In a reflection from 1972, Smithson described his early works as “attempts and investigations” made at a time when he was interested in the origins and archetypal nature of things. These were the concerns that haunted and moved him until 1960 when he became interested in Catholicism through T.S. Eliot, engaging with that line of thought. Mundus Subterraneus focuses on this phase of attempts and investigations in the artist’s creative process, at a time when Smithson described himself as the creator of phantasmagorical drawings of cosmological worlds. These sketches now represent a raw and unrestrained analysis of the idea of modernism and systems of knowledge. Robert Smithson. Mundus Subterraneus – Early Works, presented by the Marian Goodman Gallery and developed in collaboration with Professor Adrian Rifkin, is an exhibition that focuses on the artist’s works on paper, featuring leather-clad bikers, crumbling cities, film stills, occult books, and erotic entanglements juxtaposed with references to the dogmas of art history, religion, and totalitarianism. Mundus Subterraneus also showcases a selection of rare posters and printed materials related to Smithson’s projects spanning from the late 1950s to the 1980s at venues such as the Artists Gallery in New York, Castellane Gallery, Dwan Gallery, and the Jewish Museum. Smithson creates conversations and contradictions by combining divergent imagery from art history, movies, and fetish magazines. The early works of this incredible artist include dinosaurs collaged with advertisements and film stills, paired with Corinthian columns and statues from antiquity overlaid with bright pop abstractions and flying motorcycles.
Smithson’s work is of a perverse and winning purity in its total indifference to the liturgies of modern art and their modernist theology. The exhibition disrupts and opens new empty spaces within his practice.
There are human bodies turning into trees, references to superstition and esotericism, figures of gender fluidity and queer tropes of ultra-masculinity. “The Secret Partner” by Ealing Studios and the album cover “Wonderful, Wonderful” by Johnny Mathis are used as stills from the 1961 film. As complicated to decipher, Smithson’s early drawings have rarely been seen and require much study and research to be able to draw an accurate reading, but they are necessary today to fully understand the breadth of Smithson’s critical approach to the signs and structures of modern society. Robert Smithson: Mundus Subterraneus is organized by Lisa Le Feuvre, executive director of the Holt/Smithson Foundation, and Professor Adrian Rifkin. The exhibition is accompanied by an illustrated journal with a text commissioned by Professor Rifkin. Professor Rifkin has taught in art schools since 1970, and most recently was professor of art writing at Goldsmiths, University of London. Robert Smithson: Mundus Subterraneus is organized by Lisa Le Feuvre, executive director of the Holt/Smithson Foundation, and Professor Adrian Rifkin. The exhibition is accompanied by an illustrated journal with a text commissioned by Professor Rifkin. Professor Rifkin has taught in art schools since 1970, and most recently was professor of art writing at Goldsmiths, University of London. Robert Smithson’s 1961 essay, The Iconography of Desolation, is also included in the paper, along with illustrations of key works in the exhibition. In this sense, even if this work by Smithson was nowhere to be seen, it could, even in its invisibility, have accompanied artists such as Peter Blake, David Hockney, Patrick Proctor, Allen Jones, Pauline Boty, Derek Boshier, Joe Tilson, or many other artists who paid little attention to Anthony Caro as an axis of how painting or sculpture was to become in the dominant teleologies of the United States. As Smithson himself argues in several of his writings, and as in Olmsted’s essay and Central Park15 – a form of Land Art coming from the English Pictorial is exemplary – the relating of art materials does not require a teleology. That is why the distinction between these works and his earthworks or mirror works or boxes is made not as evidence of progression but of experimentation.
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