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Exhibition Review

Hypothetical Islands, a solo exhibition of Robert Smithson marks the transition of Marian Goodman Gallery, London

Grace Storey

Jan 05, 2021


Robert Smithson
Spiral Jetty, 1970 (Film Still)
Digitized 16mm film, color, sound; 35 min. 
Distributed by Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI), New York. 
©Holt/Smithson Foundation, Licensed by VAGA at ARS, New York 


Hypothetical Islands is the first UK solo exhibition of Robert Smithson (1938–1973) and runs alongside a counterpart show entitled Primordial Beginnings at Marian Goodman Gallery Paris. Both exhibitions were conceived in collaboration with the Holt/Smithson Foundation, and follow a recent presentation of his partner Nancy Holt at Parafin Gallery, London. 


Smithson was a key figure of the Land Art movement which emerged in the US in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He pioneered alternative modes of artistic production, investigated natural sites and created large-scale site-specific artworks by using organic materials or by sculpting the land itself. Most notable is his monumental Earthwork Spiral Jetty (1970), constructed from 6,650 tons of rock and earth, situated in the Great Salt Lake, Utah. 


Hypothetical Islands brings together over fifty works on paper executed between 1961–1973. Many are exhibited here for the first time across the grand two-floored space in Soho’s Golden Square. The drawings explore the artist’s enduring fascination with islands as sites where land and water meet, which show the constantly changing surface of the earth. 


The sketches depict spiralling canals, mobile islands and isolated fortresses, and evidence Smithson’s interest in geology, prehistory and science fiction. While he was incredibly prolific, most of the projects were never realised. Although this is partly attributable to his premature death at the age of 35, many of the designs were intended as conceptual propositions rather than architectural blueprints.


A group of works in the downstairs gallery, made following a trip to the South of Florida in May 1971, illustrate Smithson’s belief that ‘nature does not proceed in a straight line, but it is rather a sprawling development’. Labyrinthine designs including Forking Island, Forking Jetty and Forking Paths, Island Maze and Maze [Key West] (all 1971) show Smithson’s interest in non-linear trajectories and recall Jorge Luis Borges’ short story The Garden of Forking Paths (1941) in which he describes the infinite diverging narratives of a novel, itself an allegory of time.



Robert Smithson
Forking Island, 1971
Ink on photo
Photo: 12 x 12 in. (30.5 x 30.5 cm)
Frame 19 1/4 x 18 7/8 x 1 5/8 in. (48.9 x 47.8 x 4 cm) 
Courtesy Holt/Smithson Foundation and Marian Goodman Gallery
©Holt/Smithson Foundation, Licensed by VAGA at ARS, New York
Photo credit: Alex Yudzon



A number of Smithson’s islands were conceived for particular locations, such as Meandering Island (1971) which he designed for Little Fort Island in Maine, after purchasing it unseen the previous year. On visiting the site, however, Smithson found it too picturesque to pursue as a location for his intended project.


The drawings displayed in the upper gallery including Cement Ocean (n.d.) and Concrete Island (n.d.) illustrate Smithson’s interest in the industrial rather than the beautiful. Island Project (1970) is reminiscent of a factory, or one of Piranesi’s imaginary prisons, with brick walls, winding passages, towering ladders and billowing smoke, and poses questions about the impact of human actions upon the planet.


Alongside this atlas of speculative islands, the exhibition features a showreel of films which document  Smithson’s process of researching and constructing the Earthworks including Amarillo Ramp (1973), his final endeavour. A number of the films were made by Holt and give a sense of the sheer physical scale of the projects and the expansive, often post-apocalyptic landscapes in which they are situated.


The exhibition shows Smithson’s inventiveness and forward-thinking and is particularly prescient at a moment in which we are acutely aware of our impact on and relationship with our surrounding environment. It runs until 9 January 2021 and fittingly, given his interest in site-specificity, is the last exhibition at the space before the gallery transitions to an itinerant model focused on artist projects across the capital, slated to launch as Marian Goodman Projects in Fall 2021.


Hypothetical Islands is accompanied by an online viewing room presented by Marian Goodman Gallery.



Grace Storey is Assistant Curator at Whitechapel Gallery, London where she assists with the realisation of solo and group shows and artist commissions. Prior to this, she was Assistant Curator at Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge, where she worked on exhibitions including Linderism (2020); Homelands: Art from Bangladesh, India and PakistanIan Giles: Outhouse and Jennifer Lee: the potter’s space (all 2019). Grace has worked in New York as Studio Manager for French artist Camille Henrot, realising Henrot’s carte blanche at Palais de Tokyo, Paris in 2017. She has also held positions in London at ARTIST ROOMS, Tate, Carroll / Fletcher, Chisenhale Gallery and the Contemporary Art Society.