Smithson has become one of the totemic artists of the time. His heritage is claimed by diverse tendencies within contemporary artmaking (only partly covered by Cornelia Butler’s catalogue essay on his legacy) and its interpretation is mooted by the most ambitious young art historians. But like many such artists before him—Cézanne, for example—Smithson’s oeuvre and its development present inconsistencies. These render many of those claims and interpretations partial at best—above all when it is a question of reconciling the mature works for which he is best known with the earlier ones that led up to them.

The expressionist sci-fi of Smithson’s early work crudely declares interests—for instance, in the reactionary anti-romantic and anti-humanist aesthetic of TE Hulme, Wyndham Lewis and TS Eliot—that would remain important for him, but how? By arranging this retrospective—previously seen at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles and the Dallas Museum of Art—against the grain of chronology, curators Butler and Eugenie Tsai have finessed the question more than answered it. In a challenging catalogue essay, Thomas Crow forcefully suggests that, far from ever having abandoned his early fascination with religion, Smithson’s continuing anti-visual bias was based on his ‘refusal of secularised culture.’ Crow may be simplifying matters. Smithson himself dismissed Marcel Duchamp’s ‘priestly’ stance as ‘a kind of religion-in-drag’ but then Hulme himself mocked romanticism as ‘spilt religion’. The problem in either case, perhaps, is less with religion than with its habit of getting into the wrong place of the wrong clothes. But as an admirer of Frederick Law Olmsted, Smithson saw himself as promoting a democratic spirit in opposition to Eliot’s ‘aristocratic stance’.

For Smithson, the scale of geological time and the inevitability of entropy, which underwrote in his work something like a revised version of the romantics’ cult of ruins, overturned the classicising stance of the reactionary modernists he’d admired. But it is as hard to reconcile Smithson’s essentially pessimistic obsession with entropy with any sort of progressivism à la Olmsted, as it is with Eliot’s love of stable hierarchy. The real problem may be that while Smithson is an artist we know through words more than through artifacts, his statements always sound more definitive than they really were, representing passionately-held contradictions.

As a person, Smithson seems to have been opaque, contrary, pushy, caustic and grandiose—his art is much the same. Although more and more people seem to be making pilgrimages to ‘The Spiral Jetty’, at present his most salien work might well not be any of his earthworks—so distant and formal in their own dishevelled way—but rather the 1969 slide lecture ‘Hotel Palenque’, which he may not even have considered a work. This piece takes the acidic voice and eye of such phantasmagoric fiction as ‘The Monuments of Passaic’ into the real time of listening.

The collaborative 1971 film ‘Swamp’ was shot by Smithson’s wife Nancy Holt as the pair pushed their way through a morass of tall weeds, but more vivid than the imagery is Smithson’s controlling voice as it determines the camera’s movements: ‘Go slow … watch it … make an about-face … go back the way you came … watch the stickers … shoot into the density of it …’. One remembers that this is the person who wrote, ‘A great artist can make art simply by casting a glance.’ He should have said, ‘by making others cast his glance.’ Smithson’s power is in imposing on us others his own ‘art of looking,’ as he put it. This comprehensive exhibition shows that the somewhat masochistic condition of receivership Smithson’s work imposes is, to a great extent, its own reward.

Barry Schwabsky is London editor of MAP