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Robert Smithson
Robert Smithson
Whitney Museum of American Art
945 Madison Avenue, New York, NY
June 23–October 23, 2015

On first inspection, Robert Smithson’s Urination Map of the Constellation Hydra (1969), on view in the artist’s eponymous retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art, looks similar to other conceptually informed, process-based projects from the late 1960s: we see photographic documentation of an outdoor action accompanied by a Photostat of a geographical map and a handwritten statement (which appears directly on the map), all housed in a horizontally oriented frame. A closer look at the piece, however, reveals an artwork that critiques Smithson’s contemporaries as well as himself through biting satire and sullied humor—unusual characteristics in much avant-garde art from the late 1960s.

In Urination Map, Smithson plots five points taken from the star constellation Hydra on a survey map of a town called Loveladies on Long Beach Island, New Jersey. The artist spells out the work’s subject matter, in block letters after the title, on this map: “At each star-point on the constellation the artist will urinate till a small puddle develops[.] He will take five snapshots of each of the five star points and mount them on a wall.” These five chromogenic color prints depict the foam of fresh urine on pine needles, pebbles, dirt, mud, leaves, and small plants.

Smithson seems to be taking the piss—literally—out of process art, which in 1969 had been adopted by Sol LeWitt in his permutations for sculpture in a variety of media and Douglas Huebler for his Duration Pieces using photographs and texts, to name just two artists. This kind of work presented information in an apparently neutral, sober, and pseudoscientific manner, which became something of a period style for Conceptual artists. Smithson mocks this quality while at the same time humoring his own practice—he had worked, and continued to work, in such a style until his death in 1973. Though perhaps a minor work—the piece was never sold and remains in the artist’s estate—Urination Map demonstrates that Smithson maintained a sense of self-criticality about his work, something not expressed by many artists at the time.

Urination Map also spoofs processes used by two previous generations of artists, in Abstract Expressionism and Postpainterly Abstraction. Jackson Pollock’s paint-flinging, Willem de Kooning’s vigorous brushstrokes, and Morris Louis’s stains are all targets of Smithson’s acerbic stream. (Smithson’s piece also predates Andy Warhol’s Oxidation series—another satirical take on midcentury abstract painting—in which the artist and his assistants urinated on canvases prepared with copper metallic paint, creating fluid, abstract patterns through a chemical reaction.) A verse by the eighteenth-century British poet and polymath Alexander Pope, written along the bottom of the map, presses this irreverence further—Smithson quotes a line from The Dunciad (1728) that describes, of all things, a pissing contest.

Humor has often been dismissed, unfairly, as debased and inappropriate to fine art. Smithson successfully injects a much-needed critical pause into the dry areas of both process art and abstract painting, slaying the multiheaded serpent Hydra not with a sword but a puddle of piss.

Originally written for a graduate class at Hunter College on September 7, 2005.