Earth Mothers and Shapeshifters: Matthew Weinstein on Robert Smithson and ‘Transparent’


Robert Smithson, Radio Cyclops, 1964, Plexiglas, steel and mirror on wood.


Since his death, a cult has grown up around the figure of Robert Smithson (1938–73), one that surrounds the artist and his work with an aura of purism. This is too bad, because what is most vital about Smithson is the profane nature of his art. His earthworks aren’t about pollution or defilement. They pollute and defile. They aren’t so much neo-prehistoric monuments as they are an outgrowth of science fiction. The Spiral Jetty of our collective imagination seems to include a ghostly Smithson hovering over it like an alien checking back on one of its more artful crop circles. His piles of rocks gazing at themselves in mirrors might almost be props from an episode of Star Trek; they look like mineral samples about to be teleported.

These references are not a denigration of Smithson’s work because aesthetic and moral concerns had no place in his consideration of landscape. For Smithson, a landscape was more than just a site. It was the chemicals polluting the site. It was the car trip to the site. It was the crap sold in the stores by the side of the road on the way to the site. The blurred totality of the experience of place, for Smithson, was a product of entropy, of order transforming into chaos. Entropy was not terrifying to Smithson, it was transporting. Like the Mexican satirical artist José Guadalupe Posada, Smithson is one of the great celebrants of decay.

Robert Smithson, Untitled [Classical head], 1963, mixed media with collage on paper. ©HOLT‐SMITHSON FOUNDATION, LICENSED BY VAGA, NEW YORK/COURTESY JAMES COHAN, NEW YORK

Robert Smithson, Untitled [Classical head], 1963, mixed media with collage on paper.


Smithson had velocity. He hurtled through the styles of his day into more innovative terrain. His work, like his heaps of language, is additive, baroque, multi-vocal, and perverse. Many of us cite Smithson as a favorite artist. But what are we basing our opinion on? Is it his writings, documentation of his earthworks and few assorted sculptures? Or are we actually responding to inconclusiveness that keeps his work aloft?

A recent exhibition at James Cohan of Smithson’s drawings and assemblages of the early 1960s gave us a chance to see him at the beginning of his career. Any artist who is at all haunted by his or her own early work should find these pieces reassuring. Artists don’t invent or even innovate. If all goes well, they speak for their own time. So it makes sense that the thing an artist first skims off the surface of his environment is the art that is pressing in on him. In Smithson’s case that was Pop.

Smithson’s version of the genre was both more psychedelic and more responsive to the sexual terrain of the 1960s than that of the Pop artists. The works at Cohan were hand drawn with pencil, crayon, or marker—basically anything Smithson had within reach. In each drawing, a circle of images surrounds a central area filled with a pattern or a collaged picture. There is lots of gay beefcake in these pieces, which is an eyebrow raiser. There are also a lot of naked women on motorcycles and/or sprouting wings. The naked men sprout wings as well. There are dinosaurs, telephones, and a Jewish star, but mostly there is sex, sex, sex.

Anyone who remembers Times Square before gentrification will recognize its centrality in the Pop landscape that Smithson was uncovering. But these drawings proclaim a fluid sexuality, one far more interesting and juicy than the specialized forms promulgated by the sex industry. The fascination of these works, apart from their surface appeal, is their foreshadowing of Smithson’s inclusive vision. This exhibition established a ground from which to examine the idealist and polluter Smithson would become. With the death of legendary shapeshifter David Bowie on my mind, Smithson seems now like one of the art world’s great starpeople.

There is a scene at the end of the second episode of the second season of Jill Soloway’s Transparent where Maura, the transsexual paterfamilias of three not-quite-grown-up adult children (played with painful realness by Jeffrey Tambor), goes to an LGBTQ club. Her friend Davina coaxes her up to the elevated dance floor. Maura doesn’t like it up there. She looks at herself in a mirrored wall. She isn’t judging her appearance or her age. She isn’t asking herself where she fits in. She’s just adding up the parts, seeing herself for what she is in that moment, one of many moments in her own transformation.

I find in this scene an echo of Robert Smithson’s non-site sculptures, whose reflected rocks likewise occupy a place both here and in between. Maura’s earth-mother look, her physical solidity mixed with the softness of her aging flesh, and the way her role as father overlaps so naturally with the role of mother suggest that our points of origin, like the earth, have no gender. Maura is the earth in its state of entropy and chaos.

Many people have commented that Transparent is as much about being Jewish as it is about being trans, gay, bisexual, or lesbian. The second season of the dramedy further complicates the subject of identity, both sexual and cultural, as it traces a lineage of difference from Maura’s mother’s trans sister, Gittel (born Gershon), to Maura herself. A new character this season, Gittel is introduced in the first episode in a flashback to 1933 Berlin where, blind to the growing danger around her, she is enjoying the last gasp of Weimar bohemianism at a party at Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld’s Institute for Sexual Science. Reveling in the freedom to be herself, Gittel refuses to emigrate to California with her mother and her sister and disappears in the Holocaust.

A theory is floated in the script that trauma, such as losing a sister to the Nazis, can be biologically inherited. This suggests that the familiar comic theme of Jewish neurosis, a thing the Pfeffermans have in abundance, is not without its tragic actuality. These somewhat cliché Jewish neurotics, who get by on charm and just enough money to make them miserable, are suddenly brought into a darker light.

I can understand how Transparent could turn viewers off. I don’t empathize with any of the characters. The self-obsessed music-industry man boy, Josh, for example, does not become any less irritating when we find out he was molested by his babysitter. In fact, his sad insistence that this was actually an example of his early sexual desirability and prowess, rather than arousing our sympathy makes him even more irritating. And this is the great strength of Soloway’s creation: it is not emotionally manipulative. It doesn’t give us people to admire or hate; it simply immerses us in their world, one with its own ways of loving, hating, and evolving.

This is not to say that the show lacks emotional depth. Its central theme, the act of becoming what one needs to become, despite the consequences, is what makes Transparent, in the end, very moving. Emotionality is built up so masterfully through writing and performance that by the last scene of the last episode of season two, in which a flashback to Maura’s birth and the doctor saying, “It’s a boy,” is followed by a brief shot of the adult Maura’s face, we see the deeply affecting awareness in her eyes of how far she is from what she was supposed to be.

“Robert Smithson: Pop” was on view at James Cohan from November 21, 2015 to January 17, 2016; Transparent is a television series on Amazon.

Matthew Weinstein is an artist based in New York.

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