Monday, June 16, 2008


Here's an extract from the interview Robert Smithson gave to Paul Cummings in 1972:

"CUMMINGS: Would you like to say something about your visit with William Carlos Williams?
SMITHSON: Yes. Well, this took place I think in either 1958 or 1959. William Carlos Williams was going to do an Introduction for Irving Layton's book of poems. So I went out to Rutherford with Irving Layton... He talked a lot about Allen Ginsberg coming out at all hours of the night, and having to spring poets out there. Allen Ginsberg comes from Paterson, New Jersey. I guess the Paterson area is where I had a lot of my contact with quarries and I think that is somewhat embedded in my psyche. As a kid I used to go and prowl around all those quarries. And of course, they figured strongly in Paterson. When I read the poems I was interested in that, especially this one part of Paterson where it showed all the strata levels under Paterson. Sort of proto-conceptual art, you might say. Later on I wrote an article for Artforum on Passaic which is a city on the Passaic River south of Paterson. In a way I think it reflects that whole area. Williams did have a sense of that kind of New Jersey landscape."

The strata levels section Smithson is referring to comes towards the end of Paterson Book Three (1949). Williams included an extract from William Nelson's History of the City of Paterson which lists the materials found at various depths when an artesian well was bored at the Passaic Rolling Mill, Paterson. At an initial depth of 65 feet there was "Red sandstone, fine". Then we encounter mostly shale and sandstone at other depths until we reach 2,100 feet down: "Shaly sandstone". The most interesting part of this vertical, one-dimensional landscape seems to occur around 1,170-1,370 feet, with some selenite, pyrites and quicksand. Williams also quoted the conclusion that beyond 2,100 feet there was no point in further digging as water would be unfit for use. This text is juxtaposed in Paterson with extracts from a letter by Ezra Pound exhorting Williams to do more reading, e.g. Golding's Ovid and "all the Gk tragedies" (Pound's canon of good writing as literary historical strata to dig down into...)

Paterson covers many subjects - art, poetry, love, religion, economics... However it starts in the New Jersey landscape: an image of the city lying like a man with his head near the Paterson Falls. Williams quotes his dictum, no ideas but in things, and then describes the view: 'From above, higher than the spires, higher / even than the office towers, from the oozy fields / abandoned to grey beds of dead grass, / black sumac, withered weed-stalks, / mud and thickets cluttered with dead leaves - / the river comes pouring in above the city / and crashes from the edge of the gorge / in a recoil of spray and rainbow mists...' You can hear Williams read these lines here.

In another 1972 interview, with Gianni Pettena, Robert Smithson said "I like landscapes that suggest prehistory. As an artist it is sort of interesting to take on the persona of a geologic agent where man actually becomes part of that process rather than overcoming it - rather than overcoming the natural processes of challenging the situation. you just go along with it, and there can be a kind of building that takes place this way. I did an article once, on Passaic, New jersey, a kind of rotting industrial town where they were building a highway along the river. It was somewhat devastated. In a way, this article I wrote on Passaic could be conceived as a kind of appendix to William Carlos Williams' poem Paterson. It comes out of that kind of New Jersey ambience where everything is chewed up. New Jersey like a kind of destroyed California, a derelict California."

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