Revisiting Iconic Land Artist Robert Smithson’s Forgotten New York Pop Art Years

Robert Smithson is often remembered for his pioneering contributions to the Land Art/Earthworks movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s (Spiral Jetty being, perhaps, his most famous creation). But the artist also exhibited works during the early Pop Art movement while immersed in the downtown New York art scene in 1962-64. This experimental period in Smithson’s life is the focus of the exhibit Pop, on view at the James Cohan gallery on the Lower East Side through January 10, 2016.

Smithson, then in his 20s, a Jersey kid who had recently finished a stint in the Army, found inspiration in this burgeoning world, “from the downtown kiosks hawking porno magazines and comic books, to the movie houses of Forty-Second Street with their ‘low budget mysticism of horror films,’ to the mineral displays at the Museum of Natural History, and across town to the Met’s Byzantine paintings and the ‘cold glass boxes’ along Park Avenue.”

Using the visual language of Christian iconography, mythology, and pop culture, Smithson’s panel paintings/collages/sculptural forms became “modern-day equivalents to the archetypal models established throughout the history of human culture.”

“I would say that I began to function as a conscious artist in around 1964-65. I think I started doing works that were mature. I would say that prior to the 1964-65 period it was a kind of groping, investigating period,” Smithson explained in a 1972 interview. But the early works may hold some of his most exciting images, offering insight into the mind of an artist who defined one of the most influential contemporary art movements of the 20th century. Click through to preview a selection of pieces from Pop.