SELECTED ARTICLES/REVIEWS/ESSAYS ABOUT ROBERT SMITHSON



A Heap of Language: Robert Smithson and American Hieroglyphic
by Richard Sieburth, Professor of French and Comparative Literature, New York University



From a talk on November 18, 1999, given at the symposium "Heap of Language: Robert Smithson and Poetry". A collaborative event organized by the Whitney Museum of American Art, Philip Morris And the nonprofit group Immaterial Incorporated offered in conjunction with Part II: 1950 - 2000 of the THE AMERICAN CENTURY OF ART & CULTURE 1900-2000 on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art currently on view through February 13, 2000. Robert Smithsonıs work is included. Other speakers at the symposium were: Gary Shapiro, Department of Philosophy, University of Richmond, Virginia, Eugenie the poets; Tan Lin, Pamela Lu, and Lytle Shaw.

"A Heap of Language" eludes easy definition or classification. If you open Robert Hobb's "Robert Smithson: Sculpture," you will find it catalogued among his art-works. But in Nancy Holt's "The Writings of Robert Smithson: Essays with Illustrations," it appears not as an objet dıart but as a piece of "writing," occupying the same page as a text entitled: "Press Release / Language to be Looked at and/or Things to be Read"-a pairing also observed by Jack Flam's more recent edition of Smithson's "Collected Writings". Thus: depending on the frame or context one wants to bring to it, "A Heap of Language" can be viewed either as an artwork or as a wordwork, as an "essay" or an "illustration." Or as both, for Smithsonıs playful chiasma-"Language to be Looked at/Things to be Read"-asks us to engage in a crossover in which reading and looking, language and things dialectically reverse positions. Before getting there, however, I would like to try a more conventional approach to "A Heap of Language," i.e. first attempt to "look at" it as a "thing" and then "read" it as "language".

To look at this "thing" as it is inevitably reproduced (even in Smithson's "Writings") is to note that it is always accompanied by a caption-as on the verso of the invitation card to this event: "Robert Smithson, A Heap of Language, 1966, pencil on paper, 6 _ x 22 in. (16.5 x 55.9 cm). The Over Holland Collection/copy right Estate or Robert Smithson/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY." This is the bar code of high, museal art, the catalogue description or gallery label establishing title, date, medium, dimensions, ownership (and licensing) as the validating definitions of a object possessed of exchange-value within the large economy of Art History-an object that is, moreover, traditionally signed in the lower right hand corner, the signature ("Rsmithson 66") authenticating this work as part of a larger oeuvre whose most appropriate site (or non-site) of display is the space of the gallery or museum, an oeuvre which may in turn be classified (as does a current Whitney show) among the other productions of Minimalist or Conceptual Art of the 60s & 70s, say alongside the work of Carl Andre, Dan Flavin, Donald Judd, Sol LeWitt, etc.

But if one eliminated the caption "Pencil on paper, 6 _ x 22 in." (and possibly the signature), on could just as well look upon A Head of Language as a "poem", that is, as an instance of that tradition of "visual poetics" most recently surveyed by Joanna Drucker's "Figuring the Word" and whose modern genealogy would reach back to Mallarme's "Un coup de des," Apollinarieıs "Calligrammes," Marinetti's "Parole in group, and more generally, the enture "concrete poetry" movement that gathers momentum in the 50s and that crests with the publication of several important anthologies exactly contemporaneous with this particular piece. (Drucker, 135).

Framed this way, "A Heap of Language" would seem to belong less to the art world's institutionalized space of museums and galleries and dealers, but rather to the poetry world's complex ecosystem of small presses, little magazines, anthologies and reading-a world whose names during the sixties might include the visual poets Jacson MacLow, Emmet Williams, Jonathan Williams, Tom Phillips, or, why not, the mapping and archeologies and field compositions of a Charles Olson, particularly as these extent into the practices of the so-called "Language Poets" of the 70s and 80s or into the works of Tan Lin, Pamela Lu and Lytle Shaw have just heard tonight.

But to return to looking at "A Heap of Language." As an iconic "thing," it presents itself as a rectangular piece of graph paper, an architectural "support", as it were, that provides a "grid" or framework of squares horizontally numbered 1 through 21 at the top of the page, and vertically comprising six squares-the entire text (including title and signature) thus occupying a "field" or quadrant of 126 squares and running 21 handwritten lines in length. This principle of "grid composition" not only alludes to an entire tradition of American art of the 50s and 60s (cf. Rosalind Krauss), but also to the tradition of visual poetics that emerges, say, from "Un coup de des" (whose spatial scoring of the page Mallarme worked out for his typesetter on schoolboy sheets of graph paper).

This severely formalist grid (which may or may not have some sort of hidden numerological significance, as in Smithson's other works of this period, such as "Cryosphere" or "Enantiomorphic Chambers") provides the rectangular "ground" or "frame" for the triangular shape inscribed within or upon it. A shape, moreover, that is extremely allusive, suggesting as it does the form of a pyramid which, as Gary Shaprio has reminded as, is for Hegel the very arche of art, art at its "most monumental and material," and thus least "expressive." Made up as it is of polyglot words, this primal pyramid (whose apex, significantly, is missing and slightly off-center) also inevitably suggests traditional representations of the Tower of Babel (indeed, the word Babel occurs in its fourth line). More iconographically, the form of this Heap of Language can be seen as an intimation of a number of Smithson's other works: for example, the "earth mounds" of his Dallas Forth Worth airport project (1967), his "Glass Stratrum" or "Ziggurat Mirror" sculptures of these same years, or else the "parallactic perspectives" or asymptotic "vanishing points" (Writings. P. 111) that the mentions in relation to De Mariaıs chalk lines in the Mojave Desert and whose trapezoidal shape recurs in the various "containers" or "frames' of Smithsonss "non-site" installations. Were we to map the grid of "A Heap of Language" into a sphere, we could in turn get something resembling a truncated cone or volcano, that is, a prefiguration of his spiral structures of the 70s, most notably the "Spiral Hill" at Emmen, Holland-and, ultimately, if viewed from the air, his "Spiral Jetty".

"Spiral Jetty" returns us to the primacy of line in Smithson's sculptures and drawings (or even very early woodcuts)-and I suppose "A Heap of Language" also asks us to consider whether, when it comes to the line, he writes/draws as a draughtsman or a poet-or as neither, or as both? Purely visually, the strips or layers of language here arrayed recall Smithson's early engagement with the stripes of Barnett Newman or the serried bands of engraved text in Blake's prophetic books. Whether the 21 end-stopped strata of "A Heap of Language" function like poetic "lines" (at least as the line was predominantly understood in the mid-60s) remains open to questions: they are certainly not the "breath-units" proposed by Olson's "projective verse" nor do they observe any particular prosodic or acoustic pattern. Just as Smithson attempted to transcend what he felt to be the latent "anthropomorphism" of a Pollock or a De Kooning, so here he seems to want to move beyond the presence of voice, even as he works within the phonetic alphabet. Although handwritten, there is no expressive calligraphy or "lettering" to these drawn words-whose penmanship observes the anonymous, standardized flow of the cursive Palmer alphabet. Only in the signature does one find the graphological trace of a lapsed or latent lyric "I".

To the left of this signature lies the title, not at the head or outset of the text (as we might expect from a poem), but below its base, at the terminus of our reading-a reversal of hierachies paralleled by the uncanny structural fact that this pyramid of words, in defiance of all gravity, has been built not from the bottom up but from the top down. Instead of a title, we are given, capitalized, the lead-word "Language"-very Latinate and scientific in contrast to the monosyllabic and utterly archaic Anglo-Saxon word "heap." Placed at the summit of this verbal tumulus, almost like a thesaurus entry (or dump truck) spilling out a cornucopia of synonyms, the word "language" establishes the governing paradigm for all the following terms and/or phrases-which work as metaphorical equivalents for or metonymic attributes of the condition of languageness. In this sense, "A Heap of Language" perfectly illustrates Jakobson's structuralist definition of "poetry": the projection of the vertical axis of selection onto the horizontal axis of combination.

In a celebrated essay on Holderlin, Adorno signals out "parataxis" as the salient feature of the poetıs modernity-the principle of montage or "spacing": one thing after another, or one thing beside another without the theological connectives of syntactical coordination or subordination. Smithson's Heap is just such a sustained parataxis: except for the stray commas in the 3rd and 5th lines, it builds up (or builds down) without any punctuation, syntax, or articles whatsoever. Which is to say, it reads like a sheer list ­ the most ancient form of writing known to us, Sumerian inventories of cattle, grain, and weaponry having originated as ways of spatially storing data too complex, too arbitrary to be carried in the temporal echo-chambers of individual memory. In his writings, Smithson is a compulsive maker of lists-perhaps because, like the Sumerian scribe, listing things allows him to forget them, to displace them to bury them out of mind.

He is also, as a writer, an inveterate (and often hilarious) maker of descriptions-the Hayden Planetarium of the "Domain of the Great Bear" (1966), the New Jersey wasteland of "A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic" (1967), the "negative ekphrasis" (as Marjorie Perloff has called it) of "Incidents of Mirror-Travel in the Yucatan" (1969). "A Heap of Language" may also be technically classified as a kind of description, its 152 words all serving as self-reflexive attributes or derivatives of the central paradigm or "kernel" term, "language." (Riffaterre). Like lists, descriptions were traditionally condemned by neo-classical poetics as somehow "marginal" or "uneconomic", for they are the textual sites where writing emerges as its most improductively excessive and, thus, most entropic. Ultimately tautological and infinitely extensible, a description (like a ruin or allegory) knows no principle of structural closure or completion. It just goes on an on, coming to an end under the sign of an implicit "etcetera," its never-ending declension of details creating a receding perspective of the whole. (Phillipe Hamon). A form of the sublime, if you will.

With "A Heap of Language," I would argue, Smithson has not quite reached the awesome entropic sublime of his final works. This is a small piece, a short piece whose potential entropy is rigorously contained by its mathematical grid and whose semantic dedifferentiation is ultimately bounded by the commanding position of the three words that occupy the vertices of its triangular structure-the word "Language" (capitalized) at its apex, the words "Hieroglyphic" (also capitalized) at its left base and the word "cipher" at its right base. Which I read as an equation of sorts: Language equals Hieroglyphic cipher. An equation which is further elaborated in the 11th and central line of this pyramid: "Letter character hieroglyphic alphabet ABC consonant vowel." A string of seven words that begins with language as a writing system ("letter character") and that ends with language as a speaking system ("consonant vowel")-these two extremes of the graphemic and phonemic in turn framing the central 3-word cluster. "Hieroglyphic alphabet ABC." Here, I think, we get to the crux of Smithson's dialectical view of language as the "unresolved or partially resolved tension of disparates," for the domain of the hieroglyphic lies precisely in its rebus-like punning of the pictographic and the phonetic.

After Champollion's deciphering of the Rosetta Stone (another heap of language), hieroglyphs cease merely to appear as silent pictures, but being to speak at the same time as ABC's-or more precisely, they come to occupy a space in between the visual and the aural, articulating that voiceless voicing known in linguistics as a "surd." "A Heap of Language," which may be read as a giant Zukovskian "A" enclosed by a framing cartouche, placed Smithson squarely within the tradition John Irwin has termed "American Hieroglyphics," alongside Emerson, Thoreau, Poe, and Melville (and down through the Poundian "ideogram" and Olsonian "glyph")-the tradition of "language to be looked and/or things to be read," provided, of course it be signed, as Smithson puckishly signs the Press Release accompanying this piece, "Eton Corrasable."




SELECTED ARTICLES/REVIEWS/ESSAYS ABOUT ROBERT SMITHSON

Robert Smithson's Drawings, by Carter Ratcliff, 1962, © 2000, Art on Paper
A Heap of Language: Robert Smithson and American Hieroglyphic,
by Richard Sieburth, Professor of French and Comparative Literature, New York University,
From a talk on November 18, 1999

The Salt of the Earth, By MELISSA SANFORD, Published: January 13, 2004
Yucatan is Elsewhere, On Robert Smithson's Hotel Palenque
(First printed in Parkett 43, 1995, page. 133)
Sculpture From the Earth, But Never Limited by
It By MICHAEL KIMMELMAN, New York Times, June 24, 2005

Setting Sights on an American Visionary
BY DANIEL KUNITZ, New York Sun, June 23, 2005

The Whitney brings a little of
Robert Smithson’s outward-looking art back into the white box.
By Mark Stevens , New York Magazine

IKONS by Katy Siegel



SELECTED WRITINGS BY ROBERT SMITHSON
SELECTED INTERVIEWS WITH ROBERT SMITHSON
SELECTED ARTICLES/REVIEWS/ESSAYS ABOUT ROBERT SMITHSON


 
 
 

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