke of a higher activity, which has come to be called “Socratic intellectualism.” They believed that intellectual exploration through dialectic—through the consideration, in dialogue with others similarly curious, of possibilities and counter-possibilities—this was the greatest use of our human capacities. This was the good-better-best in and of itself.

I would not say this. I would say that for some of us, for a small but significant minority, intellectual exploration is a great pleasure; it is our best entertainment and diversion. (Cf. this observation from a review of Rita Felski’s The Limits of Critique: “literary critics have practiced a method whose intellectual virtues have often obfuscated its emotional pleasures.”[16])

Of course there are also those—art critics and historians, for example—who are able to earn good livings and achieve social status thanks to explication and their talent for it. But, I would propose, many such people in a sense betray the process, by insinuating, in their own self-interest, that intelligent explication necessarily has “value,” that it is socially redeeming, that we may, in some way, be better people for being better educated about art, as about many another phenomenon. (Perhaps we may be, though likely this is not something we can know; knowledge of the good, and thus of the better as well, is reserved to the gods, who are figments of our imagination. Socratic intellectualism is itself but one more stab in the dark.)

And so, were I to repeat that the “value” of thinking, of explorations of thoughts and feelings, lies in the activity and not in any conclusions or prescriptions regarding good and bad, etc.—this proposition is beyond paradoxical; it’s ridiculous. It also misrepresents my Puritan roots and the hold they continue to have on my thinking. Values, goods and evils (to include beauties and uglinesses) are everywhere in my work. (Cf., Leo Steinberg’s reminder that every work of art “is to some degree a value judgment, since you cannot represent a thing without proclaiming it to be worthwhile.”[17])

Our admiration of the kalon “involves a forgetfulness of self. It borders on surprise and wonder (thaumazein): the admired object absorbs our full attention.” Rachel Barney

And yet . . . Let us come back to these two observations: explorations of explications, let’s call them, can provide great pleasure and diversion and make large use of our mental capacities; and such explorations, spurred as they may well be by great works of art, can also easily alienate us from our experience of, say, sand, of the grounds of our inspiration.

When, on an Easter weekend, I first sighted Mirrors and Shelly Sand, its beauty enthralled me. Approaching (leaving Tuymans and others behind), I had a brief but ecstatic experience. In “Notes on Plato on the Kalon and the Good,” philosopher and classicist Rachel Barney notes that our admiration of the kalon “involves a forgetfulness of self. It borders on surprise and wonder (thaumazein): the admired object absorbs our full attention.” And, “We discern kalon [what is fine; admirable] perceptually, not inferentially, without having to calculate its causal relations.”[18] A good description of my first experience of Mirrors and Shelly Sand at the Met. Smithson’s work absorbed my full attention perceptually and wonderfully!

view of Alberto Burri’s Cretto di Gibellina, SicilyI happened to read recently, in a Scientific American article on “The Orgasmic Mind,” a scientific proposition (I will call it): “At the moment of orgasm, women do not have any emotional feelings.”[19] In very hot saunas I have had a similar experience; it’s so hot, I can’t think (and this I appreciate!). Beauty, even terrible beauty, can have a similar effect. “She’s stunning,” we may say of a beautiful woman (or of Alberto Burri’s Cretto di Gibellina in Sicily [view at right] or Michelangelo’s David).[20] Beauty and sublimity have a capacity to turn off our minds, and this may be what we appreciate most about it. It may offer less an “isn’t life wonderful” feeling—even if just for the briefest of moments—than the wonderful possibility of no feeling or thinking at all.

And yet—we are nowhere without our dilemmas?—surprise, wonder, admiration led intellectual me, ineluctably, to try to understand Smithson’s work and how it had worked its magic on me. The machine of my intellect, with the help of others’ machines, some of Smithson’s writings included, began breaking the spell, the work, and experience—into bits, we could say. And, as a result, my understanding and intellectual appreciation has certainly grown, and my initial ecstasy was going to quickly fade in any case.



The Tuymans painting—which commanded a wall two rooms away from Smithson’s mirrors and sand—I first experienced simply, viscerally and exclusively, as a reminder of a current art-world trend which annoys me.[21] In contrast to the Platonic idea of the fine not involving calculations of causal relations, in order to begin to come to some appreciation of Untitled (Still Life), I had—first and foremost—to think about causal relations.

“Luc Tuymans’s paintings consciously fall desperately short of the iconic, becoming vestiges posed as counterfeit emblems for that which cannot be conveyed.” Saatchi blurb

To be specific, I propose that the text reproduced below provides an excellent example of what you need to know about Untitled (Still Life), 2002, in order to appreciate it and, indeed, before you can see what it is. This text is from a blurb on the piece that has been prepared by the Saatchi Gallery, and so let’s pause to sketch the relation between a Saatchi (business) and a Tuymans (artist). I take this relationship to be akin to the relationship of record labels and recording-industry executives with “recording artists.” The business people recognize that part of what they have to sell are myths and realities related to individual genius and inspiration, and the business people also recognize that an artist may get in touch with the zeitgeist sooner or more deeply than a business person can. The financially ambitious and successful artist perceives or is “the moment,” and her or his gallery seeks to seize this moment and its creator and to exploit them—for all they’re worth, as the saying goes.

From the Saatchi blurb:

Exposing the gap between represented image and historical event, Luc Tuymans’s paintings delve into the inner workings of how mythology is created. . . . [I]t’s only their cognitive association with the Holocaust, or atrocities of the Belgian Congo [or, say, the nature and implications of the art business?], that encapsulates the true banality of evil—the unspeakable horror in a teacup, the monstrous potential of an empty bath. Luc Tuymans’s paintings consciously fall desperately short of the iconic, becoming vestiges posed as counterfeit emblems for that which cannot be conveyed.

Still Life is a monument to this inadequacy of language. Made initially for the 2002 Documenta, Luc Tuymans was expected to present paintings of images relating to 9/11 to coincide with the exhibition’s theme of political and social engagement. What he decided to show was a giant still life. The sheer scale makes the contemplation of this painting almost impossible: a vast canvas representing an absolute nothingness. Luc Tuymans chose the subject of still life precisely because it was utterly unremarkable; a generic ‘brand’ of ‘object’ rendered to immense scale; it is banality expanded to the extreme.

. . . In response to unimaginable horror, Luc Tuymans offers the sublime. A gaping magnitude of impotency, which neither words nor paintings could ever express.

Luc Tuymans, Untitled (StillLife), 2002, Saatchi GalleryTo me, this blurb is very well done. It makes as good a pitch for this Still Life as could be made. (And it certainly embraces paradox—championing the inexplicability of what only comes to life through explication and the sublimity of a foreignness to sublimity.) I am intrigued, too, that the reproduction (at right) which accompanies the Saatchi blurb is so different from the painting I saw presented on a wall at the Met. There is the difference in scale—the painting itself is indeed giant, approximately eleven and a half feet by sixteen feet—and the Saatchi image is so blue; at the Met the background was, above all, white, and toward the top of the canvas the white appeared thinly, unevenly applied. And a good deal of the top of the painting and some of the sides have been cropped out of the Saatchi image. A result: on the website the piece comes across as an attractive, not unconventional still life which might look good in a public space/rich person’s home/corporate headquarters. And it would look all the better because it wasn’t just a pretty picture, but also about the banality of evil, etc. (And similarly with Taryn Simon’s treaty texts and flowers “custom-framed in mahogany to emulate the style of boardroom furniture [speaking] to the bombast of national and corporate symbolism,” etc., while also being custom-framed in mahogany to look good in a rich person’s home.[22])

Through reading we may come to see Mirrors and Shelly Sand differently than we would were we not to read anything about it. But without reading, in a sense, we can’t see Still Life (2002) at all.

I am not going to launch into a disquisition on the current unholy alliance of politics, business, and art in which vaguely political ideas or associations are part of the sales pitch. My more fundamental—but perhaps less important?—point is that a great gulf separates a work such as Mirrors and Shelly Sand, which has, at least in certain settings, a power to reach us directly, viscerally, and a work such as Tuymans’s Still Life, which to me is—absent any explications—pale and weak (and, of course, this could be the point), and which, explications added, comes to speak most strongly of the impotence of art and artists (and, of course, this could be what makes the work so annoying! And what helps make it appealing to rich and powerful collectors and their galleries and museums?)

But all this, in Tuymans’s case, is intellectual. Through reading we may come to see Mirrors and Shelly Sand differently than we would were we not to read anything about it. But without reading, in a sense, we can’t see Still Life (2002) at all.[23]



We are nowhere if we cannot embrace paradox. In his 1969 Artforum piece “Incidents of Mirror-Travel in the Yucatan”—a work full of explications—Smithson lobbies for the inexplicability of art or for art’s being rooted in the inexplicable.

The questions mirrors ask always fall short of the answers. Mirrors thrive on surds, and generate incapacity. Reflections fall onto the mirrors without logic, and in so doing invalidate every rational assertion.[24]

The words “surds” comes from the Latin “surdus” (deaf). In mathematics the term is used to refer to irrational numbers—deaf to reason. In phonetics, it refers to an unvoiced or voiceless consonant.

The youthfulness of Smithson’s text, published when he was 31, has led me (twice as old) to think of how young people try out, with different ways of dressing, styling their hair, etc., different identities, and how young people at times insist vehemently that they should not be identified with their experiments. They should not be, indeed are not, explicable! This—these pink underpants that I’m wearing on my head with bits of hair and cigarette butts stuck through the holes—this is just something I happened to put on, just something I did; it has no logic, no explanation, no meaning, and indeed it is quite wrong of you to make assertions about it or try to explain it. “I”—any I (and, by extension, any thing) is not to be judged, not negatively, not positively, not even neutrally.

Joan Miró, Mujer (Woman), in collection of Art Institute of ChicagoBut “Met Unfinished; Smithson, Tuymans” is, in any case, a work of judgments and assertions. And Mirrors and Shelly Sand itself is redolent with logic, judgments, and assertions. It helps and cannot help that explication can recognize the paradox: how while deepening our appreciation of beauty, of art, and of many another phenomena, explication distances us from these things. As if we might see the pink-underwear-headdress—or, say, Joan Miró’s Mujer (at right)—and be moved and yet both incapable and undesiring of describing the effect on us of this thing.

And yet, can the work of Tuymans and many others lead us to amend our enthusiasm for works that not only need no explication, but have the power to short-circuit our explicating capacities? Are we now more interested in how art might—however impotently?—serve as a counterforce amid the reign of denial and illusion?[25] By requiring explication and urging us to think about our explications, does or can such art promote thinking, something which we have fallen out of the habit or were never very inclined to engage in?

By requiring explication and urging us to think about our explications, does or can art promote thinking?

I must save for another essay a distinction between reacting “intellectually,” using the rhetoric of rationality, and thinking, or a kind of thinking, which involves exploration and questions—asking, for example, how we have come to our reactions and what might be involved in reacting otherwise. I will also save yet another discussion: of how the extraordinary popularity of art museums in recent decades seems related to anti-intellectualism, or to art—or most art for most people—not requiring thinking or reading or more than the briefest of pauses and ah’s and I can’t-understand-thises and this-doesn’t-do-anything-for-me’s.

We will also leave as an open question how an essay might best respond to the beauty, soul-reaching, intellect-short-circuiting of great art works, since essays, by their very nature, work against any absence—or pause in our manufacturing—of thoughts and feelings.[26] A poet—or a certain kind of poet, a language poet perhaps—might be able to respond to a sublime artwork without distancing us from the sublime. But an essay—and certainly this essay . . . “Die Erklärungen haben irgendwo ein Ende.” (Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, opening section: Explanations come to an end somewhere.)

— William Eaton


Afterword on Art Experiences & Light

David, Michelangelo, Galleria dell’Accademia in FlorenceSometime after I first saw Mirrors and Shelly Sand and was so struck by its beauty, my critical mind called into question one of the governing principles of the Unfinished exhibition and of museum exhibitions in general. The principle: show lots of stuff. Why not, I thought, have a show of just this one Smithson piece, and in a setting—with comfortable chairs (or air mattresses? mai tais?) that encouraged viewers to spend time with the piece? (I thought of the rotunda at the Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence, where Michelangelo’s David has been on view. Of course there are crowds, but there is also a good deal of space around the work, and there are a few stone benches along the walls. If one wishes, one may simply share space, take a nap with the work and its current life as a tourist attraction.)

I might say, too, that at the Met Breuer, in the old Whitney Museum building, the Smithson piece should not have been a bit cramped, as it was, in the narrow room it shared with several other works. But such a statement would ignore my own experience. If I initially experienced Mirrors and Shelly Sand as extraordinarily beautiful, then I would have to think about whether the cramping—and Easter weekend crowds getting in the way, urging one to keeping moving on, work to work, floor to floor—contributed to my response.

Several weeks later, standing before Mirrors and Shelly Sand, I chatted with a young sculptor who told me that if, at a large show, she spends a lot of time with just a few works, she feels guilty, for having short-changed the other works. OK, so then we may note that guilt, impatience, annoyance, a sense of being overwhelmed, cramped, impotent, inadequate—or, on the positive side, being on vacation, at ease, comfortably seated, or in the company of a dear friend, etc.—such facts and feelings may also contribute to the momentary ecstasy, wonder, or peace, or absence thereof, that we may feel before a work of art.


The larger point is that we do not and cannot see art works “out of context.” I am not focused here on the historical or critical contexts of art works, though they are certainly significant. The Mirrors and Shelly Sand mise en scène called to mind instead a whole range of more immediate factors such as: lighting and other exhibition-design and curatorial interventions; crowds or quiet; conventional social values; my and other viewers’ moods.

Amid all this, the roles played by the artist and the specific work are likely smaller than we generally imagine. Rather than concentrating on and writing so much about art works, it may often be more accurate to think about art “experiences.” We might think of visual artists and their works as we do of playwrights and their texts. In that latter case, we accept that the works come to life—to various lives—thanks to the responses of producers, designers, actors, audiences, and so forth. With the visual arts, there are the gallery owners, curators, designers, spectators (whose attention is currently divided among the art on the floors and walls, the crowds, babies, cellphones).


Mirrors’s fifty mirrors certainly urge us to think about light! Like most every work of art, Smithson’s has no light of its own. Distant light—be it from electric fixtures or the Sun—reflects off the mirrors and the sand. And thus, among other things, the work’s appearance depends on aspects of the space in which it finds itself (size and position of windows, their glass, time of day, the nature and position of the electric lighting), and also on how crowds or their absence diffuse the light and cast shadows.

Robert Smithson, Mirrors and Shelly Sand, 1970, Dallas Museum of ArtI urge readers to view on a laptop screen the image of Mirrors and Shelly Sand at right. When my screen is more or less perpendicular to the keyboard, the background, to the left, has a vacant dun color, and the intensity of the white washes out details of the spine and the sand to the right. If, however, I tilt the screen back twenty degrees or so: the sand hill in front offers a nice combination of a gray blue and a teal blue; the mirrors to the left become a sequence of light and dark squares; and ghostly shadows projected to the left become more prominent.

At the Met show, the designers, the crowds, the window’s variable light, and viewers’ positions in the room combined to “tilt the screen” on which we—these viewers—viewed Smithson’s work. As regards the design, the walls had been painted white, and the lighting was diffused, sufficiently strong without calling attention to itself, gently warm, more yellow than blue or red. It was easy enough to imagine that the work would seem quite differently were the lighting as blue, harsh, and unidirectional as it can appear in a certain tilt of my laptop. Or imagine if the walls or floor had been a sea-blue-green or candy pink, or if, as on a beach, the light kept changing from morning to evening, of if the work were shown outside, in natural light, the sand carefully laid on a stretch of beach.

We might imagine a lighting designer ignoring or dismissing the work’s beauty. Some jumble of lighting sources could make the work seem dull, not beautiful. And this would not necessarily be “bad.” In a dull light we might feel an additional tension—a work that should be about light but was hardly? Or we might better appreciate the work’s politics or some other aspect.

Might we, in some moods, say that the Met’s exhibition and lighting designers, in bringing out the beauty of the work, had betrayed it, or at least downplayed the work’s political message, diverting rather than enlightening us?

Certainly my own initial reaction—stunned by Mirrors and Shelly Sand’s beauty (or seeming beauty)—had a great deal to do with the lighting in the gallery. And so, might we, in some moods, say that the Met’s exhibition and lighting designers, in bringing out the beauty of the work, had betrayed it, or at least downplayed the work’s political message, diverting rather than enlightening us? What had been, intentionally or not, straightforward social commentary, about our denial of nature, had been turned into a wordless evocation of our brilliance, as engineers, fabricators, and designers?

Except, before criticizing the design, we should also note that Mirrors and Shelly Sand can also be read as intentionally making this point about our brilliance. Glass, we could say, is an ordering of sand by the human. We heat the sand and typically combine it with soda ash and limestone, in order to reduce the sand’s melting point and thereby save energy, while also ensuring that the resulting product retains its integrity, its autonomy.[27] The brilliant result: glass. Meanwhile, nature, by its own relentless mechanical process—the pounding of the surf—is producing sand and bits of shells from more complex structures. Smithson was greatly engaged by the idea of entropy, by the fact that the machines of nature are, ultimately, entropic; they end up scattering, homogenizing, informalizing.[28] Against this stands the human, the well-constructed, the architect, the artist, the lighting designer.



Robert Smithson portrait[1] Robert Smithson, Mirrors and Shelly Sand, 1969-70. In the collection of the Dallas Museum of Art. (A portrait of Smithson is at right.)

[2] Another view of the juxtaposition: “The fifty mirrors that cut across the pile at regular intervals exacerbate its formlessness.” Kelly Baum, “The Raw and the Cooked: Unfinishedness in Twentieth and Twenty-First Century Art”; in Baum, Andrea Bayer, and Sheena Wagstaff, with others, exhibition catalogue, Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible (The Metropolitan Museum & Yale University Press, 2016), 211.

[3] Metropolitan Museum, Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible, March 18–September 4, 2016, The Met Breuer. With more than 100 works, spanning 500 years—the show may be quickly described as extraordinary, well-worth seeing, and a major headache, and this perhaps less because of any crowds than because of the range of works pushing and pulling on one’s eyes and mind and insufficiently held together by the “unfinished” theme or conceit of the show. The exhaustiveness-exhaustingness was such that if you started at the beginning, chronologically, you could find yourself with little enthusiasm for the more recent works, such as Smithson’s and Tuymans’s. But if you started on the top floor, with the most recent, and worked down, the experience could be inverted. The newer works could seem more fresh and challenging; the older works masterful and famous and yet tired, as you had become. (Among the many reviews of the show, one might see The Met Breuer Traces the Unfinished to the Deliberately Incomplete in Western Art, by Elisa Wouk Almino, Hyperallergic, March 15, 2016. The present essay includes two installation views that appeared in this review.)

[4] Smithson’s article “Incidents of Mirror-Travel” (Artforum, 1969) describes, to include with photographs, his “enantiomorphic” work. Greek: enantíos, “opposite.” Enantiomorph: a mirror image, or, more technically, either one of a pair of compounds (crystals or molecules) that are mirror images on each other but are not identical. The article begins with two epigraphs, one from a translation of Claude Lévi-Strauss’s La pensée sauvage (The Savage Mind). Lévi-Strauss is speaking of our mind’s natural approach to ordering the world—by means of binary oppositions, “the knowledge which it draws therefrom is like that afforded of a room by mirrors fixed on opposite walls, which reflect each other (as well as objects in the intervening space) . . . ” (English text above is as it appears in Smithson’s piece. Translator not identified.)

[5] I would seem to be drawn to sculptures that can be, as it were, played with by museum staff and thus appear different on different days or at different places. Another such sculpture about which I have written: Kiki Smith’s Pea Body. See Urine, Glass Beads, Poetry.

[6] “For Smithson, New Jersey epitomized better than most sites the many facets of entropy, and he studied the state’s proliferating ruins with the enthusiasm of an amateur anthropologist. About Bayonne, New Jersey, for instance, a blighted wasteland filled with construction debris from New York, he once said, ‘There’s just a kind of continual buildup of breakdown.” Baum, “The Raw and the Cooked,” op. cit., 212. Baum is herself quoting Robert Smithson and Dennis Wheeler, “Four Conversations between Dennis Wheeler and Robert Smithson,” in Jack Flam, ed., Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings (University of California Press, 1996), 220.

[7] The photograph is from the exhibition of this work at the 2015 Venice Biennale. It appears in a blogpost: Biennale di Venezia 2015: Artistic views on the world order, ARTIFICIALIS (a contemporary art organization founded in 2006 by Astrid Gallinat and Stephan Goseberg in cooperation with the German artist group FEHLSTELLE).

Thomas Eakins, The Gross Clinic (1875), in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art[8] As quoted by Sidney D. Kirkpatrick in The Revenge of Thomas Eakins (Yale University Press, 2006), 4-5. At right is an image of Eakins’s The Gross Clinic (1875).

[9] One might see in this regard various works of the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, including, as regards contemporary government, Stato di Eccezione (State of Exception), translated by Kevin Attell (University of Chicago Press, 2005), and as regards “social impotence,” “Su ciò che possiamo non fare” (On What We Cannot Do). An English translation of this latter, by David Kishik and Stefan Pedatella, appears in Agamben, Nudities (Stanford University Press, 2011). From page 44: Today’s man “has been consigned in unheard of measure to forces and processes over which he has lost all control [e.g. capitalism]. He has become blind not to his capacities but to his incapacities, not to what he can do but to what he cannot”.

[10] One might see Frederic Jameson (and others) on the death of the subject—“the end of the autonomous bourgeois monad or ego or individual—and the accompanying stress, whether as some new moral ideal or as empirical description, on the decentering of that formerly centered subject or psyche.” The quoted passage, from Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, appears in a discussion of Edvard Munch’s painting, Skrik (The Scream). Jameson’s essay, subsequently published as the first chapter of a book (Duke University Press, 1991), originally appeared in the New Left Review I/146 (July-August 1984), 53-92. See also my NRALGBTQ.

[11] My recent Guston, Schapiro, Rosenberg—Dialogue may be read as an exploration of this topic.

[12] Supposing that, for a fee, you could observe sex acts in a brothel, and supposing your experience were framed as educational, fashionable, or otherwise salubrious, and yet you had the impression that the people engaged in these acts—or, say, working in the White House or waiting tables or assembling automobiles—had no other choice but to perform the particular acts they were performing . . . Might there not be moments when being able to observe these acts made you feel sordid or ashamed? I suppose this would be a visceral experience that, like a horror movie, could quite absorb you.

[13] If you prefer, we could say that we look at art (and at life) from within the tunnel of convexed and concaved mirrors that is our perceptual apparatus. Like telescopes and microscopes, these tunnels bring certain objects into incredible focus, and thus both take our attention away from many other objects and distort our impressions of the objects so sharply seen. DNA and experience have shaped, and keep shaping, my mirrors differently than yours, but we all share in this kind of warped, deceiving, tunnel vision.

DNA and experience (life) have rendered me myopic and astigmatic. I do not see with the same semblance of clarity that I once did. And yet I think I see better. That is, DNA and experience have brought me, inter alia, this idea: in my youth, images and truths arrived in my consciousness without my having any idea of the tunnel or of the waves (and rails) on which the images and ideas were traveling, nor of the shelly sand of my brain on which these images and ideas were making a beachhead. Time—and reading!—having brought me some greater understanding of the forces and mechanisms at work, and of the substrate (a.k.a. my self) being worked upon. Clarity has become more of a struggle, but I also have a better idea of what is involved in sight. And this thanks not to the sublime or to mindless moments, but to explications, others’ and my own.

[14] We can assume that such viewers’ “visceral” responses contain one or another set of responses to their impotence and to the fact that they themselves have not proved to have talents or social status anywhere near that of a Smithson or Rembrandt.

[15] If we take the view that thoughts are independent of and may precede language, then we could say that there are art works that inspire such word-less thoughts or that so strike us that it takes time for our responses to find words. I have offered Miró’s Mujer (Woman), 1934 (image in text far above), as an example of a temporarily short-circuiting work.

[16] Matthew Mullins, “Are We Postcritical?” Los Angeles Review of Books (LARB), December 27, 2015.

[17] From Leo Steinberg, “The Eye is a Part of the Mind,” first published in Partisan Review 20, No. 2 (March-April 1953); reprinted in a revised form in Other Criteria with Twentieth-Century Art (Oxford University Press, 1972). The “reminder” appears on page 297. [The collection was also issued with the title Other Criteria: Confrontations with Twentieth-Century Art.]

[18] Rachel Barney, “Notes on Plato on the Kalon and the Good,” Classical Philology 105, No. 4, 363-77.  More from the text:

This response of intuitive approval may be interpreted as moral, aesthetic, or simply as an expression of conventional social values, depending on the object which evokes it; but . . . The kalon is simply what appropriately elicits the disinterested approbation of a spectator as having positive value in itself, wherever that value may be found.

[19] Dutch Neuroscientist Gert Holstege speaking at a 2005 meeting of the European Society for Human Development and Reproduction,” as quoted in Martin Portner, The Orgasmic Mind, Scientific American, April 1, 2008.

Aerial view of Il Cretto di Burri, Sicily, Italy[20] Il Cretto di Burri (also known as Il Grande Cretto) is a landscape artwork undertaken by Alberto Burri. It completely entombs the old city of Gibellina, Sicily, which was destroyed in the earthquake of Belice, January 14, 1968. The work has been the subject of a documentary by the Dutch filmmaker Petra Noordkamp, which was created as commissioned by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.

[21] Luc Tuymans, Untitled (Still Life), 2002, oil on canvas, 347 x 500 cm, Saatchi Gallery.

[22] From Gagosian gallery press release for Simon show in New York, February 18-March 26, 2016. Some of the work also appeared at the Venice Biennale in 2015.

Taryn Simon, Paperwork and the Will of Capital (Installation View), Gagosian Gallery, photograph by Robert McKeever[23] Simon’s work is more complex than Tuymans’s, insofar as it appeals warmly, pleasingly to “conventional social values” having to do, if not with to kalon (the admirable), then certainly with the handsome and appropriate. And thus the work actively, consciously, undermines whatever vague ideas about politics and diplomacy—a dirty business if ever there was one!—may be suggested by the texts, which Simon offers to us in a way that does not allow our reading or thinking about them.

The photograph at right below is an installation view of the show (“Paperwork and the Will of Capital”) at Gagosian, photograph by Robert McKeever. It is hard for photography to convey the range of elements in the work and the materials used.

[24] Artforum (September 1969) vol. 8, no. i. This piece has been reprinted in Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings, op. cit. The curious might also check out the comments on mirrors in Robert Smithson: ‘Fragments of a Conversation, edited by William C. Lipke.

Smithson coined the word “slurbs” to refer to “dull,” “vapid” housing developments, such as those in the tri-state region around New York. See Smithson, “Entropy and the New Monuments (1966), which also appears in Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings.

From a Guggenheim museum text by the curator Nancy Spector, currently Deputy Director and Chief Curator of the Brooklyn Museum:

Robert Smithson may be best known for his Spiral Jetty (1970), a monumental spiral of crushed rock gracing the waters of Utah’s Salt Lake. But to characterize him simply as an Earthwork artist would be to miss the depth of his vision, which lies in the interstices between sculpture, Land art, photography, film, and the written word. Throughout his tragically short career, Smithson mounted an attack against the strictures of art history, which venerates the static object and divides art from the exigencies of the real world. He searched for an aesthetic form that would be coterminous with the world at large. . . .

While in Mexico, Smithson also created the Yucatan Mirror Displacements (1–9) by installing 12-inch-square mirrors on dispersed sites. The resulting series of nine color photographs was published in Artforum to accompany Smithson’s essay “Incidents of Mirror-Travel in the Yucatan” (1969). The mirrors reflected and refracted the surrounding environs, displacing the solidity of the landscape and shattering its forms. Part Earthwork and part image, the displacements contemplate temporality; while the mirror records the passage of time, its photograph suspends time.

[25] Abstract Expressionist art was once championed with similar arguments.

[26] Impressed-dismayed by the density of my own writing, I have wondered if I am not—as if cold—trying to stuff thoughts, quotes, pictures, expressions of feeling into every crack. Or is writing for me akin to knitting? And might something not dissimilar be said of Monet, given how his paintings—in contrast to Tuymans’s Untitled, for example—leave no centimeter of canvas un-dabbed, uncolored, un-latent-with meaning?

The Thames above Waterloo Bridge c.1830-5 Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851 Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

At the Met show I had a similar feeling when looking at the unfinished Turner paintings, The Thames above Waterloo Bridge in particular (reproduction at right). The sky is as alive, as present, as the objects. There is no ground, no negative space, no place for the eye to rest.

[27] My thanks to British science writer Chris Woodford for his blog post What is Glass?, October 25, 2015.

[28] “Scattering, homogenizing, informalizing” are my own words. I am not trying to report what Smithson had in mind when he was making his work, but to evoke what seeing this work has brought to my mind. For anti-entropy, let’s call it, Smithson apparently used, inter alia, the word “architecturization.” See John Perreault, “Nonsites in the News,” New York Magazine, February 24, 1969, 46.

Click for pdf (without images)

Smithson, Tuymans; Art & Explication


  1. Steve Webb

    Here’s a striking phrase, one of many, from this essay: “…we use pursuits of understanding to distance and disengage ourselves from direct experience, from our feelings, even of beauty….” I’m wondering what might motivate such an intellectual recoil from feeling and beauty? Are there really people who WANT to tone down immediacy and thus grab hold of abstractions as the means to do so? I can understand how intellectual pursuits might have the unintended EFFECT of such distancing and disengagement, but to deliberately USE the intellect to accomplish this…? An intriguing idea!


  2. Ed Mooney

    Beauty, when it verges on the sublime, especially, can elicit terror, and we want to escape that. I think the recoil can be involuntary, like catching an old man naked. We turn away, and then try to re-contextualize to defang the experience: “After all,he was just exiting the shower and doesn’t look THAT saggy for his age, and I shouldn’t have been looking.” As a matter of habit, we often abandon experience to chat about categories or motivations – to analyze. I think Kierkegaard is warning us not to flee the wonder and terror of immediate experience by shifting into the safe detachment of cognitive analysis.


  3. Steve Webb

    I’m wondering, Ed, if it’s quite appropriate to cite Kierkegaard as an apostle of immediacy? Myself, I have always thought of him as one of the most reflective and dialectically tensed thinkers in the history of Western thought. To be sure, his thought is existentially tuned and all its emphasize is on engendering passionate engagement, but I don’t know if passion, in Kierkegaard’s sense, can be quite described as immediacy, or if he himself would describe it that way. Ah, but he is a tricky fellow, isn’t he? In one place he can evoke “ineffable forest joy” and the present-tense miracle of having senses: “…that you can see!—that you can hear, you can smell, you can taste, you can feel; that the sun shines on you…[etc.]” But in another place he can say: “Then let us be receptive. Who wants to think twice? Bring us life, more life, so that the feeling of being alive might swell in me—as if all life were concentrated in my breast! But is this supposed to be Christianity, this appalling error? No, no! This life-giving is not a DIRECT heightening of the natural life…in IMMEDIATE connection with it—what blasphemy!”(SK emphases)

    If you read Kierkegaard, you’re almost inevitably going to be swept up by his contradictions. You’re going to be made to reflect. But is such reflection really a loss of immediacy, I wonder? I suppose it depends on how one reads and reflects. For me, reading Kierkegaard is always a spellbinding experience. I sometimes have to remind myself to breathe. He pulls me into a mental state bordering on what psychologists call immersive attention or hyper-focus, a condition I would certainly describe as “being in the present.” Now if being in the present has any title to be called immediacy—and why wouldn’t it?—then I guess reading and reflection might, on some occasions at least, be a compelling instance of immediacy. And it goes without saying, I think, that the immediate experience of reading Kierkegaard, I mean of really engaging with that dialectical mind of his, involves a good deal of wonder and terror as well.


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