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Smithson Market: ‘Solid and Steady’

The estate of environmental artist Robert Smithson consists of photographs of completed projects—many of which are ephemeral, site-specific earthworks that no longer exist in fact but only as documented in a photograph—as well as “a substantial number of drawings for projects” he completed or just had in mind, says Elyse Goldberg, director of the James

NEW YORK—The estate of environmental artist Robert Smithson consists of photographs of completed projects—many of which are ephemeral, site-specific earthworks that no longer exist in fact but only as documented in a photograph—as well as “a substantial number of drawings for projects” he completed or just had in mind, says Elyse Goldberg, director of the James Cohan Gallery, New York, and manager of the estate.

The artist, who died in an airplane crash in 1973 at age 35, is recalled as much for what he thought about creating as what he actually did. Some of the drawings are just sketches, while others are fully rendered; some are black-and-white, while others are quite colorful. It is the fully rendered ones that the Cohan gallery offers for sale, priced from $50,000/300,000, depending on their size (diptychs and triptychs are pricier), date, condition, concept and execution.

Prices for drawings from Smithson’s early period, 1962-63, range from $18,000/85,000. The photographs, of which there are “not a lot, less than 40” remaining in the estate, cost from $50,000/200,000.

Smithson also created a number of sculptures throughout his career—painted steel or plastic panel constructions, mirror constructions, mirror and material “displacements—but there are no more available from the estate, and few show up on the secondary market, Goldberg says. “Most sculptures are in museums. The ones in private collections the owners want to hang on to.”

When collectors decide to part with their Smithsons, however, they sometimes do unexpectedly well. The highest public sale price to date for the artist’s work is $266,500 for a 1968-69 installation with various sizes of steel boxes and lava entitled Double Nonsite, California and Nevada, which well exceeded Christie’s $60,000/80,000 estimate in 1998. Other top auction prices include $198,000 (estimate $8,000/12,000) for the 1970 drawing Movie Treatment for Spiral Jetty at Christie’s in 1987; and $165,000 (estimate $150,000/200,000) for the 1969 sculpture Corner Mirror with Coral at Christie’s in 1990.

The artist’s exhibition record prior to 1973 was modest but has been extensive in the 32 years since, including major traveling museum shows of his drawings (1974-77), sculpture (1980-84) and photographic documentation (1993), as well as retrospectives in 1993.

This past year, more than 130 objects, including works on paper, photographs, films, manuscripts and sculpture, are part of the “Robert Smithson Retrospective,” which was organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles and is currently on exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art through Oct.16.

Large and small exhibitions have kept his name and work in the public eye, but, Goldberg said, “collector interest has never gone away. It has been solid and steady for 30 years.”

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