Marin R. Sullivan

"Sublimating Sculpture: Robert Smithson, Photography, and the Transformation of Matter at the End of the 1960s"

Saturday, December 16 // 12.00h // Kunsthalle Mainz


In the late 1960s, vanguard artists on both sides of the Atlantic, often classified under the label of Conceptual Art, increasingly turned to unstable, unconventional materials, new patronage models, and alternative modes of display, and in the process, expanded the boundaries of sculpture. While diverse in form and intent, the resulting projects all shared an uneasy if necessary dependence on photography in order to document, contain, and, in many cases, preserve the work. The reliance on the photographic image also bolstered the narrative of dematerialization that emerged in the period, and in subsequent decades, has been used within art historical scholarship to argue that the photograph alone could constitute the work. Focusing primarily on Robert Smithson and in particular his first large-scale outdoor sculpture Asphalt Rundown, created just outside of Rome in October 1969, this paper examines the complex intermedial relationship between concept, matter, and image at the heart of so much materially-driven, process-oriented artwork created at the end of the long Sixties. Smithson, like many of his contemporaries, did not approach photography as something that would or could replace the material aspects of his work, but as another material among many, albeit one that had the power to radically reduce or expand the experience of the other components. Thinking of this dimensional transformation through the framework of sublimation—as an elevation or purification of something multiple, messy, unruly, and often ephemeral into a compressed, consumable, refined image—offers an alternative to the now well-traversed narrative of dematerialization.

Marin R. Sullivan (PhD, University of Michigan) is Assistant Professor Art History at Keene State College. Prior to her appointment, she served as Henry Moore Foundation Post-Doctoral Research Fellow at the University of Leeds. Her primary research interests include the histories of modern and contemporary American and European sculpture, and its interdisciplinary, intermedial dialogues with photography, design, and the built environment. Sullivan is the author of Sculptural Materiality in the Age of Conceptualism (Routledge, 2017), numerous articles in publications including Art History, History of Photography, and Sculpture Journal, and co-editor of Postwar Italian Art Today: Untying ‘the Knot’ (Bloomsbury, 2018). She is currently at work on a new project, Alloys: American Sculpture and Architecture at Midcentury, which has been supported by fellowships from the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. Sullivan is also co-curating a major retrospective exhibition on Harry Bertoia, scheduled to open at the Nasher Sculpture Center in 2019.