Robert Smithson was an American artist who had a rather unorthodox approach to art. Rather than using paint or clay, he used nature itself as his canvas. You may have seen pictures of his most famous work, Spiral Jetty. It’s an enormous spiral-shaped jetty that reaches out into the Great Salt Lake in Utah. That might seem a little odd, but that type of installation was right up Robertson’s alley. To help give you a sense of scale, he’s also known for carving out an enormous spiral hill and pouring a river of asphalt down the side of a mountain.
Smithson’s art pieces are great and all, but he’s necessarily limited by terrain. Building an art piece out in the middle of a lake is easy enough, but what can you do in a place like New York? The only greenery anywhere in the city is in Central Park and other public areas, so there just isn’t enough canvas for Smithson to work with. He could have tried to pull a few strings and get a section of Central Park roped off for him, but I’m not sure if many New Yorkers would like to hand over a significant chunk of greenery over to an artist.
Rather than working with what little land was already there, Smithson had the idea to add a tiny chunk of forest to this concrete jungle. Years ago, he created this sketch of a 30x90ft barge bearing trees, shrubs, and other plant life native to the New York region. His idea was to put to have a tugboat drag the trees across the Hudson to give New Yorkers a taste of nature. Smithson may not have been able to bring New Yorkers to nature, but he could certainly bring nature back to New Yorkers.
Unfortunately, Smithson was never able to see his idea come to fruition. Smithson died in 1973, leaving this drawing in his notebook where it could have simply vanished into obscurity. Fortunately, the Whitney Museum and the Smithsonian both got a hold of the drawing and decided to build this floating island in honor of this famous artist.
The result of their collaboration was the Floating Island, an enormous New York art installation that puttered through the riverways surrounding New York City from September 17-25, 2005. The exhibit has been gone for a few years and, to be honest, I kind of miss it. The art piece is much more beautiful than I would have expected it to be. The splash of green is a welcome change in a city that’s dominated by tones of gray. I can certainly understand why they wouldn’t want to run the exhibit continuously — after all, that would kind of be a waste of gas.
I wish that they had just anchored the barge out in the middle of the Hudson and left it there. With the exception of performing maintenance and landscaping now and then, this barge would be a fairly cheap and offer New Yorkers a visual oasis for years to come.