Robert Smithson: Untitled (Man in colonial American dress and Indian), 1963, mixed mediums with collage on paper, 30 by 22 inches; at James Cohan. © Holt-Smithson Foundation. Licensed by VAGA, New York.

James Cohan Gallery opened its new space on the Lower East Side with an exhibition of seldom-seen drawings and sculptural assemblages made by Robert Smithson between 1963 and 1964, several years before he produced his renowned earthworks and trailblazing essays. It was fascinating to see what Smithson was up to at this time, when he was becoming a mainstay of the downtown New York art scene. The drawings, made chiefly with pencil, colored pencil, crayon, marker and collage elements and constituting the bulk of the presentation, feature lots of people, mostly nude, although often accessorized with leather fetish gear, sunglasses and hats. Motorcycles abound, as do cartoonish zigzags and amoebalike shapes. 

Smithson’s figures, which look like elegant doodles, don’t come across as individuals but as archetypes. In Untitled (Pink linoleum center), a woman in nothing but a cowgirl hat rides a horse while a man wearing boots and a purple police cap gracefully urinates into a cup held by a nude male angel. Many of Smithson’s figures sport angel wings, resulting in a conflation of spirit and body, the sacred and the profane. The various figures in each work are arrayed around central abstract shapes, a collage piece (a noirish film still, a section of pink linoleum) or, most often, a rectangular box containing a patterned design, the compositions evoking illuminated medieval manuscripts. Instead of saints and martyrs, though, you see pinup women and leather men. Instead of divine lightning bolts, you see lightning bolts straight out of Marvel. 

Although modestly scaled (the largest measure 30 by 22 inches), the drawings feel expansive and fantasy-laden. Images of fighting dinosaurs, a lactating siren, and a cowboy angel who sits above an oozing orange blob are not what you’d expect from the maker of Spiral Jetty (1970) and Asphalt Rundown (1969)—although the orange blob does look a bit like Glue Pour (1969). In Untitled (Man in Colonial American Dress and Indian), an image of a colonial man is surrounded by a woman in a Wonder Woman-ish bra, a bare-chested Indian, and a man wearing only an oxygen tank and mask who looks (despite his nudity) like he could be from an apocalyptic sci-fi flick. Together, such figures comprise a wild tour through American history and iconography. 

Born in New Jersey, Smithson had moved to New York in 1957, and was clearly reveling in the raucous city while transmuting eclectic pop-culture signifiers into art. (The show was titled “Pop.”) You very much sense that the artist, who grew up Catholic, was exploring his sexuality during this time of rising sexual freedom and experimentation. The vertical wall-hung assemblage The Machine Taking a Wife—featuring a photo of an industrial machine at one end, a photo of a nude female torso at the other, and an attached, phallic rectifier tube in the middle connecting them—is an absurdist combination of the ultramasculine and the ultrafeminine. With such pieces, the exhibition offered a valuable look at the searching, eccentric work the young Smithson created while on his way to becoming one of the era’s most visionary artists.