The Utah Museum of Fine Arts (UMFA) Opens The Smithson Effect

The Utah Museum of Fine Arts (UMFA) is pleased to premier The Smithson Effect, an exhibition highlighting the pervasive presence of artist Robert Smithson (1938-1973) in contemporary art since the 1990s. The most ambitious contemporary art exhibition ever organized by the UMFA, The Smithson Effect brings together, for the first time, a broad spectrum of work by international artists who share a profound debt to Smithson’s art and ideas.

The Smithson Effect features sculpture, video, photography, installation, and sound art by twenty-three leading artists. Organized by Acting Chief Curator Jill Dawsey, the exhibition occupies over 4,000 square feet in the museum’s first-floor galleries and will be on view in the Marcia and John Price Museum Building at the University of Utah from March 10 through July 3, 2011.

Perhaps the most influential artist of the postwar period, Smithson is best known for his pioneering earthworks created during the 1960s and 70s, such as the famous Spiral Jetty (1970) in Utah’s Great Salt Lake. If the site of artistic creation had traditionally been the artist’s studio, Smithson took this activity into the unbounded landscape. He redefined the terms of art’s display and exhibition, establishing a new relationship between the ‘site’ of the landscape and the ‘nonsite’ of the gallery.

Smithson’s legacy, however, extends far beyond his revolutionary use of land as an artistic medium. In addition to earthworks, Smithson produced sculpture, drawings, collages, paintings, photographs, films, and extensive writings. His practice of working across various mediums, which was once unusual, has become widespread among artists today.

A significant number of artists in the mid-to-late 1990s turned to Smithson’s work as a source of inspiration. Artists continue to explore Smithson’s radical ideas on the subjects of entropy, land use, anti-monuments, natural history, and language, which have critically shaped contemporary art, as evidenced in the dozens of works in The Smithson Effect.

The Smithson Effect includes work by the following artists: Adam Bateman, Walead Beshty, Matthew Buckingham, Tom Burr, Center for Land Use Interpretation, Peter Coffin, Tacita Dean, Mark Dion, Sam Durant, Shannon Ebner, Cyprien Gaillard, Amy Granat and Drew Heitzler, Renée Green, Simon Leung, Debora Ligorio, Ann Lislegaard, Florian Maier-Aichen, Vik Muniz, Lee Ranaldo, Alexis Rockman, Melanie Smith, and Tony Tasset.

A number of artists in The Smithson Effect focus their attention on earthworks by Smithson that have been lost or destroyed. A key point of reference is Smithson’s Partially Buried Woodshed (1970), which was created by dumping twenty loads of dirt onto the roof of an abandoned shed until it collapsed under the weight. Sited at Kent State University in Ohio, Partially Buried Woodshed became an unofficial memorial in the wake of the killings of four students by the National Guard during a protest against the US invasion of Cambodia, just months after the earthwork’s creation. The work was eventually removed from the Kent State campus by University administration.

Artists Renée Green and Sam Durant both take Partially Buried Woodshed as a starting point for their own pieces in The Smithson Effect. In Green’s films, Partially Buried (1996) and Partially Buried Continued (1997), she documents her search for the woodshed, acting as a kind of archaeologist (as Smithson might have done), investigating the sites on campus and excavating artifacts from the past. In Sam Durant’s 1998 sculpture Partially Buried 1960s/70s Dystopia Revealed (Mick Jagger at Altamont) & Utopia Reflected (Wavy Gravy at Woodstock), he places mounds of dirt atop rectangular mirrors that lay flat on the floor, recalling Smithson’s ‘Nonsite’ sculptures. Inside the mounds are speakers, one emitting the voice of folk hero Wavy Gravy at Woodstock in 1969, another playing audio of Mick Jagger trying to calm the crowd at the Altamont Free Concert, an event that seemed to symbolize the end of the 1960s.

Looking to another 1970s earthwork as a point of reference, artist and musician Lee Ranaldo pays homage to Smithson’s Amarillo Ramp in his audio recording Amarillo Ramp (For Robert Smithson) (1995). Smithson died in 1973 while choosing a site in Texas for Amarillo Ramp, which was completed posthumously by his wife, artist Nancy Holt. Ranaldo, best known as the guitarist for the seminal rock group Sonic Youth, operates outside the conventional modes of music making in Amarillo Ramp (for Robert Smithson), treating sound as a material to be manipulated and sculpted; his sound piece evokes the slow grade and circular curve of Smithson’s earthwork.

A recurring theme in many works featured in The Smithson Effect is that of entropy, or the second law of thermodynamics, which describes how matter inexorably loses energy, moving from a state of order to disorder. Smithson was fascinated by this concept, which for him implied time on a geological scale beyond that of human activity. Artist Matthew Buckingham conjures up the entropic process in his piece The Six Grandfathers, Paha Sapa, in the Year 502,002 C.E. (2002). Buckingham’s installation includes a photograph that has been digitally altered to appear as scientists imagine the mountains of Paha Sapa—better known as Mount Rushmore—will look in the year 502,002 C.E. The photograph asks us to consider the inevitable erosion of this seemingly eternal monument, the erasure of presidential figures carved in stone.

As featured artist Tacita Dean has said, “Robert Smithson has become an important figure in my working life, not because I depend on him in any way, but because his work allows me a conceptual space where I can often reside.” Smithson’s work, ideas, and processes have played a crucial role in the course that contemporary art has taken during the last two decades, and his legacy continues to provide a conceptual space for artists to reside.

“We are delighted to present this exhibition, which has been in the works for almost three years,” said Gretchen Dietrich, UMFA Executive Director. “While Smithson’s influence is widely acknowledged, no institution has attempted to survey or assess how it shapes the landscape of contemporary art. The Smithson Effect takes the pulse of the contemporary art world and discovers that Smithson’s example is at the heart of much work made in the past two decades.”

The Smithson Effect is generously presented by the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Foundation.


Spiral Jetty Online Resource
Now available at
The Smithson Effect is accompanied by a virtual online resource created to provide information about Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty. Designed by Cris Baczek, this program is intended for viewers who may or may not have visited the earthwork in person, and includes a time-lapsed video of a journey from the UMFA to Spiral Jetty, interviews with art historians and environmental experts, video accounts of personal experiences visiting the work, and links to additional information.

The Smithson Effect Audio Stops
The UMFA is pleased to offer six short audio stops that highlight specific works in the exhibition. Learn more about five featured artists and their work by using your cell phone, borrowing an MP3 player from the front desk, or downloading them to your iPod from for free.

“Artists on Smithson”
Saturday, April 2 • 2-4 pm
Join us for short talks by artists featured in The Smithson Effect, including Matthew Coolidge of the Center for Land Use Interpretation, Sam Durant, and Melanie Smith, followed by panel discussion mediated by Jill Dawsey, UMFA Acting Chief Curator.

“Viral Jetty: The Smithson Effect in Literature”
Wednesday, April, 13 • 6 pm
Professor Craig Dworkin of the Department of English at the University of Utah will discuss Smithson’s influence on writers.

Double Feature Films: Spiral Jetty and Casting a Glance
Wednesday, April 27 • 7 pm
It’s movie night at the UMFA. Enjoy a double feature screening of Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (1970) and James Benning’s Casting a Glance (2007) in the UMFA Katherine W. and Ezekiel R. Dumke, Jr. Auditorium.

“Robert Smithson and the Spiral Jetty: The Center and the Circumference”
Wednesday, May 11 • 7 pm
Don’t miss this lecture by Hikmet Sidney Loe, author of the forthcoming book The Spiral Jetty and Rozel Point: Rotating Through Time and Place (Utah State University Press, 2012).

Double Feature Films: Spiral Jetty and Casting a Glance
Wednesday, June 8 • 7 pm
It’s movie night at the UMFA. Enjoy a double feature screening of Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (1970) and James Benning’s Casting a Glance (2007) in the UMFA Katherine W. and Ezekiel R. Dumke, Jr. Auditorium.

Image: The Utah Museum of Fine Arts

The Utah Museum of Fine Arts is located on the University of Utah campus in the Marcia and John Price Museum Building at 410 Campus Center Drive. The UMFA’s mission is to engage visitors in discovering meaningful connections with the artistic expressions of the world’s cultures. General admission is $7 adults, $5 youth and seniors, FREE for U of U students/staff/faculty, UMFA members, higher education students in Utah, and children under six years old. Free admission offered the first Wednesday and third Saturday of each month thanks to the Salt Lake County Zoo, Arts, and Parks Fund. Museum hours are Tuesday – Friday: 10 a.m. – 5 p.m.; Wednesdays 10 a.m. – 8 p.m.; Weekends, 11 a.m. – 5 p.m.; closed Mondays and holidays. For more information call (801) 581-7332 or visit

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