Robert Smithson's profound impact on contemporary art and its discourse derives less from formal and conceptual innovation than from his inventive and restless explorations of multiple avenues, genres, and media. His far-reaching ideas involved language, which he deemed a material, and a variety of sites beyond the precincts of the museum and gallery that included magazine pages as well as abandoned industrial and natural wastelands. Although created in a brief span from the mid-1960s to the early 1970s, Smithson's provocative works redefined the language of sculpture, resulting in a reconsideration of the nature of sculpture through the very practice of artmaking.
The twelve mirrors of Gravel Mirrors with Cracks and Dust (1968) occupy the junction of floor and wall. Reflections of gravel piles create the illusion that the work exists in and encompasses an expansive space. Symmetrically duplicated by the mirrors, the fissures of cracked glass together with the dust from the gravel mar the pristine reflective surfaces, further complicating the multifaceted interplay of materiality and illusion, presence and absence. Two related sculptures made the following year again incorporate mirror and loosely assembled raw material-Closed Mirror Square and Leaning Mirror. All three works exemplify Smithson's influential concept of the Nonsite. In these and other analogous works that pair material samples with documentation in the form of maps, plans, photographs, and diagrams, Smithson referenced sites elsewhere, creating a dialogue between place-location-and representation.
In works such as Four-Sided Vortex (1967), he conjured an abyssal space, a space without dimension or coordinates by reformulating optical systems and protocols in structures that open into endless unbounded vanishing points. The tons of shattered glass forming Map of Broken Glass (Atlantis) (1969) are layered both literally and figuratively. As the title implies, the sculpture is to be seen not simply as a pile of flat, sharp, transparent fragments but also as a map of a legendary lost continent-almost certainly, however, a fictional one. Smithson's work suggests that the concrete materiality of sculpture depends on the mind's ability to see metaphorically in order to comprehend meanings within the language of art. The resulting gaps are passageways akin to Alice's Looking Glass or the Bellman's blank map, in that they are thresholds to an elsewhere.
For Smithson, an exemplar of the elsewhere was the Great Salt Lake in Utah, where his iconic earthwork Spiral Jetty (1970) is located, where "sites [recede] into the Nonsites and the Nonsites [recede] back into the sites," as he explained in an interview in 1969. Divesting the art object of its supposed autonomy, and breaking ground in the dialogue between work and site, Smithson here-as in his gallery-based works-revises formal, material, and contextual properties formerly considered integral to sculpture.