Robert Smithson’s Partially Buried Woodshed, 1970 Kent State University, Ohio

Robert Smithson’s Partially Buried Woodshed at Kent State University embodies a profound dialogue between art, nature, and history, marking a significant moment in both artistic practice (the nascent years of earthworks in the late 1960s and early ’70s) and American socio-political consciousness. Created in January 1970 during a one-week residency at the University, the earthwork was a realization of Smithson’s long-held desire to bury a building and let it decay, epitomizing his fascination with entropy and the natural process of decomposition.

The Partially Buried Woodshed was conceived during the School of Art Creative Arts Festival when an undergrad student in the sculpture department voiced his dismay that the student-funded arts festival funding visiting actors, poets, musicians John Ashbery, Morton Subotnick, and John Vaccaro, but no visual artist. His professor, Brinsley Tyrrell, encouraged him to bring that cause to those in charge. The student selected Smithson, who hadn’t yet fully taken off (he was writing frequently and represented by Dwan Gallery in New York). They decided early that this would be more than a visit and that the students would assist him with a site-specific project. 

Initially, they planned to create a mud pour to illustrate the law of gravity. However, frigid weather conditions thwarted this plan, leading Smithson to propose an alternative. After a recent glue pour in Vancouver, Smithson made it to the Britannia Copper Mines. He obtained reproductions of photographs from the mine’s archives for his files, including parts of the mines rendered inoperable by flooding and cave-ins. One photograph, in particular, served as an inspiration in Ohio, a partial cave-in that cracked a supporting beam with such force that the wood splintered. 

After scraping the first plan, by 9 am, they had permission to go forward with their backup. On the eastern corner of the campus, Kent State had purchased a farm to clear-cut the area for a new building. In the meantime, there was no plan for the abandoned woodshed, so it was up for grabs to the students. As soon as the University gave the okay, seemingly instantly, they arranged to operate a backhoe, which would drop twenty-two truckloads of dirt to partly bury the shed. When the central beam cracked under the weight of that massive pile of earth, it symbolized the beginning of its collapse; thus, the process was complete. This new project resonated with Smithson’s exploration of entropy, highlighting structures’ inevitable decline and transformation over time.

In a handwritten document (Dwan Gallery later sent a formal letter), Smithson donated the artwork to Kent State University, specifying that nothing should be altered or removed and that the weathering process should be considered part of the work. He valued the Partially Buried Woodshed at $10,000 and requested that it be maintained according to these specifications.

The Partially Buried Woodshed quickly became more than just an earthwork. Almost four months after Smithson’s visit, on May 4, 1970, Kent State students staged a mass protest in the commons, vehemently opposing the recently announced U.S. invasion of Cambodia. After several incidents of vandalism in downtown Kent, the mayor of Kent declared a state of emergency and requested assistance from the Ohio National Guard.

On May 4, at a large protest on campus, the guardsmen fired into the unarmed crowd. The shooting lasted approximately 13 seconds, during which time 67 rounds were fired. Four students were killed, and nine were wounded, some of whom suffered permanent injuries.

This tragic event was commemorated shortly after on the woodshed when someone anonymously painted “MAY 4 KENT 70” on a horizontal beam. This defacement linked the collapsing structure to a significant, turbulent moment in American history, transforming the artwork into a symbol of political unrest and social upheaval.

Smithson’s intention for the Partially Buried Woodshed to acquire its own history was thus fulfilled in unexpected ways. The structure continued to deteriorate, both naturally and through human intervention. In 1975, the woodshed was partially burned by an arsonist, furthering its collapse. Despite efforts by Smithson’s widow, Nancy Holt, to preserve the remains, the University deemed the work an eyesore and a safety hazard. By 1984, the remaining wooden elements of the structure were quietly removed, leaving only the concrete foundation and a large mound of dirt. Nowadays, behind Kent State’s Liquid Crystal Institute is a gentle hill of overgrown grass dotted with young and mature trees. 

The legacy of the Partially Buried Woodshed extends beyond its physical remnants. Smithson’s work challenges the conventional notion that art is a static object frozen in time at the moment of completion. Instead, he proposed a dynamic understanding of art as something that evolves and deteriorates, influenced by natural forces and human actions. This concept of entropy—a key theme in Smithson’s work—invites viewers to reflect on the impermanence and transformation inherent in all things.

The Partially Buried Woodshed also raises questions about the role of art in the public sphere and the responsibilities of its audience. The controversy surrounding the work, both during its existence and after its destruction, highlights the tension between artistic innovation and public perception. While some hailed the woodshed as an essential work of art (the second of the only six or seven large earthworks he finished before his private airplane crashed in 1973 when he was 35), others saw it as nothing more than a pile of debris. This divide underscores the subjective nature of art and the diverse interpretations it can provoke.

Moreover, the Partially Buried Woodshed embodies Smithson’s interest in the intersections of art, nature, and architecture. By burying a building, Smithson disrupted traditional boundaries and created a hybrid form that integrates elements of sculpture, land art, and environmental processes. This innovative approach has influenced subsequent generations of artists, contributing to the evolution of contemporary art practices.

Today, the Partially Buried Woodshed site is marked by a small blue plaque installed by Kent State University, commemorating its historical and artistic significance. Although the physical structure has largely vanished, its conceptual impact endures. The work continues to intrigue, inspire, and provoke, reminding us of the complex interplay between creation, destruction, and memory. It still brings out tourists like me to stare at the grass and look for the footers that once held up the shed. I could almost see it. This seminal work invites viewers to reflect on the impermanence inherent in all things, the natural process of decay, and the evolving nature of art. It serves as a testament to the transformative power of art, capable of transcending its physical form to engage with broader cultural, historical, and philosophical themes. Despite its physical demise, the work’s conceptual impact continues to intrigue, inspire, and provoke, reminding us of the complex interplay between creation, destruction, and memory.