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A Cinematic Atopia: Robert Smithson and the Filmic Afterlife of the Soviet Avant-Garde


This dissertation reconsiders the legacy of American artist Robert Smithson (1938–73) through his reception of Sergei Eisenstein (1898–1948), famed Revolutionary Soviet filmmaker. From his early canonization, Smithson has been virtually synonymous with the emergence of aesthetic postmodernism. Radically redefining sculpture as plural and dispersed (as in his nonsites) or else site-specific, subject to physical deterioration, and mediated by film and photography (as with his signal earthwork Spiral Jetty), Smithson’s practice has been consistently positioned as a rigorously logical, programmatic critique of Greenbergian modernism and the idealism subtending its values of autonomy and opticality. To that end, Smithson’s work is understood, too, as “postminimal,” extending the anti-aesthetic provocations that Minimalist objecthood inherited from the Soviet avant-garde precedent. In focusing narrowly on Constructivist sculpture of the early 1920s, however, accounts of this generation’s revival of that avant-garde have ignored the Revolutionary cinema to which it gave rise. Such an oversight is especially significant given that Eisenstein’s films were undergoing widespread reassessment beginning in the 1960s, during which time they were rapidly assimilated by Smithson, an artist exemplary of his generation for being not only a sculptor but also a cinephile and filmmaker.

Taking seriously Smithson’s cinephilia and filmmaking practice, as well as his manifest interest in Soviet cinema specifically, this dissertation reconsiders a canonical postmodernist through the radical model of Eisenstein’s films. In particular, it shows Eisenstein’s theory of dialectical montage to be teeming amidst Smithson’s work and animating the paradoxes, binaries, and discontinuities that proliferate through his entire practice, even, or perhaps especially, when that practice does not take recourse to the physical material of film. In doing so, an unfamiliar Smithson emerges—not the quintessential logician of postmodernity but, following the libidinal subtext of Eisensteinian montage, an artist concerned with hellish monstrosity, perversion, sexuality, and violence consistent with his reading of Georges Bataille. The destination may no longer be Revolutionary utopia but what Smithson described in 1971 as a “cinematic atopia”—an entropic nether-place of razed boundaries, ruined hierarchies, and obliterated categories that will come to define the artist’s devolutionary “montage” of sculpture and film.

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