Whitehot Magazine

Book Review: Suzaan Boettger, Inside the Spiral: The Passions of Robert Smithson

Suzaan Boettger, Inside the Spiral: The Passions of Robert Smithson, cover.

By DONALD KUSPIT January 20, 2024

Suzaan Boettger, an art historian, has written a scholarly tour de force about the Catholic artist Robert Smithson (1938-1973), famous for his earth art, particularly the Spiral Jetty, 1970.  Boettger’s analysis of Smithson’s art and person hinges upon the fact that he was a replacement child.  The child he replaced was his brother Harold, born in October 1926, six months after his parents wedding, died in March 1936.  He was nine years old, and died of leukemia, “cancer in one of its most explosive, violent incarnations,” “bleeding to death,” “bleeding out of every orifice,” as Boettger writes, quoting the hematologist and oncologist Emil Freilich (p. 52).  “For me [Boettger], that called up Smithson’s ‘I painted ikons bleeding from every stroke’.“  This was written in 1961, to an art dealer, in an effort to market what Boettger calls the “substantially Christological…figurative paintings” Smithson made “from 1959 to 1961.”  “Smithson chose to paint Jesus Christ almost exclusively as displaying his wounds or in the process of dying, phases of what is known as his Passion,” (p. 49).  “It is a perverse kind of worship, not reverence for Christ’s divinity but identification with his agony,” (p. 50).  All of these quotations are from chapter 2, “Brother’s Keeper,” announced by the epigraph “The voice of thy brother’s blood crieth to me from the earth,” Genesis 4:10. “The focus is on Christ’s body or parts of it, bloodied,” (p. 49).  “Hemorrhaging literally means ‘blood bursting forth’” (p. 52), and it bursts forth in a famous photograph of the snake-like Amarillo Ramp, 1973 (Plate 29).  Again and again Boettger quotes Smithson’s allusions to “Blood, Blood, Precious Blood, Blood, Blood,” (p. 55).  “A voice from the whirlpool of Blood/Is crying out for vengeance,” (p. 56) presumably the blood of Harold.  

Just as God the Father sacrificed his only begotten son to save us from our sins, “Harold’s grisly premature dying can likewise be thought of as sacrificial, as engendering Smithson’s birth,” (p. 53).  He was an only child, replacing another only child, Harold.  “Typically, in replacement child scenarios,” Boettger writes, “the lost child remains in the family as a ‘ghost in the nursery’,” (pp. 61-62).  “Robert was born twenty-one months after Harold’s death,” to a mother who “had been treated for depression,” as Nancy Holt, Smithson’s wife, believed (p. 64). “As he had not experienced the loss [of Harold] himself, his obsession with bloody dying had internalized his parents’ grief, making it into what he described in his ‘Flayed Angels’ incantation as an ongoing ‘everlasting funeral’” (p. 65).  “Identifying with both Christ and Harold,” “the victim of having to serve as a replacement”—for both?—“he could rightly resent what Harold’s death and his parents’ idealized memory of his brother put him through.  His ‘religious’ images radiate fury at being his brother’s keeper” (p. 67).

Robert Smithson, Spiral Jetty, 1970 (Great Salt Lake, Utah) (photo: Gianfranco Gorgoni) ©Holt-Smithson Foundation

Boettger’s book is suavely written, and loaded with quotations from artists and writers, some friends of Smithson, and from books and intellectuals that “influenced” or “echoed” his ideas.  Freud is mentioned eight times; Jung is mentioned forty-four times; Melanie Klein gets two mentions; John Bowlby gets one mention.  It is impossible in a review to mention the seemingly endless number of times Boettger finds “implications” of Harold’s bloody death in virtually every work that Smithson made—a sort of monomaniacal obsession with Smithson’s “obsession with blood, and with the color red,” as the artist Peter Halley perceptively noted (p. 264).  Smithson’s “eyes were ‘saturated by the color of red algae…ruby currents [and] orbs of blood’” at the Rozel Point site of the Spiral Jetty (p. 264).  Boettger’s book is in effect a hagiography.  Smithson is a saint in the tradition of the imitatio Christi, as his admiration of Durer’s Melencolia I, 1514 suggests.  Durer practiced the imitation of Christ, for Saint Augustine “the fundamental purpose of Christian life.”  Smithson, born, raised, and died a Catholic, imitated Christ the Sufferer—the flagellated and suffering Christ--rather than Christ the Savior, which to me suggests that he didn’t think making art saved him from suffering, not to say solved his emotional problems.  Blood and water gushed from the wound a soldier—St. Longinus—made in Christ’s side to be certain that he had died, and blood and water were in the womb that the Spiral Jetty formed.  

“A hagiography was a biography of a saint written without skepticism”—without critical consciousness.  I will argue that Boettger’s endorsement of the replacement child theory to explain Smithson and his art indicates a certain blindness or indifference to his delusion of grandeur, explicit in his identification with Christ, and by way of Christ God the Father, and in the enormous size of the Spiral Jetty.  Outsized grandiosity is perhaps the most obvious of his many issues, sexual not the least of them, his scarred face—apparently from scratching—another one, narcissism perhaps the greatest, certainly most conspicuous of them.  He seems to have been bisexual:  “a pal…is certain that Smithson had sexual liaisons with men as well as women,” and a prominent artist, “who knew him from 1964, identified Smithson as gay,” and a friend “described him as a ‘midnight cowboy, given to black outfits and leather bars’” (p. 137).  “Smithson’s ‘hero was Andy Warhol,’” (p. 141) a homosexual and like Smithson a Catholic.  Did Smithson’s ambivalent love for and perverse identification with Harold have anything to do with his homosexuality?  It seems the only person he had loving sexual relations with was his wife Nancy Holt.

I suggest that Smithson’s low self-esteem, evident in his “elevation” of Harold (the angel) over himself—his internalization of the bad, at best ambivalently engaged object, all the more so because he was unknown, dead, permanently absent, not even a memory, except in a photograph—was his major motivating force. His ambition was conspicuous, from the beginning of his career, when he pushed for an exhibition in Rome, to the end of his career, when he proposed projects to various mining companies.  He wrote “The Establishment is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake,” (p. 93) replacing Stephen Dedalus’s “history” with “establishment”—the art establishment—but he was eager to become one of its “robots,” as he called those who had become part of it, welcoming the chance to show some of his Creeping Jesus paintings at the Galleria George Lester in 1961. He was 23. His parents “visited his solo show at the Artists’ Gallery in 1959, when he was 21… They’ve always been sympathetic.’”  But their private sympathy was not enough; he wanted public success on a grand scale, the scale of the Spiral Jetty. Christ was grand, but he was a figure, and figuration was déclassé:  abstraction was “in.”  And Smithson wanted to be “in.”  As the doyen of high abstraction Clement Greenberg wrote, the artist’s responsive handling of the medium, his sensitivity to the specific qualities inherent in the medium, resulting in aesthetically consequential works, was the be-all and end-all of modern art—avant-garde art.   The Spiral Jetty is a pure abstraction, an ingenious fusion of gestural and geometrical abstraction—for the geometrical spiral becomes a grand “expressionistic” gesture—and as such a tour de force of abstraction.  Earth was the medium, and earth had a peculiar affinity with paint, since it could be pushed and pulled around, to allude to Hans Hofmann’s famous idea, as though it was fluid, and the Spiral Jetty is fluid and moves.  However strange it may be to say so, it is a three-dimensional abstract expressionist painting, that is an abstract expressionist relief.  It was what the critic Harold Rosenberg called abstract expressionism action painting given sculptural form; one might call the Spiral Jetty action sculpture.  Rosenberg said the spontaneity of abstract expressionism was an expression of the authentic self, or, as Winnicott would say the true self.  It was seemingly anti-social, a rebellion against all the false selves in  society.  With Spiral Jetty Smithson achieved fame.  He was now culturally confined, not to say defined.  In “Cultural Confinement” he complained that “museums, like asylums and jails, have wards and cells—in other words, neutral rooms called “galleries” (p. 303).  I suggest that the frenzied character of the Christ paintings bespeak “the frenzy of renown” that Leo Braudy brilliantly writes about in his history of fame.  It reaches an orgasmic peak in abstract expressionism.  And it suggests the boundless narcissism of the artist.  If narcissism involves grandiosity and attention seeking, then Smithson was a narcissist par excellence.  Was Harold his narcissistic alter ego, just as the mythical Narcissus’s image in the pool was?   Did he fetishize Harold, and with that his emotional problems—use Harold as a container for them?  Smithson said “I’ve always been a kind of psychoanalytic type” (p. 190).  What type?    

I suggest that Boettger’s use of replacement child theory to understand Smithson and his art is an example of overdetermination run amuck.  It is a one-dimensional interpretation, seemingly unaware of the many emotional problems Smithson had, Harold being only one of them, and not responsible for the others, unless Harold was the instrument of a developmental impasse or shortcoming, which I don’t think is the case, since Smithson had a loving, attractive wife to empathize with him, although he turns away from her in a 1963 photograph, the year they were married (p. 88), and in a 1962 photograph (p. 124), where we see Smithson, fully dressed, standing between Holt glamorous and sexy in a colorful bathing suit and Richard Castellane, Smithson’s handsome macho dealer naked except for bathing trunks, as Holt is except for her bathing suit, while Smithson stands between them, his hands clasped, gazing away from them and the camera and into the distance, the center of attention by way of his indifference to them and the camera.  He stands out by way of his “difference,” suggesting a certain grandiosity, an insular narcissism, defensive as his clothed body suggests, and isolating him from them, as though he was superior to them, perhaps a defense against the inferiority complex his morbidly suffering Christ sick unto death, to allude to Kierkegaard’s idea of depression, suggests.  If the body ego is the first ego, as Freud said, then Smithson clearly has an ego problem, which I think is reflected in the sadistically persecuted body of Christ in his early—adolescent—works.  One only has to see Smithson’s scowling confrontational face in the Clinton High School Class of 1956 yearbook and Nancy Holt’s happily smiling face in the same yearbook to see the emotional difference between them.  I suppose opposites attract.  I am strongly suggesting that attributing Smithson’s many emotional problems to the fact that he is a replacement child short circuits an understanding of his person and art.  

Here is what the psychoanalyst Salman Akhtar has to say about the “Replacement child,” Albert Cain and Barbara Cain’s (1964) label for a child that is conceived soon after the loss of a significant person in the mother’s life. Such a child is unconsciously equated in the maternal psyche with the deceased, especially if the mother has not been able to resolve her grief.  The newborn’s psyche becomes the recipient of the ‘deposited representations’ (Volkan, 1987) of the mother’s earlier love object; this makes him ‘special.’  At the same time, the fact that he is not the deceased one fosters maternal neglect towards him. The result of such split attitudes on the mother’s part is that the child develops a dichotomous identity with grandiose and unworthy self representations; these make contradictory demands upon the ego throughout his life.  Many world-renowned individuals have been ‘replacement children’ (Cain & Cain, 1964); Poznanski, 1972), with lives full of self-doubt and glorious achievements.”(1)  Spiral Jetty is a glorious achievement in the artworld, but Smithson was full of self-doubt in the life-world however self-glorifying his art, which is why he desperately pursued fame and fortune until his death, midway through his life.  At the time he was in a mid-career crisis, desperate for money and commissions, and thus having to satisfy a patron not just himself, convince a corporation of his creative ability and artistic importance and above all of use to its business.  He was ready to enter the “confinement” of a capitalist society not just a capitalist gallery—the former expected more conformity than the latter, and expected one’s product to have use value not just aesthetic value--he didn’t care for, even though for much of his career he was supported by Virginia Dwan, a wealthy woman, a capitalist speculating on art, as I would say.  A brilliant woman, she travelled with him, supported him, advised him, inspired him.  She was in effect his muse—she mothered his art.  He wouldn’t have had the success—the sustained recognition--he had without her.  When she closed her gallery, he was without her support, emotional, intellectual, and commercial.  He was on his own in the art world, adding to his many problems. He was no longer the avant-garde Wunderkind writing brilliant articles but an artist who had to make a living.  His last project, in Amarillo, Texas, was privately funded.  He seems to have forced himself—and his wife—on the wealthy patron, as Boettger indicates.  Stanley Marsh, the same age as Smithson—35—offered him a site on his huge ranch, but as he said he was “never going to pay for it.”  He expected Smithson to use his Guggenheim Fellowship money to “cover the construction costs” (p. 325).  Smithson had mentioned it and implied that it would.  In a sense, he was at a creative loss; the novelty of earthworks was over.  One might say that the Amarillo Ramp and the German earthworks which preceded it were cliched, not to say reified, earthworks.  They were certainly not dramatically expressionistic.  They did not move, as the Spiral Jetty did, but were frozen in place.  I suggest that making socially acceptable, not to say commercially useful earth art, added to Smithson’s depression and anxiety about his future.  “He seemed bitter, self-corrosive,” in “a dark, despairing mood,” with “many conflicts about himself,” a magazine and poet editor noted (p. 321).  “He seemed to know almost everything about anything,” another poet friend noted, confirming Smithson’s delusional grandiosity.  Smithson died in an airplane crash—the airplane was apparently circling the Amarillo Ramp to get a better view of it.  Marsh “felt really bad” about Smithson’s death, and decided to fund the Amarillo Ramp.  “It was expensive for me.  It cost a lot of money to move the earth and rocks, cut the dam, so the dirt would dry out, so the trucks wouldn’t sink” (p. 331).  One might say Smithson was a fallen angel, but he was more like a sly devil who got his way, one way or another, as the artist Alice Neel implied when she called him a “wolf boy” when she painted his portrait (p. 106).  

Boettger’s association of Neel’s portrait of Smithson with Munch’s 1886 self-portrait seems somewhat forced, as though Munch’s originality confirmed Smithson’s originality, as though Munch’s art historical importance made Smithson art historically important, as though Munch’s mental illness and breakdown gave license to Smithson’s mental illness, although he never had a breakdown that sent him to a mental hospital, as Munch had.  Munch’s art is conspicuously about himself and death, while Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, made of dead matter, is only superficially a self-portrait, at best a very oblique, abstract self-portrait, or rather self-invocation.  His Christ works may be “soul portraits”; Munch showed his body as well as soul—his embodied soul.  Munch was heterosexual, Smithson was bisexual, probably more homosexual than heterosexual.  I find Boettger’s “exploration” of Smithson’s sexuality hesitant.  One wonders how often he had vaginal intercourse with his wife, whom Boettger interviewed at length; he seemed to prefer anal intercourse.  His “pitted complexion from scratched acne” (p. 106) suggests upward displacement of and anxiety about masturbation.  

Holt, raised a Protestant, converted to Catholicism, perhaps out of love for him.  Smithson remained a Catholic to the end of his life, as the scholar Irving Sandler said, implying that his Catholicism was more of his essence than Harold.  Holt arranged a Catholic wedding with Smithson and a Catholic funeral for him, both in grand cathedrals, perhaps unconsciously satisfying Smithson’s delusions of grandeur, his identification with Christ, larger than life even in death, everlasting as Smithson’s earth works—works that imply an identification with Mother Earth.  Smithson’s mother was his problem, not Harold.  A friend describes her “as a suffering, overworked burdened woman with a furrowed brow, an apron, worry on her face, work all around her” (p. 64).  Sounds like Smithson.  He said his aunt Julia was “like a second mother to me” (p.64).  A boy with two mothers, both good in different ways, would seem to have all the support he needed.

Less dabbling in quotations from prominent writers and more insightful—and less dogmatically one-dimensional in its insistence on Smithson the replacement child—psychoanalytic thinking would make Boettger’s book more purposeful and Smithson more poignant.  Boettger is too busy idealizing him by connecting him to famous thinkers and artists to do him psychoanalytic justice.  Her countertransference is the problem, that is, Smithson’s “influence on her unconscious,” to quote Freud.  It is also worth noting that red does not always mean blood—bad blood, in Smithson’s case, and with that death, but “regarded universally as the basic symbol of the life-principle, with its dazzling strength and power,”(2) suggesting that Smithson was expressing his love of life as well as death when he celebrated red, an ambivalence that suggests the existential crisis catalyzed by the death of Harold.  Red is “a highly lively, living color” Kandinsky writes, full of “energy and intensity…immense, almost purposeful strength,” conveying “masculine maturity.”(3)  Is that why Smithson was drawn to it?  The so-called “red planet” Mars is named for the very masculine god of war.  Was Smithson drawn to Mars because he was at war with the artworld even as he was dependent on it, indeed, couldn’t live without it.  It was a good mother, as Dwan was, for it gave him fame, indeed, a Christ-like immortality.    Without his aggression Smithson was at an emotional loss—a victim of Harold.  

It is worth emphasizing that Smithson was very much in the modernist mainstream, however novel and unprecedented his earth art seemed, if “the shock of the new” is what modern art is all about, as Baudelaire said, for earth art was shockingly new when it first appeared.  It was especially modern because it exemplified what the psychoanalyst Michael Balint called “the Dissolution of Object-Representation in Modern Art,”(4) more particularly “narcissistic withdrawal” from objects.  In Smithson’s early work we see Christ--the object Smithson most seriously “related” to—more seriously than he related to his wife—dissolving.  “Modern art tends to dissolve the objects and threatens to merge them once again back into their environment,”(5) which slowly but surely will happen—is already happening--to the Spiral Jetty.  Smithson’s Mother Earth is more entropic than generative.  Also worth noting is that Smithson’s eager writing—exemplary of his busy, relentless search for an audience, “recognition,” fame and hopefully fortune—confirms Balint’s idea that “to save their self-esteem most artists pretend that their main aim is creation, and not the winning of applause, of consideration, of appreciation”(6)—“publicity,” that is, becoming a public figure.  Also, as every high-flying philobat needs an earth-bound—grounded--ocnophiliac, as Balint argues, so Smithson needed his wife, as Don Quixote needed Sancho Panza, Balint notes.  Smithson was more dependent on others than he cares to acknowledge, as the fact that he spent so much time talking with other artists at Max’s Kansas City and busily writing for others, words being a means of relating to others.  I am suggesting that Boettger needs more of an object relational and interpersonal approach to Smithson than she has.  Christ seems to have been his most important object, not Harold, but he was involved with many other objects—real objects not fantasies.  Harold may have been embedded in his unconscious; it is debatable how much he informed—infected—Smithson’s art. WM


(1)Akhtar, S. (2009).  Comprehensive Dictionary of Psychoanalysis. 245-246. London:  Karnac.

(2)Chevalier, J. and Gheerbrant, A. (1996).  Dictionary of Symbols. 292.  London: Penguin.

(3)Lindsay, K. C. and Vergo, P. (1994).  Kandinsky:  Complete Writings On Art. 186.  New York:  Da Capo Press.

(4)Balint, M. (1957).  Problems of Human Pleasure and Behaviour. 122.  London:  Maresfield Library.

(5)Ibid., 115

(6)Balint, M. (1959).  Thrills and Regressions, 116.  London:  Maresfield Library. 

Donald Kuspit

Donald Kuspit is one of America’s most distinguished art critics. In 1983 he received the prestigious Frank Jewett Mather Award for Distinction in Art Criticism, given by the College Art Association. In 1993 he received an honorary doctorate in fine arts from Davidson College, in 1996 from the San Francisco Art Institute, and in 2007 from the New York Academy of Art. In 1997 the National Association of the Schools of Art and Design presented him with a Citation for Distinguished Service to the Visual Arts. In 1998 he received an honorary doctorate of humane letters from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In 2000 he delivered the Getty Lectures at the University of Southern California. In 2005 he was the Robertson Fellow at the University of Glasgow. In 2008 he received the Tenth Annual Award for Excellence in the Arts from the Newington-Cropsey Foundation. In 2013 he received the First Annual Award for Excellence in Art Criticism from the Gabarron Foundation. He has received fellowships from the Ford Foundation, Fulbright Commission, National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, Guggenheim Foundation, and Asian Cultural Council, among other organizations.

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