Getting Smithson’s Number

Sometimes a volcano’s just a volcano, but probably not here: Robert Smithson, Buried Angel, 1962, oil on canvas, 125 x 125 cm, sold at Christie’s in 2008

Today is the 50th anniversary of Robert Smithson’s death, and an occasion to revisit Zack Hatfield’s Artforum review of Suzaan Boettger’s biography of the artist, Inside The Spiral: The Passions of Robert Smithson.

Hatfield reminded me that in addition to Smithson’s almost mystical Catholicist early days, Boettger goes deep on his interest in numerology. And she looks closely at Smithson’s early work, only some of which has been shown before. Which reminded me of a wild group of works sold a few years ago—wow. it was 2008—by the family of George Lester, a diplomat/collector/dealer who invited 23-yo Smithson to stage a show in Rome in 1961.

Robert Smithson, Two Frogs Guarding The Palace, 1962, gouache, oil, ink and collage on paper, 24 x 15 1/4 in., sold from the Galleria Lester archives at Christie’s in 2008

The Holt/Smithson Foundation helped organize an exhibition at MACRO in Rome of work from this largely unknown period, and noted that Smithson traveled to Italy in 1961. It just closed in May 2023.

The metric dimensions of Buried Angel, the canvas up top with an angel buried in jumbles of numbers and letters, make me think it was painted in Europe. The dimensions of the fantastical collage, Two Frogs Guarding The Palace, meanwhile, could go either way.

In his 1972 AAA interview with Paul Cummings, Smithson described the work from this period as “phantasmagorical drawings of cosmological worlds somewhat between Blake and…oh, a kind of Boschian imagery…They were sort of based on iconic situations…They dealt with explicit images like, the city; they were kind of monstrous as well, you know, like great Moloch figures.”

Point is, I think I really need to read the book.

Mortal Coil: Resurrecting Robert Smithson [artforum]
Buy Suzaan Boettger’s Inside The Spiral: The Passions of Robert Smithson at Amazon [amazon]
Lots 233-37: From the Archives of the Galeria George Lester, Rome [christies]
Rome is Still Falling: Nov. 22 – May 23 [holtsmithsonfoundation]
So much here, so much not: Oral History interview with Robert Smithson, 1972 []