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    smithson's olmsted: ecologist of the real
by Suzaan Boettger
Catalogue for
Viewing Olmsted
Central Park
Geoffrey James
Robert Burley
Robert Burley
"A park can no longer be seen as 'a thing-in-itself', but rather as a process of ongoing relationships existing in a physical region -- the park becomes a 'thing-for-us.'" Robert Smithson, the artist who in 1967 coined the sculptural term "earthwork" and three years later made its most iconic land form, the Spiral Jetty, was describing the impact of the landscape designer he considered "America's first 'earthwork artist' -- Frederick Law Olmsted." Smithson's recognition of the profound interactivity of a public park -- not only socially and ecologically, but even conceptually -- is implicitly demonstrated in the differing perspectives onto Olmsted's landscapes in "Viewing Olmsted, " a photography exhibition that premiered in New York at the Equitable Gallery (and is now on its way to Columbus, Ohio, and then Wellesley, Mass.).

"Viewing Olmsted" presented the work of the 19th-century landscape designer and parkland visionary through the lenses of three present-day photographers, Robert Burley, Lee Friedlander and Geoffrey James. The title's use of the gerund ("ing") is significant, as it indicates a process that is neither past nor static. Each recreates Olmsted, but in ways that also demonstrate insights of the artist best known for "writing" Olmsted, Smithson.

The direct link to the earthwork artist's 1973 Artforum article "Frederick Law Olmstead and the Dialectical Landscape" is through the British photographer associated with his studies of European gardens, Geoffrey James. Inspired by Smithson's article to think about Olmsted as a "mythical figure" (as he notes in the catalogue's interview), James proposed that the Canadian Centre for Architecture, in Montreal, undertake a photographic survey of Olmsted's landscapes. The several-year project commissioned James as well as the major American photographer of our social landscape, Lee Friedlander, and a Canadian photographer at an earlier stage of his career, Robert Burley. With travel expenses paid and a number of prints purchased each year, the three individually ranged over Olmsted's North America from beloved urban oases such as Central Park and Chicago's Jackson Park to private enclaves such as the John F. Davis estate in St. Louis, Mo., and even to Olmsted landscaping at Stanford University.

Ironically, it's the very distinctiveness of each of the three photographers' body of work, selected by project manager and curator David Harris from the almost 1, 000 prints comprising the Olmsted Archive, that demonstrates Smithson's trace. Dismissing the idea of a park as a "static entity, " Smithson emphasized its responsiveness to nature and use -- what he called the "dialectics of landscape." James' own "use" of Olmsted's parkland creates harmonious compositions of dark masses and light patterns on both foliage and classical architecture, elegant scenes in black and white with rich grays. Burley is the sensualist here, emphasizing subtle tonal hues -- a celedon lawn fades into boughs of fog over the Biltmore Estate (1990), and then on the opposite page, the same site three years later as tawny, balding hills in late fall. In mood, Friedlander's black-and-white pictures, previously so much about social disarray, are most akin to that state of material disorder that Smithson so strongly identified with, "entropy." His repeated views seen through close-ups of tangled skeins of skeletal branches or webs of linear shadows present a perspective that can't see through to the distant structures of stability.

Similarly Smithson, in appropriating Olmsted as a precedent "ecologist of the real, " praised him as a "sylvan artist" who integrated the "urban flux." Commenting on an 1862 photograph documenting Central Park, "Tunnel carved out through Vista Rock for Transverse Road No. 2 at 79th Street, " Smithson appreciated the opening's "rawness, " the way the bluntness of hole made it obvious that this park was made, in urban captivity. In a section of his handwritten manuscript that Smithson deleted, perhaps because of its stridency, he asserted "Olmsted combines both art and reclamation in Central Park in a way that is truly in advance of his times. He faced the manifestation of industry and urban blight head on, where other artists would have given up and looked for comfort in an Arcadian utopia, he introduced a complex network of drainage systems and city traffic into his earth work with the help of Vaux."

Tracing this preference back to 18th-century England (realm of his own ancestors), Smithson linked Olmstead to a rejection of the fixed beauty of a formal garden in favor of more ragged landscapes, often with a crumbling ruin evoking the wear of time. As formulated by the landscape designer Uvedale Price (1747-1829) and travel writer William Gilpin (1724-1804), the "picturesque, " Smithson noted, "is on close examination related to chance and change in the material order of nature." In turn, by the laws of chance the sun doesn't always shine and plants don't grow in straight rows, sometimes not even fertilizing at all. Or as he put it, "the whole park changes like day and night, in and out, dark and light -- a carefully designed clump of bushes can also be a mugger's hideout."

Smithson himself seemed exceptionally aware of that "nature, like a person, is not one-sided." Another crossed-out sentence reads "The authentic artist must not turn away from the effects of urbanism, materialism, industrialism, on the landscape. We can not afford to project a face of innocent pseudoarcadias...and shrink into an easy spirituality." He was prevented from exploring this grand dialogue with industry by his accidental death in July, 1973, five months after the article's publication.

Ahead of his own time in weighing the balance between nature, commerce, and art, Smithson was also prescient about conflicts over a park's social function. He included the general ideal "Central Park is a ground work of necessity and chance, a range of contrasting view points that are forever fluctuating, yet solidly based in the earth." But he deleted the more polemical "All parks or 'recreation' sites should be able to absolve modifications, but not to the point where Disney-type kiddy villages subvert the organic dialectic, and cover the outcrops of prehistory. The new subway excavations in Central Park are probably more interesting to kids than big plastic Dumbos."

Smithson is sometimes referred to as a conceptual artist, but his commentary on Olmsted and on his own aligned work make clear his connection with material reality. "The picturesque, " he asserted, "far from being an inner movement of the mind, is based on real land; it precedes the mind in its material external existence." Similarly, aside from these ideals -- albeit interactive -- Smithson's thinking also reveals his sensory connection to his subject. Concluding the Olmsted article with a travelogue narrating a Central Park jaunt, Smithson recounted 'the sensation of being in a sunken forest." "This sense of engulfment deepened as foliage suggested the harmonies, tonalities, and rhythms of Charles Ives' music -- "Three Outdoor Scenes, " "Central Park at Night, " and "The Unanswered Question, " subtitled "A Cosmic Landscape." His experience of synesthesia, of calling up Ives, via Olmsted, and making a "Smithson" work out of it, is perhaps the strongest testament of the engendering power of art.

"Viewing Olmsted" appeared at the Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montreal, Oct. 16, 1996-Feb. 2, 1997, and at the Equitable Gallery, New York, Feb. 12-Mar. 15, 1997. It will be presented at the Wexner Center for the Arts, Columbus, Ohio, May 9-Aug. 10, 1997, and at the Davis Museum Center, Wellesley, Mass., Sept. 2-Nov. 25, 1997. It is accompanied by a large-format catalog with many illustrations and a suave essay by John Szarkowski, published by the CCA and distributed by MIT Press.,

SUZAAN BOETTGER is writing a book on earthworks in the 1960s. Smithson deletions used with permission.