Art Paper: Critical Summary — Smithson “A Sedimentation of the Mind”

We wrote a number of critical summaries of artists’ works (paintings, sculpture, writings, whatever) with a partner. This is the last, but is actually its second attempt — the professor was quite dissatisfied with our first one but liked this one a lot. (The first version contained our honest opinions. This second one was practically Markov-chain generated.)

Robert Smithson studied painting and drawing at the Art Students League of New York before beginning to exhibit collages and identifying himself as a painter in the late fifties. After an art hiatus, Smithson returned as a proponent of minimalism in 1964 and worked as a sculpture. For much of this and his later life, Smithson was known more as a critic than an artist. By the late sixties Smithson was beginning to design his “earthworks,” and he published “A Sedimentation of the Mind” in 1968.

Smithson begins by observing that the “earth’s surface and the figments of the mind have a way of disintegrating into discrete regions of art.” He draws comparisons between the surface of the earth and the human mind, in which “mental rivers wear away abstract banks,” and “this movement seems motionless, yet … avalanches all take place within the cracking limits of the brain.” Smithson marvels at the “bleak and fractured” world and notes that organizing this world “is an esthetic process that has barely been touched.”

Pollock next draws a comparison between the artist’s tools and the container they operate on: he “sees the paint brush vanish into Pollock’s stick, and the stick dissolve into ‘poured paint’ from a container…What then is one to do with the container?” Following the same progression as for tools, this “entropy of technique” leaves the artist with “no limit.”

Smithson then tackles a different point: dedifferentiation, the “’primary process’ of making contact with matter.” 1 Smithson says dedifferentiation tends to swing between oceanic limitlessness (discussed here) and strong determinants (as in traditional painting). According to Smithson, “most critics cannot endure the suspension of boundaries between what Ehrenzweig calls the ‘self and the non-self,” while artists “engulfed” by their experiences “give evidence…through a limited (mapped) revision of the original unbounded state.”

Smithson proudly proclaims his ‘non-sites’ as gathering in the “fragments” of raw matter, unifying “technology” with the Earth as they “sink back into their original state.”2 That is, his non-sites, by being part of the earth, are limitless in nature while still allowing him to be architect.


At this point Smithson takes an interlude to further discuss his anti-technologism. Smithson is, himself, not opposed to technology, but he seeks to recognize its limits, and he believes that technology should not apply to the art world (“Why steel is valued over rust is a technological value, not an artistic one”) and that all technology falls apart over time (the section title is “From Steel to Rust,” and he earlier uses the phrase “from rust to dust”).

Moreover, according to Smithson technology is an exclusive process, making it impossible to discern other processes but the technological ones, the smelting of ores and the “refinement of matter.” These technological refinements fail to realize that impurities are not necessarily bad, as indeed the earth is impure, “built on sedimentation and disruption.”Therefore, the artist who refuses “technological miracles” can “know” more of “esthetic consciousness” by acknowledging more of the world.