The art world’s recent embrace of Tom of Finland now feels like a warm-up for the revelation of Robert Smithson’s early drawings. James Cohan calls its presentation of them “Pop,” but a more suitable title might be “Sub”—these crayon and pencil drawings respond less to Madison Avenue and Hollywood than they do to peep shows and corner newsstands. The characters who populate them would be at home on the pages of adventure tales, erotica and other genre comics. Pin-ups and bodybuilders, leathermen and salty cherubim pose in separate segments, lining the edges like saints in an icon. Exuberant, labyrinthine abstractions fill the center and animate the spaces between the figures, and are echoed in their colorful details. In a few instances playful touches connect the figures—an athletic man wearing only scuba gear fires a laser pistol at a chesty angel in garters and hose, its zigzag beam connecting with a nipple; a boy’s stream of urine trickles down the margin into a motorcyclist’s eager mouth—but most keep to themselves. While some might be tempted to see shadows of spiral jetties and rock boxes inscribed in these drawings’ geometries, it’s wiser to appreciate their pleasures for their own sake.
Pictured: Robert Smithson: Untitled [Man in colonial American dress and Indian], 1963, mixed media with collage on paper, 30 by 22 inches. © Holt-Smithson Foundation / VAGA, New York. Courtesy James Cohan, New York.