DMA Insight

C. Vincent Prothro / Robert Smithson

C. Vincent Prothro was a businessman and Robert Smithson was an artist. Vin Prothro actively divided his time between business pursuits and numerous civic organizations, including Southwestern Medical Foundation, the Dallas Museum of Art, and the Governor's Committee on Property Tax Relief. Robert Smithson collected rocks and redefined the meaning of art outside of the gallery. Despite their apparent differences, these men shared a love affair with Texas and dedicated their lives to exploring the social and literal contours of its landscape. It is entirely appropriate that Robert Smithson's momentous Mirrors and Shelly Sand (1969-1970) (2002.3.A-YY) be given in honor of Vin Prothro, a respected civic leader and trustee of the Dallas Museum of Art for almost twenty-five years.

It is surprising in light of his regional interest that Robert Smithson was not a native Texan. Smithson was born and raised in a suburb of Passaic, New Jersey, a landscape shaped by strip mall parking lots, tract housing, and sewer canals that would inform his art throughout his short career. Smithson adopted a literal approach to his fascination with landscape. The earth itself was his medium. He is best known as the creator of Spiral __Jetty (1970), situated in the Great Salt Lake in Utah. Built of black basalt and material from the site, the jetty spirals out from the shore, stretching nearly 1,500 feet long and fifteen feet wide. Smithson's obsession with land has paradoxically been labeled ecologically reckless and a model of environmental concern. The artist's work supports both of these conclusions. For Vancouver Project: Island of Broken Class, Smithson planned to cover a small island in Miami with broken glass before environmental protests caused him to reconsider, while his planned land reclamation projects sought to beautify industrially ravaged landscapes. Yet Smithson was not interested in conservation; he sought to understand—not alter—the complex relationship of humans with their environment. Drawing on a rich American history, Smithson rewrote romantic themes of man versus nature in more complex terms. His work illustrates a clear triumph of neither force but rather a dialectical balance of power.

Smithson's obsession with geology naturally led him to the open Southwest of Prothro's homeland. Intrigued by the possibility of aerial drawings etched directly onto the landscape, Smithson became involved in architectural plans for development of the new Dallas-Fort Worth international airport in the mid-1960s. As an aviator and road-trip enthusiast, Prothro shared this uniquely aerial vision and appreciation of the expansive Southwest. Through his work in the high-tech industry and love of the outdoors, Prothro embodied these same conflicting forces that Smithson explored.

Mirrors and Shelly Sand is the largest and last "non-site" piece by Smithson done for a museum space. Physically, the piece retains all of the grandeur of an earthwork. The immense mound of sand, nearly thirty feet long and five feet wide with fifty mirrors arranged along its spine, literally re-landscapes the gallery. As a counterpart to Smithson's work with land, Mirrors and Shelly Sand embodies all of the artist's ideas about landscape yet further complicates them by omitting the site. Acting as a kind of literal map, these non-sites (a linguistic play on "non-sight") were usually made of materials indigenous to the area in which they were displayed. In this case, the shells and sand are from the beach in Norway where the installation was originally seen, but their presence in the gallery forces the viewer to reconcile traditional notions of place. There is an ethereal quality about Smithson's use of mirrors and maps, always gesturing to another elusive place. The mirrors also illustrate the same themes of entropy as the earthworks. Smithson addresses the inescapable force of erosion in the paradoxical harmony of sand and mirror as different forms of the same element. A mirror is the product of industrially compacted sand, yet through forces of nature and decay the mirror will ultimately return to sand. Man is both master of and subject to natural processes.

In 1973 Robert Smithson died in an airplane accident just outside of Amarillo, Texas. while surveying the site for Amarillo Ramp (a work posthumously completed by Smithson's wife, Nancy Holt, friend Richard Serra, and Tony Shafrazl). To Caren Prothro, Shelly Sand resembles one of the electronic chips her late husband helped develop. Sunlight reflected by fifty mirrors illuminates the landscape with a timeless permanence preserved by the Museum, perfectly memorializing the impact of these two lives.

Excerpt from

Lauren Schell, "C. Vincent Prothro, Robert Smithson," in Dallas Museum of Art, 100 Years , ed. Dorothy M. Kosinski (Dallas, TX: Dallas Museum of Art, 2003), Pamphlet number 89.

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