Inside the Spiral

The Passions of Robert Smithson

2023
Author:

Suzaan Boettger

LISTEN: Suzaan Boettger in conversation with Greg Lindquist on the UMN Press podcast.

An expansive and revelatory study of Robert Smithson’s life and the hidden influences on his iconic creations

This first biography of the major American artist Robert Smithson, famous as the creator of the Spiral Jetty, deepens understanding of his art by addressing the potent forces in his life that were shrouded by his success. Featuring copious illustrations never before published of early work, it offers unprecedented insight into the hidden impulses of one of modern art’s most enigmatic figures.

"Only someone who has immersed themselves in the life and art of Robert Smithson for forty years could have written a biography as deep and engaging as Inside the Spiral. Suzaan Boettger illuminates the artist’s religious thought, examines the complexities of his gender identity, and takes a psychoanalytic lens to his sources and esoteric symbolism, bringing coherence to our understanding of this remarkably complicated artist, his body of work, and his writings. A monumental achievement."—Jonathan Fineberg, University of the Arts, author of Modern Art at the Border of Mind and Brain

This first biography of the major American artist Robert Smithson, famous as the creator of the Spiral Jetty, deepens understanding of his art by addressing the potent forces in his life that were shrouded by his success, including his suppressed early history as a painter; his affiliation with Christianity, astrology, and alchemy; and his sexual fluidity. Integrating extensive investigation and acuity, Suzaan Boettger uncovers Smithson’s story and, with it, symbolic meanings across the span of his painted and drawn images, sculptures, essays, and earthworks up to the Spiral Jetty and beyond, to the circumstances leading to what became his final work, Amarillo Ramp.

While Smithson is widely known for his monumental earthwork at the edge of the Great Salt Lake, Inside the Spiral delves into the arc of his artistic production, recognizing it as a response to his family’s history of loss, which prompted his birth and shaped his strange intelligence. Smithson configured his personal conflicts within painterly depictions of Christ’s passion, the rhetoric of science fiction, imagery from occult systems, and the impersonal posture of conceptual sculpture. Aiming to achieve renown, he veiled his personal passions and transmuted his professional persona, becoming an acclaimed innovator and fierce voice in the New York art scene.

Featuring copious illustrations never before published of early work that eluded Smithson’s destruction, as well as photographs of Smithson and his wife, the noted sculptor Nancy Holt, and recollections from nearly all those who knew him throughout his life, Inside the Spiral offers unprecedented insight into the hidden impulses of one of modern art’s most enigmatic figures. With great sensitivity to the experiences of loss and existential strife that defined his distinct artistic language, this biographical analysis provides an expanded view of Smithson’s iconic art pilgrimage site and the experiences and works that brought him to its peculiar blood-red water.

Cover alt text: Black background with inset square black-and-white image of the artist in left side profile, smoking a cigarette.

Suzaan Boettger, a widely published scholar, arts journalist, and critic based in New York City, is the author of Earthworks: Art and the Landscape of the Sixties. She is professor emerita of the history of art at Bergen Community College.

Only someone who has immersed themselves in the life and art of Robert Smithson for forty years could have written a biography as deep and engaging as Inside the Spiral. Suzaan Boettger illuminates the artist’s religious thought, examines the complexities of his gender identity, and takes a psychoanalytic lens to his sources and esoteric symbolism, bringing coherence to our understanding of this remarkably complicated artist, his body of work, and his writings. A monumental achievement.

Jonathan Fineberg, University of the Arts, author of Modern Art at the Border of Mind and Brain

Suzaan Boettger’s long-awaited Inside the Spiral: The Passions of Robert Smithson is the first biography of this 'enantiomorphic' artist, whose oeuvre encompassed geological and sacred time alongside the moment of the snapshot, the 'dematerialized' theorizing and mapping of the non-site alongside the absolute site-specificity—viewable from outer space—of the Great Salt Lake. Boettger reveals fascinating and hitherto unexplored aspects of Smithson’s earliest formation, including his status as a 'replacement child' for a dead older brother, while her fearless exploration of the artist’s Christological bent, his hermeticism, and his difficult navigation of sexuality yields nuanced psychological insight. Unburdened by academic jargon, the work is supported by extensive reference to Smithson’s writings, notes, interviews, library, and other records, of which Boettger has long been recognized as the foremost scholar.

Judith Rodenbeck, University of California, Riverside

This book sheds important new light on Robert Smithson. Meticulously researched and wide-ranging in scope, it explores the intricate connections between Smithson’s personal history and his art. While revealing a great deal of new information about Smithson’s life and psychology, Suzaan Boettger also engages with his art in a focused and detailed way and writes about individual works with great perceptiveness. Readers will come away from this book with a fresh and enlarged understanding of Smithson’s life and art.

Jack Flam, editor of Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings

Boettger’s incorrigible fixation on her otherwise singular subject has produced an indispensable book for the study, ‘from the inside,’ of such a major American artistic personality.

The Brooklyn Rail

That his art appears larger after reading Inside the Spiral is as much credit to his own capacious imagination as it is to Boettger’s ingenious attempts to contain it.

Artforum

This revelatory study is the first biography of Robert Smithson that deepens the understanding of his practice and the influences that defined his artistic approach.

Widewalls

Boettger’s extensive documentation of Smithson’s iconography is fully intertwined with a psychological profile that effectively captures the ups and downs of this enigmatic artist’s life. The result helps us better comprehend the legendary Smithson and the demons he wrestled with as his career unfolded.

Leonardo Reviews

[Inside the Spiral] represents a significant contribution to the understanding of contemporary art and unquestionably deepens our knowledge of Smithson’s foundational ideas and artworks.

Squarecylinder

Boettger has done a brilliant job analyzing one of the twentieth centuries greatest and perhaps enigmatic artists. This book will surely become the definitive work concerning Robert Smithson, the man, and the artist.

Leonardo Review

If anyone has the right to speculate about Smithson, Boettger does. She has read everything, talked to everyone and seen all of his work.

Burlington Magazine

A whale of a book, full of startling revelations, scathing critiques of the New York art world, and examinations of Smithson’s entire body of work from art historical, philosophical, religious, psychoanalytical, and literary points of view.

Sculpture Magazine

Suzaan Boettger’s remarkably creative deep dives into Smithson’s life are—like a process where the author transfers personal life traumas by examining Smithson’s life through this lens—a kind of therapy.

Border Crossings

A good artist bio is a treasure box, and Suzaan Boettger gives the reader more of Smithson than anyone has to date.

Village Voice

A deep and engaging study of the artistically daring New Jersey-born and raised Smithson, the book is an artful and handy guide to an artist whose art expanded an artistic tradition — based in European and Roman Catholic expression — into some literally ground breaking concepts, including the introduction of earthworks and ‘non-sites.’

Princeton Community News

This is a book with a mission.

The Key Reporter

Contents

Note to Readers

Prologue and Background

Prehistory and Early Painting

1. Man of Sorrow

2. Brother’s Keeper

3. Drunk on Blood

Clandestine Fantasies, 1962–1964

4. Burying the Angel

5. Secret Partner

Mutation of Artistic Persona, 1965–1968

6. A Better Entrance

7. Locked Within

8. Transmuted

9. From the Ground, Upward

Professional Consummation, 1969–1970

10. Mirroring Absence

11. The Site of the Spiral: Thicker Than Water

12. Inside the Spiral

Expansion and Returns, 1971–1973

13. Reclamations

14. Closing the Circle

Gratitudes

Notes

Robert Smithson’s Library: A Selective Bibliography

Index