Art, Art History and Design, School of


Date of this Version



Saxon, Eric J. "Science Fictional Transcendentalism in the Work of Robert Smithson." Master's thesis, University of Nebraska, 2013.


A THESIS Presented to the Faculty of The Graduate College at the University of Nebraska In Partial Fulfillment of Requirements For the Degree of Master of Arts, Major: Art History, Under the Supervision of Professor Marissa Vigneault. Lincoln, Nebraska: August 2013

Copyright (c) 2013 Eric Saxon


In studies of American artist Robert Smithson (1938-1973), scholars often set the artist’s early abstract expressionist and Christian iconographical paintings apart from the rest of his body of work, characterizing this early phase as a youthful encounter with the enduring legacy of abstract expressionism in the late 1950s to early 1960s as well as a temporary preoccupation with ritualized Catholic imagery. This thesis argues for the inclusion of this early phase into Smithson’s career as a foundational period in which he established the set of problems that artistically engaged him throughout his life: issues of temporality, materiality, and universal entropy. Continually addressing these issues from several different directions, Smithson’s work developed across the media of sculpture, writing, film, and eventually to the monumental earthworks for which he is most well known, such as Spiral Jetty (1970).

After a discussion focusing on the 1967 debate about temporality in art that took place in the journal Artforum, which pitted art historian Michael Fried against Smithson and captures an art world in flux between the late modernism espoused by Fried and the developing post-modernism of Smithson, this thesis posits that Smithson employed strategies informed by science fiction, particularly the “New Wave” of science fiction developed in the 1960s by writers such as William S. Burroughs and J.G. Ballard, to express aspects of the sublime in his work. Smithson introduced impressions of timelessness, infinity, and teleportation to the problems of temporality, materiality, and entropy, creating conceptually multivalent works that simultaneously exist both “here” and “elsewhere.” In his use of science fiction to transcend temporality, as well as his move out of the interior of the gallery to create earthworks in the remote wilderness, the thesis positions Smithson as a unique kind of science fiction-style transcendentalist; unlike the original nineteenth-century Transcendentalists who sought divine connection and truth in nature, however, Smithson pursued what lies beyond the observable to find truths in nullification and antimatter.

Advisor: Marissa Vigneault