Hidden Design: Considering Sculpture by Smithson and Calicchia

by Anne Elizabeth Weisgerber 

Can you sense the drama? Kent State University’s rolling landscape yields evidence of a star-crossed love affair. The femme fatale is Entropy – she declines into unkempt disorder day after day after quiet day, and her bridegroom is Order – the journeyman poet who commands raw material.

Wait, what?

Art, and its deep considerations of life and what it’s all about, is embodied in two artworks on campus: Partially Buried Wood Shed, 1970 by Robert Smithson, and The Witnesses, 2010, by Giancarlo Calicchia. In consideration, these earthy works are like a common-law couple: married by their proximity, by their creators’ excitement for the written word, and by their coy relationship with the earth. Though 40 years separate each work’s liminal entrance, the Reverend Kent now joins these epic works; let no man draw them asunder. To fully experience this art, passersby must stand, walk, and ask questions. So, who made them?

ROBERT SMITHSON

This 1989 photo by Stan Apseloff shows the broken shed, well along in its entropic journey. Jennifer Mundy; Lost-Art critic for the Tate Modern; said; "Some saw Smithson's artwork as expressive of a malaise within American political society, the envisaged cracking of the roof beam by the overwhelming force of gravity serving as a metaphor for the breaking of the political system."

This 1989 photo by Stan Apseloff shows the broken shed, well along in its entropic journey. Jennifer Mundy; Lost-Art critic for the Tate Modern; said; “Some saw Smithson’s artwork as expressive of a malaise within American political society, the envisaged cracking of the roof beam by the overwhelming force of gravity serving as a metaphor for the breaking of the political system.” (Photo used by permission of Kent State University Libraries. Special Collections and Archives)

Robert Smithson (1938-1973) is most commonly called a conceptual artist, but is best known for his Earth Art. He visited KSU in January 1970, spending a week as a guest professor while overseeing his Partially Buried Wood Shed artwork: a shed, half-covered with dirt, that was meant to fall apart over time. According to Robert Swick, the art student responsible for inviting Smithson to Kent, Smithson directed the back hoe operator, to “deliberately [place] the dirt on the mound to form a spiral shape; the earth was put on scoop by scoop, like applying paint with a brush.”

PBWS marked “the beginning of (his) outdoor works done on a grand scale,” according to Lawrence Alloway in his November 1972 Artforum essay. Three months later, Smithson would construct his iconic earth work, Spiral Jetty,in the Great Salt Lake.

Kent State also had a 1970 watershed moment, immortalized in the same way Smithson preserved his own fleeting works: with film. Smithson didn’t live long after that. In 1973, while conducting aerial photography of one of his expansive earth works in Texas, he died in a plane crash at the age of 35. Michael Kimmelman of the NY Times labeled Smithson the art world’s “own Buddy Holly.”

John Filo's photo of the May 4, 1970 massacre of four students won the Pulitzer Prize. The pole over the central subject's (Mary Ann Vecchio's) head is digitally removed from most reproductions of this photo. (Photo: © John Filo)

John Filo’s photo of the May 4, 1970 massacre of four students won the Pulitzer Prize. Filo’s composition, with its bend of the central figure’s arm and knee, became a symbol of the breaking of a political system, and makes an interesting visual juxtaposition with the Smithson earthwork and its cracked roof beam. (Used with permission from John Paul Filo)

Both were slender, geekish artists who held great promise, and both had just begun making waves in contemporary American culture through their stripped-down works: three chords for Holly, natural elements for Smithson.

Then, poof.

According to art critic Mark Stevens in his 2005 New York Magazine piece on a Smithson retrospective at the Whitney Museum, Smithson is “as important for his fertile play with ideas as for the art he produced. He reminds me of those visionary architects who don’t get most of their buildings built. A man of possibilities.”

In an interview captured in the 2004 short film, Robert Smithson: Sheds, the artist declared the work finished when “the central beam cracked.” Since its completion, an intermittent fracas of news clippings documents how—vandalized, burned, and bulldozed—the shed has been perennially abused.

According to art curator Dorothy Shinn in the 1990 exhibition catalog documenting PBWS, “kerosene in a can of Pepsi, like a Molotov cocktail” was what ignited the 1975 shed fire. It is all part of the legendary entrance of PBWS into the hagiography of lost art, although its berm of dirt, its copse of trees, and its crumbling concrete foundation remain.

Those remains are, according to sculptor Robert Morris in American Sculpture in Process 1930/1970, evidence of a shift from a minimalist view “of object-oriented art to systems-oriented art; from things to the way things are done.”

Smithson’s legacy as an innovator still reverberates. Contemporary Los Angeles artist Cameron Gray works with digital media, often using the Internet detritus known as GIFs. Gray noted that Smithson was using mirrors in his work as early as 1969, years before pop artist Jeff Koons. “The exploration that Smithson started continues today,” Gray said. “I noticed in a recent retrospective of Koons’ work that he was using corner mirrors – he was using the same presentation of the corner set-up device that Smithson did earlier.” Koons’ pop art, especially the sculptures of blow-up pool toys and balloon animals, is clinical and clean, while Smithson’s concepts are dirty and wild. Gray, who is anti-conceptual, thinks that there is a bridge between these two kinds of art.

He said, “Conceptualism, since Baldessari, had a good 30-year run, and artists,” having grown tired of conceptualism and its “stranglehold” on the art-making process, “are now going back to beauty.” What, then, ties these artworks together? “Well land art and stone, that’s obvious,” says Gray. But still the two artists, Calicchia and Smithson, seem so different. One was a man of possibilities, and one is a vital producer. “Smithson was this prototypical starving artist: anti-commercial,” Gray said. “Maybe I read once that he had a space in downtown New York, but he wasn’t a promoter. And then you have Giancarlo, who is a giant in the stone carving industry, but he is also a businessman. His website and what he does there, like juxtaposing his commercial fountain work next to his fine art stone work, is strange and fascinating to me.”

GIANCARLO CALICCHIA

Giancarlo Calicchia (1946-), who sculpted The Witnesses, was born near Rome, Italy, and moved to Rome, NY, before settling in Cleveland in 1979. Unlike the willowy lank of New Jerseyan Smithson, Calicchia’s sturdy physique indicates the strength he’s gained by wresting figures from granite. He is a quarryman, sculptor, restaurateur, vintner, and poetry lover.“I learned Spanish just so that I could read Lorca’s words in his native tongue,” Calicchia said.

He excavated the stones for The Witnesses from the earth at his farm in Madison, Ohio, while increasing his vineyards. “You know, when you prepare the soil for grapes, you have to plow very deeply,” Calicchia said. “The guy I had doing it kept calling me up, telling me that there were these huge stones that kept getting in the way,” he said. “I wound up having all these rocks, and they were huge.”

Although aggravated, he marveled. Calicchia is a stone aficionado, and is well aware of the glacial history of the northern span of Ohio. “I didn’t know if I could deal with them,” he said when he looked at the stones. “Then it hit me,” he said. “I’m an immigrant, born in Italy. I was rolled across the ocean, and these were rolled across the continents. These stones were dormant underground for thousands of years, and they are part of our soil. Everything we know and love about the earth is in them.”

Calicchia said his work requires him to be “exploratory and aggressive.” All five of the stones used in the piece, he said, had lain within 500 yards of each other, and all are different. “Different sizes, different colors,” he said.

He described the stones used to create the druid-like Witnesses as “an older family of granite.” He said these are “millions of years older than any granite we use for architectural purposes like countertops, building facing, flooring.” “Working with stone, particularly granite, is hard,” Calicchia said about his own creative calling. “When you look at these pieces, they mean endless amounts of time. It’s a long process; [granite] doesn’t give easily; it resists.”

He also said he “shied away from saying ‘I’m done;’ this would be a rejection.”

In contrast, Smithson distanced himself from the making of his earth art with heavy machinery and airplanes. He declared PBWS complete when the weight of 20 “cartloads” of dirt began a decades-long collapse of an abandoned out building. Then, in a casual, hand-written statement, archived in the Special Collections at Kent State’s library, he assured the work’s safety by naming it, valuing it at $10K, and donating it to KSU. As early as 1964, in a proposed work titled The Eliminator, Smithson toyed with ideas of art being, “a clock that doesn’t keep time, but loses it.” Further, in an audio interview included in the film Robert Smithson: Sheds, he said PBWS is “what the site will be [emphasis Smithson’s], rather than what it is, so that it’s not a matter of finish; it’s a matter of ongoingness.”

CALICCHIA AND SMITHSON MEET

Had Calicchia seen the Smithson? Did he know it was near?

“Beth Ruffing (KSU’s assistant director of capital design and construction) took me to see [Smithson’s work], and she asked me what I thought, and I said, ‘It’s progressive art in the making, it continues to be made,’ ” Calicchia said. He admires “the softness” of Smithson’s wood and dirt creation. “It’s a very powerful statement of the nature of our earth. It’s softness means it is needing of care and concern,” he said.

Such thoughts ring familiar to Smithson scholars. His biography at the Dia Art Foundation notes he was a patient of the physician-poet William Carlos Williams in Passaic, New Jersey. Gems can be mined from Smithson’s written manuscripts, including: “Artists don’t write, they build with words.” This lapidary statement is one that resonates with the stone-carver.

Like Smithson, Calicchia is also a reader. Calicchia thought of his beloved Lorca, and said, “Poets are gardeners of the soul – digging into our own hearts for love, and sexuality, and beauty. Lorca,” said Calicchia, “is like a walk for the soul.” Calicchia recommends walks for the body as well.

Hidden Messages: Five Freedoms in StarSphere 2010 by Anne Weisgerber For the sculpture selected to be closest to the Journalism building, Professor Ann Schierhorn was part of the selection committee for three new campus artworks. The one closest to Franklin Hall “could have been anything,” Schierhorn said, but the committee wanted the subject to be relevant “to reporting, advertising, public relations.” Artist Susan Ewing won, with her proposal focused on the First Amendment. She “delivered so much more than I imagined,” said Schierhorn. Ewing’s 11’ high, glass-bead-blasted, stainless steel StarSphere 2010 sculpture is a set of interlocking discs, with a starburst cut-out in the center of each, forming a sphere with a void at the center. Look carefully, though. Banding the circumference of one of the discs is the text of the First Amendment in raised, backward letters. Not every passerby will recognize it. “A lot of adults will walk by that sculpture, but only those of us in the know will see that the letters are letterpress type. Children see it and they get it, they think of rubber stamps they play with,” said Schierhorn.

“Your whole body,” he said, “is involved in a walk – your heart, your eyes, your soul.”

Sculpture Walk

Tom Euclide, KSU associate vice president of facilities planning and operations, is a driving force behind the sculpture walk along the University pathways. While The Witnesses was a recent acquisition to the Kent State collection, made possible by the Percent for Ohio funding rules, the Smithson is ongoing news. When sharing his thoughts about the two works, Euclide said, “It’s very interesting to think of those two sculptures in that way, that one is returning to the earth while the other sprouts like a seed.”

CHOICES, CHOICES…

Enjoying an art exhibit, if only along the KSU esplanade, is not so much what Smithson called, “a matter of going from void to void,” but instead a motivation for the alert pedestrian to “mobilize the eye.”Calicchia said such a walk summons an Italian concept: sentire, a feeling of beauty that the artist engenders in others.

PBWS was “not thought of as an anchor to the sculpture walk, but it was always considered a notable point of interest” said Euclide. He also said any notion that the esplanade shuns the Smithson work by veering north and away from that location is false. He said the earth art is one of many other sculptures at that end of the campus, which simply “existed before this planning began.”

Though 40 years—a long procession down the aisle of human time—separate Partially Buried Wood Shed from The Witnesses, the same Google Maps pushpin locates the whereabouts of Smithson and Calicchia in Ohio.   An elegant pathway, of patterned brick and concrete tendrils, leads to gravel, then fades to grass and joins them.

Should visitors park near the Student Green on E. Summit Street and meander southeast to Smithson’s veil of trees, or travel the esplanade northwest to be seated with Calicchia’s Witnesses?  Left or right? Bride or groom? Though PBWS’s terse commemorative plaque marks an end to the road less traveled—like an X that impossibly marks the spot of artistic whim— thinking of Smithson’s abstract intentions can make all the difference. Where are we going? What’s it all about, anyway? On sunny days in Kent, black squirrels cavort through the pre-Cambrian, thoughtful clan staged by Calicchia, but on the quiet hump that is the ghost-wreck of Smithson’s collapsed castle, a mother deer stows her precious, dappled babe in an echaugette of cool darkness.  

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About A.E. Weisgerber

A.E. Weisgerber has recent/forthcoming stories in SmokeLong Quarterly, DIAGRAM, Structo Magazine, The Collapsar, R.KV.R.Y., Entropy Magazine, New South Journal, Shotgun Honey, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, Jellyfish Review, The Airgonaut, Gravel Magazine, FLAPPERHOUSE and many more. Her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, Best of the Net, and Best Small Fictions. She reads for Wigleaf, and writes reviews for both Change Seven Magazine and The Review Review. Follow her @AEWeisgerber, or visit anneweisgerber.com