Visual Arts

Robert Smithson’s Sculpture in Context at UMFA

 Kelly Kivland discusses Robert Smithson's Leaning Mirror at the UMFA

Kelly Kivland discusses Robert Smithson’s Leaning Mirror at the UMFA


On March 18th, the Utah Museum of Fine Arts (UMFA) unveiled a work by American artist RobertSmithson (1938-1973), on loan from Dia Art Foundation. The regional partnerships Dia formed in early 2012 with UMFA and Westminster College’s Great Salt Lake Institute regarding Smithson’s monumental earthwork Spiral Jetty finds its first publicly-seen collaborative venture in the loan of Smithson’s sculpture “Leaning Mirror “(1969). The opportunity to engage in another work of art, created just a year before Smithson’s created Spiral Jetty, is a welcome addition to understanding this seminal artist’s work.

“Leaning Mirror” is comprised of two mirrors, 6’ high, placed back-to-back and inserted 30” off the floor into a mound of soil and stones. The installation of “Leaning Mirror” at UMFA is an exhibition copy (the artwork is also on view at Dia:Beacon in Beacon, New York) and was created to specifications from a drawing made by Smithson in 1969. While Smithdon left specific instructions on placement of the mirrors in the mound, according to Dia’s assistant curator Kelly Kivland, the mound itself was to remain unstructured.

Smithson’s sculptural works begun in 1968 were self-named ‘Nonsites’: natural materials were gathered from designated outdoor sites then situated indoors, often with fabricated objects such as mirrors, containers, or maps. Kivland – in a public talk she gave at UMFA on March 20th – indicated “Leaning Mirror” is a seminal Nonsite: sand gathered by Smithson from Heerlen, theNetherlands, was used in this work accompanied by the two mirrors. Smithson exhibited and also worked in the Netherlands, appreciating the country’s long history in land reclamation. In 1971,Smithson created his second monumental earthwork, “Broken Circle/Spiral Hill,” in Emmen, the Netherlands.

“Leaning Mirror” was not the first time Smithson used mirrors as artistic medium, yet it gives us context to his interest in the dialectical conversations he posited between materiality, image, and space. He placed mirrors in landscapes and photographed them as works of art both in the United States and abroad, relishing in the expanded landscape created through reflection. Spiral Jetty was situated in a lake often referenced as a mirror given the unique atmospheric and saline qualities of Great Salt Lake. “Leaning Mirror” also reflects its surroundings, decidedly interior yet expanded nonetheless. Whitney Tassie, UMFA’s Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, situated Smithson’s sculpture in such a way that the top mirror reflects the room, ceiling, and – from a discrete angle – the work “Sunlight in Sun Tunnels” (1976) by Nancy Holt, Smithson’s wife at the time of his death in 1973. The reverse mirror reflects the room, floor, and the sculpture “Fermator” (1997) by Carl Andre, who was a friend to both Holt and Smithson.

“Leaning Mirror” will remain at UMFA for one year in keeping with Dia’s curatorial interest to give visitors time to visit and revisit works of art to better understand their importance and impact. UMFA will change several works surrounding “Leaning Mirror” over the course of the year, so Smithson’s expanded, reflected view will bring new ways to engage in his art.

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