Born in Rutherford, New Jersey, Robert Smithson was entranced by nature--earth and animal forms--as a child. His artistic talents led to a scholarship at the Art Students League in New York; he studied there for two years and then briefly at the Brooklyn Museum School. There he became a proponent of abstract expressionism, and his paintings of the late 1950s and early 1960s retain the characteristics of that style. Through his dealer, Virginia Dwan, he became friendly with a group of minimalist artists, among whom was the sculptor Nancy Holt. After their marriage in 1963, Smithson began to explore sculpture, also in a minimalist mode. By the mid-1960s, he had become interested in conceptual art. He began to design works that explored his early fascination with the natural world, using natural materials in massive and imposing earth sculpture, his "Earthworks." Although these works would eventually be absorbed by nature, their configurations are often preserved in drawings and photographs, or "non-site" objects. Rocks, gravel, and earth are the materials of Smithson's best-known works. For Spiral Jetty, his most famous project, he used rocks and debris to build a 15-foot-wide spiral in Utah's Great Salt Lake.
Smithson regularly made excursions to survey sites. On one of these trips, to Amarillo, Texas, in 1973, he was killed in a plane crash. His work, however, inspired the generation of conceptual artists who rose to prominence in the 1970s.
[This is an excerpt from the interactive companion program to the videodisc American Art from the National Gallery of Art. Produced by the Department of Education Resources, this teaching resource is one of the Gallery's free-loan educational programs.]