Asphalt Rundown has acquired unsettling implications that its creator, the artist Robert Smithson, never intended. In 1969, the year this iconic earth work/art action was created, observers, colleagues, and critics generally concurred with the artist's own explanation - the work made entropy visible. Entropy envisions a final state in which all matter has become inert, all structure has succumbed to disorder, and all processes have ceased. Smithson manifested the ubiquitous, but under acknowledged principle of entropy in terms of the second law of thermodynamics. The law asserts that energy is easier lost than obtained. For this reason, the universe is slowly devolving and will eventually burn out, succumbing to an inert, all encompassing sameness. In this manner, Asphalt Rundown fulfilled one of art's age-old roles as the visualizer of invisible forces.
Asphalt Rundown was Smithson's first "flow" work of art. The action took place in a gravel and dirt quarry in Rome that had been abandoned after it was depleted. A large dumptruck loaded with hot asphalt backed up precariously to the edge of the steep incline of the denuded hillside where the former quarry was located. Its bed was raised and hundreds of tons of hot asphalt were dumped down the embankment, forming a massive black swath as it ‘ran down’, yielding to gravity. The sea of the dark ooze slowly made its way down hill, filling in crevices in the eroded, gutted and gullied cliff.
Within the art community, this gesture seemed a heroic enlargement of the spontaneous drips that distinguished Jackson Pollock's renowned abstract expressionist paintings. The work monumentalized"action paintings". Asphalt Rundown was honored as the ultimate expressionist mark. Glue Pour and Concrete Pour followed in 1969. In each of Smithson's pours, the earth served as the artist's canvas. The glue, asphalt, and concrete were corollaries to paint. The massive pour replaced the paint stroke.
Advance to today, and this glorious art historical explanation diminishes as the horrific environmental implications swell. Consider this work from an ecological perspective. Smithson selected a site that was denuded, gouged, destroyed, and then left to erode. Instead of remediating a hillside that had been rendered barren by the human drive to extract, he sealed the site’s entropic fate by spreading asphalt. There was no attempt at restoring the habitat, or creating fertility, or reintroducing living species. Entropy directed Smithson’s attention toward decay, deterioration, and erosion. This site did not become a wasteland because it died. It was killed by the artist with guilt-free forethought.
Perhaps, the metaphor to painting should be resurrected and applied to current environmental concerns. Asphalt is the refined residue from the distillation of selected crude oils. Its composition and its advantages are shared with popular paint mediums. Both are intended to suppress life and resist the effects of weather. In essence, they aspire to an ‘exempt’ status within living bio systems. Asphalt transforms streets, driveways, and playgrounds into biological wastelands, just as archival art supplies resist fungus, insects, and mold.
Thus, this work’s harmful intrusion into the landscape is not only a symbol of a cultural disregard for the environment’s health and the well-being of others. It reflects the disregard that characterizes many contemporary art practices. Smithson seems to include damaging ecosystems within his definition of artistic license. Artists are still contributing to entropy, perpetuating the values initiated by the mining industry. Smithson believed he was merely augmenting the inevitable. If we follow his example in our material interactions, his entropic predictions are certain to come true.