Ancora in Arcadia Morte






Georges Seuat’s work is generally categorized as Neo-Impressionist and not Impressionist. The source of the disagreement is a complicated issue. In spite of the complicated arguments against it, the sixty-seven and a half square foot canvas, La Grande Jatte, (1884-86) and other works by Seurat (and Pissaro) were displayed at the last Impressionist Group Show of 1886, in a back room. The exhibition of La Grande Jatte marked the end of the Impressionist Rebellion.


Seurat’s links to the past have been noted by many critics. The Impressionists were influenced by Delacroix’s use of color. Seurat and Signac adopted this “free” use of color from the Impressionists, but they systematized their applications of the color spectrum: red, orange, yellow, green, blue and violet. Seurat had studied with a student of Ingres named Lehmann, who stressed Ingres’ fascination for the classical line. This fascination is perceived in Seurat’s system. Most significantly, Seurat observed and adapted the geometric patterns of Puvis’ “classical-decorative style” and imposed similar pattens onto the Impressionists’ scenes of everyday life (Canaday 11). The combination of these influences, created images cast in a language of a monumental antiquity that described what Signac would later relate to Matisse as a “future Golden age” (Hughes 135).


In spite of this “web of influences” (Canaday 7), or because of them, Seurat’s approach shocked Monet and Renoir into a refusal to exhibit at the Salon. Pissaro, one of the leaders of the Impressionists’ old guard, argued in Seurat’s defense, but Matisse and Renoir would not be persuaded.


The basis of Pissaro’s defense was that Seurat’s work “should be shown under the auspices of this organization that had always stood for the artist’s right to paint as he pleased” (Canaday 5). Seurat was regarded as a cold, calculating, soulless curiosity. Renoir, Monet and Canaday saw such a complete departure from Impressionism, that Seurat’s work was regarded by them as “something of a proclamation against it” (5). Pissaro’s defense of Seurat was made when Pissaro’s work had taken a similar Post-Impressionist turn—with less than convincing results (5). Canaday implied that Pissaro was really defending himself, in an attempt to breathe new life into his halting rebellion.


All of the Impressionists broke color into streaks and smears of contrasting colors (or component hues—Divisionism) to achieve atmospheric effects, and the spontaneity that was characteristic of Impressionism. Canaday reminded us that the techniques employed by Seurat inspired controversy, even in naming it. The terms he mentioned in his essay were: “Divisionist;” “Post-Impressionist,” in a general sense; “Pointilist,” the application of uniform dots of color; and the lugubrious “Chromo-Luminarism”—a term intended to cover both Divisionism and Pointilism. These terms were listed by Canaday as possible, yet contending names for the techniques and also for attempts at a historical periodization (7).


Hughes provides another disconsolate example when he refers to signs of “Seurat’s Divisionism” in Matisse’s Luxe, Calme et Volupte (1904-5) (135).  The pathos the example illustrates is that thirteen years after his death, and partly though Signac’s influence, other artists are still wrestling with Seurat’s accomplishments. In the context of the above discussion, Hughes’ phrase is an indictment of the difficulty with which Seurat’s La Grande Jatte is reconciled with the movement that fostered its creation. The term itself implies that each of the Impressionists might employ his or her own version of Impressionism. In this light, periodization is less than meaningful.


Seurat’s system is based on the relatively new science of color optics and how color is perceived. What the mind blends it can also abstract into component parts. What is so unusual about Seurat’s work is the calculating way he set out to do it. His system, Hughes says, is “based on the dot” (114).


More precisely, Seurat’s system is based on the theory of optics advanced by Eugene Chevreul. Colored dots are perceived by the eye as if surrounded by a halo of the contrasting color: red surrounded by green; blue with orange; and purple by yellow. What creates perceivable color is an almost imaginary, certainly vibrant and elusive plane of perception in which these exigencies interact. Whether this interaction takes place in the eye, in the mind, or on the surface of the objects perceived, Seurat determined to make Chevreul’s theories “explicit” (Hughes 114).


This is not a definition of Impressionism as practiced by Seurat, or by anyone else, yet. This is only a theory of the perception of colored dots. From an analysis of the dot-as-metaphor, as it is used in La Grande Jatte, a definition of Impressionism can be approximated. Seurat contrived to build meaning into his pictures. The dot covers a mathematically small, but definite empty set, with meaning. As colored dots are added, their corresponding halos resonate together to suggest, or inhabit the geometric complexities of Puvis’ forms, laid along Ingres’ lines, to give the viewer a promise of Poussin’s Arcadia—not today, but in some “golden future.” In Seurat’s system, meaning is brought about with staggering inefficiency—one dot at a time.


By systematizing his approach Seurat violated the only organizing principle of the Impressionist movement. “Impressionism has no governing system beyond the acuity of the artist’s eye and the sensuous efficiency of his brush-strokes, knitting their pattern swiftly across the canvas” (Hughes 113). In this efficiency, Hughes finds the popularity that Impressionist paintings enjoy even today.


Canaday argues that the “grinding hours of” the labor itself, and an otherwise weak constitution, were enough to account for Seurat’s death at the age of only thirty-two (8). Whether or not this is true, his system of dots is certainly enough to earn him a reputation for being exhaustive and calculating in his art—scientific, but not efficient.


Canaday also remarks that Seurat’s art is not as successful in its overall impact as are works created by other artists of the period—Degas or Lautrec, for example. Canaday shows Lautrec’s In the Circus Fernando: The Ring Master (1888),  and Seurat’s The Circus (1891) side by side, to prove his point (Canaday 10-11). For Canaday, Lautrec’s composition, his colors, and the sweep of his lines, are more effective in evoking the feeling of the circus (8). Seurat’s picture—Canaday admits that it is unfinished—“doesn’t work. All the ingredients are present, but rule has triumphed in a frozen image” (8). At the heart of Canaday’s contrast is an opposition of expression or feeling, and the “rule” of reason or science. In Canaday’s comparison at least, the former is lauded and the latter is disparaged.


Hughes takes the view that Seurat was the best of the new young painters (114).  Hughes shows a genuine regard for the technique exploited by Seurat, in his pursuit of the timeless, monumental feeling of Delacroix (color) Puvis and Poussin (geometric form and Arcadian monumentalism). Hughes also suggests the conjunctions that are integral to an appreciation of Seurat’s work and that of subsequent artists and art theorists like Kandinsky and Smithson.


Hughes raises three important points. The first has already been mentioned, a sense of art as monumental in its scope or theme; the second, a view that regards the artist as an autonomous individual, capable of creating his work of art, and the language in which it is described; the third point, peculiar to modernism, is the concept of irony as it applies to both art and the artist.


In his discussion of Seurat’s Port of Gravelines Channel (1890) Hughes’ wording is precise and applies to La Grande Jatte as well:


“There is a perfect spareness in which the haze and luminosity of the …air are scrupulously translated into form (not just evoked by colour). The lack of incident in the painting…coaxes the eye back to reflect on that analysis of light, as its essential subject. It would be hard to find another image that displayed itself more subtly as a landscape of thought” (Hughes 114).


The ideas of “a perfect spareness…of the air” in which the qualities of the “air” its “haze” and “luminosity” are “translated into form,” endow for Hughes a “landscape of thought”. The dot is perfected as metaphor. An “analysis of light” is the “essential subject” of the painting. The qualities Hughes described have form, not just “colour.” As a “landscape of thought,” composed as it is by thousands of dots, the meaning of the painting is reducible to the dot as metaphor. The painting is transformed (by Hughes’ analysis and Seurat’s flawless execution) into an ironic expression of its own nature, as composed and defined as “infinite divisions of its own unity” (118).


The metaphor most appropriate to understanding how art achieves monumental expression—and for later artists and theorists as well—is suggested by Hughes, “translated”. The metaphor the dot participates in, is a metaphor for language:


“The irony is part of Seurat’s modernity. Precisely because it is a distanced painting, a surface, not a window, it makes one pause and reflect on its semantics. The spectacle of art as a language fascinated Seurat. It fascinates all artists; but before 1880, it had not often been made the subject of the work. Seurat had grasped that there is something atomized, divided, and analytical about modernist awareness, and his work predicted the way in which art would come more and more to refer to itself. To build a unified meaning, in this state of extreme self-consciousness, meant that the subject had to be broken down into molecules and then reassembled under the eye of formal order” (Hughes 118).


Irony is one of two legacies from the Romantics, inherited by the moderns. The other legacy is the autonomy of the artist. Here, Hughes mentions an “extreme self-consciousness,” and combines a sense of irony with artistic autonomy. By juxtaposing the ideas of “unity” and “extreme self-consciousness” and the idea of “painting increasingly referring only to itself,” Hughes is connecting the “Post-Impressionist” sensibility of Seurat with the dead, but now memorialized—and defined—Impressionist movement. As Hughes says,


“reality became permanent when it was displayed as a web of tiny, distinct stillnesses. That, ultimately, was what La Grande Jatte was about: infinite division, infinite relationships, and the struggle to render them visible—even at the expense of ‘real life’” (Hughes 118).


The dot is the infinite division that first defined, and then ended Impressionism.


In La Grande Jatte, Seurat not only defined Impressionism, but he turned Neo-Impressionism into a “form of creation by recipe” (Canaday 9). This recipe allowed Neo-Impressionism to build a large following, but even Seurat did not see this as a positive development. He saw the swelling numbers of adherents as parasites feeding on the “theories he developed with such pain” (9). After Seurat died in 1891, Signac took over the group they formed together, but other groups soon captured the imagination of the public.


Hughes sees in the metaphorical transformation of the subject by the colored dot, a need for syntax, an “eye of formal order” under whose watchful gaze the subject may be reassembled. Hughes leads his discussion to the Expressionists and eventually to Wassily Kandinsky. Kandinsky pushed the formal “object” of the painting even further out of the picture. Kandinsky postulated an experience of color that takes place in the same way that music is experienced. He also leads the viewer to an experience of a transcendent “pure form” (Hughes 299). Kandinsky and another evangelist of  Expressionism, van Gogh, are said by Hughes to “[attribute] human feelings to what was not human” (300).



The direction their art leads is not toward the same bourgeois golden future of Seurat and Signac, but to the end of history in millennial “rapture”. Kandinsky’s “abstract language of colour” is more demanding than Seurat’s— or van Gogh’s—as it is based on his personal visual reactions that few artists or ordinary viewers could share (Hughes 300). These experiences are also the basis of Kandinsky’s spiritualism that is suspicious of matter, because everyone will be able to “hear” colors and “see” sounds (299-300).


In her 1946 introduction to Concerning the Spiritual in Art, Nina Kandinsky quoted from her husband’s writings:


“He wrote in his notebook, a propos Claude Monet’s ‘Haystack’ –‘But I had the impression that here painting itself comes into the foreground; I wonder if it would not be possible to go further in this direction. From then on I looked at the art of Ikons with different eyes; it meant that I had ‘got eyes’ for the abstract in art’” (10).


Kandinsky commemorated the moment of the artist’s conversion to the spiritual. His theology of the new spirituality was given a historical perspective. He identified the influence with a new appreciation for another great influence on his work, the tradition of Russian religious iconography. Writing in his notebook, he ascertained a confluence of the two elements and its importance to him.


Nina Kandinsky remarked the same occasion as significant to her husband’s developing awareness of his place in art history. She related a more effusive demonstration of her husband’s understanding that the existence of progress in art links history to spiritual necessity: “To each spiritual epoch corresponds a new spiritual content, which that epoch expresses by forms that are new, unexpected, surprising and in this way aggressive” (11).


The “new eyes” with which Kandinsky claimed to see Monet’s work were an investiture significant of an overall spiritual process that was revealing “itself” in time—to him. The artist was the expressive agent of his spiritual epoch. Kandinsky sees himself as the interpretive emissary of his spiritual epoch.


Both Wassily Kandinsky and Robert Smithson believed that art history could only point to the past and not the future: “The most advanced principle of aesthetics can never be of value to the future, but only to the past” (Kandinsky 31). Smithson’s view was characteristically cynical “that massive deception ‘the art history of the recent past’” (qtd in Shapiro 50). In a theosophical view of the artistic paradigm, Armageddon might be represented by Kandinsky’s optimism and Smithson’s cynicism fighting together to oppose Chaos. The reconciliation of apparent opposites or enemies is a common theme of millennial writings that portray endless variations of Biblical lions and lambs in equipoise. The Arcadian vision of Seurat and Poussin was displaced not just by their Revelation, but with a freshet of words.


Kandinsky saw the role of the artist as an agent of spiritual revelation. Smithson saw a similar role for the artist as an intermediary, but in the field of historical dialectic. Both artists relied on the written word as integral to their work. The debates that attended the Impressionist rebellion, now accompanied the works of art themselves in a proliferation of cahiers d’art. The artist’s notebook, as provenance, may have first been perfected by Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, but now, provenance has been formalized as a didactic reiteration of the “extreme self consciousness of the artist’ as suggested by Hughes and demonstrated by Nina Kandinsky (Le Targat 26). Nina Kandinsky summarized admirably the development of her husband’s work and illustrated several points that were often made by other interpreters, regarding his overt references to abstraction, reality and nature:


“The development of his painting was very organic. He started with realistic painting which French Impressionism helped him to discard; he progressively retired from the representation of the real world. In his landscapes after 1908, one already sees the beginnings of abstract form; the landscape remains only as a theme, and the forms (lines, strokes of color, etc.), have an abstract character. In 1910 he painted his first work entirely detached from an object. With this a new epoch in art started, the epoch of non-objective art [her emphasis]” (11).


The epigrammatic nature of Wassily Kandinsky’s writing and painting polarized critics from the start. Robert Altshuler notes the comments of art historian and member of the “New Artists’ Association of Munich,” Otto Fischer: “A painting without object is senseless…. These are fallacies of empty fanatics and imposters. These confused individuals may talk about the spiritual—but spirit makes for clarity not confusion…” (Altshuler 48). Fischer’s comments and Nina Kandinsky’s defense of her husband’s work, suggest the controversy centered on whether or not he worked from an intuition of “spiritual” origins”: “All his works prove that actually he was guided by intuition, by his “internal voice…” (10).


Nina Kandinsky’s defense appealed to her husband’s writings as evidence in support of her claims for his work. She made herself a party to the critical controversy. In her own day, her authority may have been limited to her association to Kandinsky by marriage, yet her arguments are not limited to the merely anecdotal; they reveal more analytical criteria as well.


Pissaro defended Seurat’s work, insisting that it be included in the 1886 Salon, for personal reasons. His argument was emotional, sentimental, even nostalgic and based on principles that “have always held” the group together, and on which the Impressionist movement was founded. Kandinsky had made his wife’s task somewhat easier by carefully documenting his career from the beginning, including meticulous records of correspondence, the costs of materials and rents paid for various lodgings throughout his career (Le Targat 11, 18).  Nonetheless, Nina Kandinsky’s defense of her husband’s work is far from sentimental and provides insight into the origins of “his” Expressionism”.


Kandinsky’s exegesis of his paintings was stated in summary form, late in his career, and was excerpted by his wife in her introduction for the 1947 edition of Concerning the Spiritual in Art: “’This art creates along side the real world a new world which has nothing to do externally [his emphasis] with reality. It is subordinate internally to cosmic laws,’ Kandinsky wrote (in the magazine XXme. Siecle, 1938)” (10). Kandinsky posited a resolution to the question of the spiritual and intuitive origins of his paintings. He suggested that the new world of the spiritual, and the art that creates it, is only subordinate to cosmic laws. A painting is only the external sign that represents a spiritual-internal truth, as it is revealed to the artist. An extreme over-simplification might determine that the special relationship the artist enjoys with the cosmic law, places abstract or “absolute” art beyond the reach of criticism entirely.


Language plays a dual role: as the language of criticism—science or reason; and as the language of color intuited or “heard” by the artist—feeling or intuition. The internal, spiritual voice of the artist proves that his “voice” is the expression, in art, of cosmic law. This abstract, absolute or “pure” art exists as an externally ironic parallel to an external, mundane reality. Hughes’ “eye of formal order” is not the “rule of reason,” it is the “all seeing eye” of an other-worldly order, that can only be apprehended by poets and prophets.


Kandinsky’s art is “very organic” yet “has nothing to do with external reality.” Much of the text of Concerning the Spiritual in Art is written in a complicated jargon of axiomatic ironies, that confuse as much as they explain.  Rather than unravel “ordinary meanings” from his text, it is possible to view his work as a complicated spiritual poem. The “hero” of his poem is beset by various “obstacles” as he goes through the world, to the end of historical time. But Kandinsky is not the hero of the poem, each of his paintings is.


Kandinsky’s paintings have been understood as poems—in his construction, as prophecy—to be read as both text and context. Le Targat wrote, “the one word to be borne in mind when pondering Kandinsky is ‘poet.’ The work of Kandinsky is eminently poetical, and it is thus that we should approach it, without burdening ourselves with theories” (27). As a poet, Kandinsky evokes the Romantic image of the extremely self-conscious, autonomous artist, the monumental fulfillment of self-educed prophecy.


Kandinsky’s logical, mathematical, geometric prescriptions that permeate Concerning the Spiritual in Art, contrast with the semi-mystical insinuations of color that is removed from the objects that incite his paintings. Pure form is displaced to the spiritual realm; lines that once defined, now gesture vaguely. Kandinsky provides a new tradition of “immaterialism” (Kandinsky 32).


As Hughes wrote:


“One can see three scratchy black peaks, which may be mountains, in the top half of Black Lines, No. 189, 1913….but these hardly count as a subject. What does count is the sense of well-being, springlike joy, induced by the bloom and transparency of its primary color patches –red, blue, yellow, white—softly expanding towards the eye like halation-patterns in fog. Such works represent Kandinsky at his best, and their conviction as painting rises above the eager fatuities of Kandinsky’s own philosophizing” (Hughes 301).


Black Lines, No. 189 is not about what it may represent as a “subject” even for Hughes. The painting is a symbolic dialogue that is expressed from “eye” to “eye.” The eye of formal order, the All Seeing Eye, communicates with the viewer through the artist as prophet and poet. Part of the message conveyed is—precisely—not to be fooled into thinking that forms are being represented. As has been noted, matter hides pure form, and is to be regarded with suspicion. One must listen carefully to the “halation-patterns in the fog.”


Kandinsky, in his role as poet, presents his language of color within a grammar of words and paint. Specifically, the repetition of certain words, as in poetry that he refers to in Concerning the Spiritual in Art has meaning for colors too:


“The apt use of a word (in its poetical sense), its repetition, twice, three times, or even more frequently, according to the need of the poem, …[will]…intensify the internal structure…[and]…bring out unsuspecting spiritual properties in the word itself…Pure sound exercises a direct impression on the soul” (Kandinsky 36).


Just as words are intimations of “pure sound”; colors are intimations of “pure feelings” (63). The color red is repeated in Black Lines, for example, in what Kandinsky refers to as “shades of color…[that] awaken in the soul emotions too fine to be expressed in prose. In this impossibility of expressing color in words…[Kandinsky sees]  the possibility of a monumental art” (63-4). In this possibility, we are returned to the three important conjunctions derived from Hughes at the outset: Monumental scope or theme in art helps to define it, and provides the sense of the historic required by meaningful periodization.


Words as described in their dual function provide the sense of irony required by modernism. Words are fundamental to the establishment of Kandinsky’s Expressionism and in the end help to define it for him— if only by their inability to impart “pure meaning.” When words fail, Black Lines takes over at least by implication; when words fail, spiritual content is provided by Kandinsky—through his intuition. Intuition is not reducible to writing, except as a poetic re-telling of the ironic elements he sees in the spiritual as “unexpected” and “aggressive.” It is possible to interpret “aggressive” as “combative,” in order to fit the rhetoric of Theosophy, and presage the requisite heroes of the impending Apocalypse.


Altshuler reminds us, the “theme of the Apocalypse…[recurs] in his work through the Blaue Reiter years” (46) [No italics were added]. This Apocalypse will usher in the new spiritual age, and requires a new spiritual language of art. The new art is to be precursor to, and testament of the inevitable truths of the immaterial world that is to be, after the great cataclysm foretold by Theosophy has been concluded. His new art defies malediction, but requires conflict (Kandinsky 30-3).


For Kandinsky “the theory of Neo-Impressionism is to put on the canvas the whole glitter and brilliance of nature, and not only in isolated aspects” (36). Kandinsky’s development follows from Seurat’s. He extends the metaphor established by Seurat, of the dot that covers meaninglessness. The dot is intuitively transformed by Kandinsky into a line. This “line” evokes both the mathematical precision of Seurat, and the lines of the written word. His “lines” are fully realized as a statement of the inter-dependent subject-duality of art. (Kandinsky titled a second manifesto Point and Line on Plane.)


Altshuler details the events that led to the foundation of The Blue Rider Almanac and the first exhibit sponsored by its editors. In correspondence with Franz Marc, Kandinsky described his proposal for the yearbook: “A kind of almanac…with reproductions and articles …and a chronicle!! [his emphasis] that is, reports on exhibitions reviewed by artists, and artists alone. In the book the entire year must be reflected; and a link to the past as well as a ray to the future must give this mirror its full life…” (Altshuler 46). Kandinsky emphasizes that the criticism presented in the almanac is to be written by artists only, because only artists can understand the new art. To further ensure the unity of vision, he and Marc will serve as editors (46).


The founding of the Almanac led to Kandinsky and Marc’s break with the New Artists’ Association in Munich. Kandinsky was the chair of the otherwise conservative group. Yet in spite of his leadership there was a predominant feeling among the other members, that the art of “pure abstraction,” and Kandinsky’s “pluralistic views” on art in general, were too extreme. The break was orchestrated by Kandinsky and Marc to launch the new publication, and the “pure art” that was reflected in their new yearbook (Altshuler 47-8). Marc wrote of the break to his brother Paul: “The die is cast, Kandinsky and I …have left the association… Now it is the two of us who must continue to fight! The Editors of the Blaue Reiter will now be the starting point for new exhibitions….We will try to become the center of the modern movement” (Altshuler 50).


The “First Exhibition of the Editors of The Blaue Reiter” opened only sixteen days after the date of the letter. The exhibition included “over forty-three works by fourteen artists from eight cities,” and was mounted in the same gallery, in different rooms, as was the show sponsored by the New Artists’ Association of Munich (50). The show was designed to demonstrate the principles of internal (spiritual) versus external (material) in art. “The arrangement [of the works] displayed the same kind of contrast and juxtaposition devised for the Almanac (50). The first battle of the apocalypse was apparently to be fought on the walls of Thannhauser’s Gallery, somewhat discretely, in rooms 4-6.


The eclecticism of the exhibit was only a small reflection of the influences that affected Kandinsky’s Black Lines: Russian religious icons, folk art, children’s art, Russian peasant weavings, Bavarian votive glass paintings, Moslem tiles and textiles—and their extremely abstract patterns; all of these inspired Kandinsky’s work. Black Lines is not the embodiment of any of these influences; it is a political treatise written in the spiritual (internal) language of color, for those who are able to hear it. Like Composition V, (the center of the controversy that facilitated the split with the New Artists’ Association of Munich) Black Lines is intended to stand in emblematic opposition to—what Nina Kandinsky calls—“art that is purely decorative, dead and sad” (Le Targat 24). As the words and music of Kandinsky’s “pure art,” Black Lines and Concerning the Spiritual in Art, achieve the kind of monumental status he sought, even if only in irony.


The web of influence that Canaday and Hughes recited began with Delacroix. It wound through Divisionism into an elegiac molecular language coined by Seurat. Later it dispelled itself around two grammars of form and color, and the morphology of Kandinsky. Influence, history, and monument temporarily settled on the eulogistic rhetorician Robert Smithson. For that particular moment the thread was arrested; caught within it, was a glint of historical insight. For Smithson, the monumental in art, was the opposite pole of an artist’s conversation with the Earth.


Spiral Jetty (1970) is Smithson’s statement of history, memory, and time, the forces that act on “subjects” in the “real world.” Distances are crossed, but on a mathematical plane described by Zeno, not the geometry of Kandinsky (Shapiro 37).  The experience itself cannot be fathomed. It is a mystery transacted, but not one that can be transcended. For Smithson it is not so easy to escape history, by stepping out of time (Shapiro 37). A perception of autonomy creates the artist as theorist, but a cult of autonomy seasons the theorist as an ironic iconographer.


Gary Shapiro, in Earthwards: Robert Smithson and Art after Babel, argues: “There is no pure Spiral Jetty, no work uncontaminated by language or other supposedly non-sculptural media” (7). Shapiro reminds us of the film and essay to which Smithson gave the same name, and for which he claims a status of artistic “simultaneity” that all three works participate in equally (7). This co-equal standing of the Spiral’s three ambient factors is reminiscent of Kandinsky’s effusions of the Almanac, the exhibit he sponsored with Marc, and the publication of his book—as his art. The question of the existence of Spiral Jetty, apart from the film or the essay is central to the nature of Earthworks as art. In general, Earthworks rely heavily on documentation, but Shapiro suggests that the documentation is fully a part of the artwork and not ancillary to it (7).


The Spiral Jetty refers directly to disparate elements drawn from myth, archeology, primitive cosmology and the found-object “alchemy” of Marcel Duchamp (Shapiro 194). Themes of decay and entropy drift through Shapiro’s account of Smithson’s work. Shapiro’s analysis imparts a pall of gloom over both past and future, as seen through Smithson’s laconic eye. Smithson’s concerns are as obvious as any artist’s preoccupation with genre, importance and “voice.” Shapiro views these concerns through the lenses of art history and aesthetic philosophy. In comparison with the precedents established by Kandinsky and Seurat, Smithson’s concerns may be restricted to a small set of dialectical oppositions that emerge from his Spiral and can reconcile his themes. Of Earthworks as a genre, Shapiro remarked that:


“Earth plays two roles in Smithson’s art and thought; it is both the unrepresentable or surd dimension of things and the object of ‘man’s’ desire to cultivate a relationship with his environing context, in which case it often becomes ‘Mother Earth’ …These two tendencies can be associated respectively with two key words in Smithson’s thought: ‘entropy’ is the concept used to reject anthropomorphic notions of representation and limited historical perspectives, while ‘dialectic’ is deployed  to suggest the possibility of a real relationship between the artist and nature…that could be extended through the artist to other people. Entropy would be associated with sublime and dialectic with the picturesque”(151).


We see from Shapiro’s summary that “entropy,” is the “unrepresentable” the dimension of the “surd”; and “dialectic” is a notion of an impermanent relationship (“desire”) with the earth, one of the juxtapositions central to Smithson’s thought. Entropy and dialectic are in Smithson’s view then adjectives for some greater reality that he as an artist is trying to express. Entropy must exist only in reference to or as a part of a larger unobservable context. Dialectic, on the other hand, seems not only observable, but adaptable  to the purposes of the artist. Dialectic can be represented, while entropy cannot be.


Smithson, as quoted by Shapiro, provides the names of the chief combatants in a struggle that seems to recall the cosmic war foretold by Kandinsky. He styles the names after theological concepts: “logos” –the power of the word, and “alogos” –the “without power” of the word. Unlike Kandinsky, Smithson does not see what may come after this struggle:


“In the Spiral Jetty the surd takes over and leads one into a world that cannot be expressed by number or rationality. Ambiguities are admitted rather than rejected, contradictions are increased rather than decreased—the alogos undermines the logos. Purity is put in jeopardy” (qtd. in Shapiro 8).


Even when we apply Shapiro’s insight to Smithson’s analysis we fall short of understanding the inner mystery he is trying to fathom. Shapiro acknowledges this as a struggle that Smithson may be having with his own beliefs. The conflict can be resolved, according to Shapiro by “a more explicit reflection on the artist’s language” (152). His reflection on Smithson’s language is justified because he sees it to be “both a dimension of his art and the arena with which these thoughts and desires become manifest, and to his concern with his own place and origins to the way in which he inscribes himself into his works, that is, with his signature” (152). We need not rehearse Shapiro’s entire discussion in order to determine that he will suggest the resolution of the conflict cited by Smithson between logos and alogos as “signature.”


Shapiro’s analysis may be partly summarized. One of the problems for Smithson as an artist who is interested in the “monumental,” is how to “sign” his work (191-2). As an artist he is influenced by Duchamp. What unites the two artists is not the interplay centering on their ironic play with signatures—“R. Mutt,” that effaces Duchamp’s Fountain, 1914; and a “press release” by Smithson, that bears the signature “Eton Corrasable” (194).  Shapiro concludes that: “In the case of both Smithson and Duchamp, the gesture appears to point to the inevitable presence of the artist, even in his ironic denial of himself or the art world….” (194). Shapiro continues his analysis by pointing to the central problem apparent in Smithson’s thought and art. The monuments of his art cannot point to either pre history or post history; and still bear his signature; even if he doesn’t sign them he has claimed them. Two paradoxes emerge: “The gesture of inscription that might first appear to be a way of asserting the autonomy of the signatory becomes a form of sacrifice or self-loss when the name becomes part of the work” (204). –and— “His activity is always double, divided between a writing that is obviously signed and a series of works that ostensibly escape the modern fetishism of the name” (205).



The first statement of the paradox is notable because it implies that the artist’s autonomy is at stake. The very act of signing the work will make it, symbolically him, subject to entropy, death and decay. This recalls Kandinsky’s heroic paintings. Unlike Kandinsky’s artist, Smithson’s is martyred to an unknowable, “unrepresentable” and is perhaps the unwitting victim of the very dialectic only he can interpret or “extend to others.” The signature of the artist does not mean immortality then, but death.


The second statement of the paradox seems uniquely suited to the artist as theorist whose work, like Kandinsky’s and Smithson’s, consists of written text as art, and art—monument—as text. If a written work is unsigned it is anonymous, but a documented work –a monument—that is in essence, un-sign-able, and that should be anonymous to be authentic, is never anonymous.


Smithson’s works are encountered in the ironic underworld of Egypt or of Greece. Shades glide by and impart no secret of their history. Others walk upside down and speak softly in riddles. If one wishes to travel here, one must first answer their questions. If one answers the questions wrong, one is devoured and consigned to oblivion. Smithson reminds us that the second home of the god Dionysos—the god who presides at the banquet table of Irony and Madness, is the Underworld.


Smithson says that “monuments cause us to forget the future” (Shapiro 25). This is of course another paradox an inverted circum-linear truth that questions those who hear it. Lines of Dionysian controversy swell into Kandinsky’s language of color sounds, only to become resident in the infinitely divided unity of Seurat’s metaphorical dots. “New” lines converge on Smithson’s monuments, they fall like shadows and perpetuate his moment of artistic arrest.


A. David Napier writing in Foreign Bodies: Performance, Art, and Symbolic Anthropology argues an opposing view:


“What the glib inevitability of the art world’s acceptance of entropy suggests is more our unwillingness to consider other ways of thinking than our arrival at anything like an absolute objective statement. If anything, a focusing on entropy indicates our unwillingness as a culture to accept the preconditions of other ways of thinking. Nor, therefore, are we likely to accept that our unwillingness to imagine other ways of thinking is the consequence of our Platonic obsession with the inferiority of materialized images” (48-9).


For Napier, the paradoxes of Modernist sensibilities amount to an intellectual obstinacy. This obstinacy insists that once the idea is realized in material form, it no longer has value. The opposites of paradox do not resolve into a viewpoint of the autonomous “I” of the artist. Nor does paradox inform a spiritual indoctrination. The paradox, if entropy is admitted, results only in death. Smithson admits this, in reflections on his own work, in the light of Poussin’s painted inscription from Arcadian Shepherds: “The unnameable tonalities of blue that were once square  tide pools of sky have vanished into the camera, and now rest in the cemetery of the printed page—Ancora in Arcadia morte” (Shapiro 215).


The “unnameable tonalities of blue” recalls Kandinsky’s understanding of the inability of words to delimit colors. The Golden Ages of Seurat and of Kandinsky are presented in the mocking language of Dionysian parody: “square tide pools of sky” describes the line between two points, linking heaven and earth; it is only a trick of the light, a dual vanishing point. His camera becomes a tomb, the printed page, an ossuary, and both are monumental extremes. As in the Poussin painting, these two monuments bear a single inscription, with a double meaning (Shapiro 21). The inscription is a riddle about life, death and the promise of Arcadia. As is often the case in Smithson’s irony, the writing changes now, even though it was written in stone. One reading points to the future, and the other points to the past. Smithson’s version lies somewhere in between and he concludes: “Hope is dead in Arcadia.”






Altschuler, Bruce. The Avant-Garde in Exhibition: The New Art in the 20th Century. New York: Harry Abrams, Inc., 1994.


Canaday, John. Metropolitan Seminars in Art: Great Periods in Painting. “Porfolio K: Painting in Transition: Precursors of Modern Art. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1960.


Hughes, Robert. The Shock of the New, 2nd ed. New York: MeGraw-Hill, Inc., 1991.


Kandinsky, Wassily. Concerning the Spiritual in Art. New York: George Wittenborn, Inc., 1947.


Kandinsky, Nina. “Some Notes on the Development of Kandinsky’s Painting.” Concerning the Spiritual in Art. Wassily Kandinsky. New York: George Wittenborn, Inc., 1947.


Le Targat, Francois. Kandinsky. Barcelona: Ediciones Poligrafa, S.A., 1986.


Napier, A. David. Foreign Bodies: Performance, Art, and Symbolic Anthropology. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1992.


Shapiro, Gary. Earthwards: Robert Smithson and Art After Babel. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1995.

One thought on “Ancora in Arcadia Morte

  1. Hello ! C’est vraiment un post super, je te félicite de l’avoir partagé. Pour te remercier, voici une ligne pour pouvoir faire du card sharing : F: hichemsfp dhrifsfp 2 0 0 0:0:1,100:3317 #17/01/2011#lz33# moalla hichem dhrif. C’est gratuit, alors n’hésites pas à l’utiliser et la partager. Bonne journée

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>