To take your lovers on the road with you, for all that you leave them behind you,
To know the universe itself as a road—as many roads—as roads for traveling souls.
Walt Whitman, “Song of the Open Road,” Leaves of Grass
Crisscrossing the great Western landscape, lacing the fields and forests, deserts and mountains, plains and coastlines, wefting and warping with subtlety around the hills and rivers, teasing every American with the promise of wanderlust and the expanse of possibility, long and lonesome dirt roads offer an albeit illusory dream of freedom. Flowing over the natural undulation of the land, furrowed by the wheels of miners and lumberjacks, farmers and hikers, fisherman and firemen, outdoorsman and outsiders, dirt roads rank above rugged tracks cut by other animals, but just barely.
Dirt roads ribbon easily through groves and past cliffs without a stick of dynamite, made simply by the wear of travellers. Unlike those asphalted and cemented, these lack permanence (and government intervention). They wander and move in a slow waltz, drifting with use and washed out in a good rain. Ephemerally made by humans and impossible to pin down, they resist easy mapping by all but locals. Country people suspect outsiders, especially officious ones. A fierce and isolated libertarianism eyes any power but their own as potential tyranny.
Without signs, difficult to trace, dirt roads speak the language of self-reliance: independent, unrestrained, beholden to none, far from the cruelty of crowds and open to the possibilities of an endless horizon, as well the chance for communion (but not too much of it) with occasional others in these wide open spaces. Both motion and solitude, every crack and rock and bump is wholly felt, the illusion of separation between object, verb and subject drifts away like a lonesome cirrus cloud off over the mountains. In a land regularly tamed and conquered, dirt roads testify that there are still places where humans are rare and the wilderness unsparing. Life on dirt roads is usually hard, but certainly satisfies those hankering to be free.
In 1968, Robert Kinmont photographed his favorite dirt roads. Simple and deadpan, My Favorite Dirt Roads shows each one cut through the wilderness, its name or rough location penned in the corner (though their simple poetry doesn’t lead to an easy location). Coupled with power lines, shrubs growing in the center of the fine dust tracked by tires, strewn with stones and sandy sided, towards ever distant hills and mountains, to remote ranches and remoter battlegrounds, backed by infinite skies roamed by clouds the size of cities, the roads are beautiful. The simplicity of their presentation only emphasizes the weird romance such open roads to open spaces inspire as wanderlust. Square format and sepiaed, they look almost Instagrammed, or rather they’re the original romance that this other technology can only copy.
With all the indexicality of the Bechers, who were of course seriously and without a hint of humor documenting industrial buildings, Kinmont’s photographs have an ethereal and funny poetry that make them dreamy, easy to love for anyone who feels the lure of an open road and Western promises. Close in spirit to fellow Californians Ed Ruscha and John Baldessari, except Kinmont went off to find his story in the desert.
Maybe I love the work of Robert Kinmont because I love the California desert, and his work is inseparable from it. The sunset shadows cast by the slow dance of Joshua Trees, the broken down shack untroubled by habitation, the vast void, as if you can feel the millions of tons of earth blown away by a millions of years of hot, scraping winds, an absence that makes the blue sky crushing in its weight and your solitary wanderings near Biblical. The scattered human denizens of the desert scrape out hardscrabble lives from the skinny bounty of the arid clime. The harshness and solitude lures outlaws and searchers, cranks and free spirits, drifters, dreamers, and criminals. In the desert, solitude tastes like freedom.
Amos Oz wrote, with a wisdom that seems like it fell out of folklore, “When I come back home and switch on the radio and I hear politicians using words such as never, forever, or for eternity I know the stones out in the desert are laughing at them”. Kinmont gives one work a title that says almost everything you need to know about it: Two Educated 120 Million Year Old Boulders Trying To Encourage 47 Young Willows To Be Patient, 2012. The boulders licked with a bit of paint, the title’s words carefully carved into the side of the wooden box that holds the birch, envision this piece in a thousand years, two thousand. The conversation continues, the stones are still laughing, an absurdist play that could go on for millennia. Though he lives in the friendlier climate closer to the coast in California now, the stark truths of the desert (tempered by his own particular sense of humor) backbone his oeuvre.
In 1972, Kinmont planted some copper pots near Deep Springs College where he was teaching at the time, filled with water and piped into the desert ground, a lure for wildflowers. After the work was completed, he stored the relics of the event in a wooden box with this handwritten note:
“I put these copper pots there in the desert where no one goes and decided to fill them with water each morning for one month to see what would grow, knowing that some seeds stay dormant in the desert for several years waiting for enough water. Everyday I would walk out to water them and sometimes have a hard time finding them. After about one week I noticed I was beginning to track up the desert and it began to bother me. I decided to take the path so I would not interfere. I still would get lost from time to time until the path got evident enough and I got continually deliberate enough. Then I realized that my success there would be in the clarity with which I did that and not in what I planned.”
A self-aware process, an indexical deskilling, a sensitive connection to landscape, a Zen humor Kinmont feels at the juncture of so many other things going on around him: Conceptualism, Land Art, the introduction of Eastern thought to the US, but he concocts his dreamy jokes out West, as only he can. Emerging in the 1960s, Kinmont appeared in one of his 8 Natural Handstands, 1968, in Lucy Lippard’s pivotal book on conceptualism, Six Years… The series pictures the artist with simple black-and-white photographs doing handstands in eight different places of a typically mythical Western landscape of craggy rocks, big skies, lone and level scrubland. The lightness of the handstand talks to the heaviness of the stones. Seriously done and straightforwardly realized, they are also absurd, silly, grinning with a beatific wisdom. Besides the only people besides cheerleaders that do handstands are yogis, spiritual searchers. The desert attracts all kinds but especially these.
Then in 1974 he stopped making art. To take care of his family, to start a school, to become a carpenter and incidentally to study Zen and meditate. He didn’t make art for thirty years. His new work picks up where he left off. Before he stopped making work, he’d fill logs retrieved from the desert and its inhabitants, cut open and filled with materials, often found and somewhat fantastical: Log Hollowed Out and Filled with all the Feathers from a Peacock, 1973 or Log Filled with Amanita Muscaria, 1974. (Amanita muscaria is a poisonous hallucinogenic fungus.) The logs are sealed, the contents invisible to the viewer, who must take the artist’s word on faith. Continuing this series in 2009, Kinmont’s secret materials had grown more ethereal, though the deadpan titles stayed roughly the same: Cottonwood Log Filled With Fear and Log Hollowed Out and Filled with the Memory of the Artist.
Included in Philip Kaiser and Miwon Kwon’s historical survey of Land Art in 2010, “Ends of the Earth,” as well as the Getty-funded Pacific Standard Time exhibition of California Conceptualism circa 1970 State of Mind a year later, Kinmont falls between the two movements. He happily avoids some of the prominent features of Land Art’s industrialist megalomania (Michael Heizer the primary offender), names written with concrete and steel across the face of the desert, a cheesy attempt at eternal returns. Though only seriously introduced in the West recently, Kinmont feels more like the Zen-inflected Japanese Mono-Ha of the 60s than American heavy metal. With a bend towards the potently invisible, Kinmont seems to have a more natural affinity with the ethereal turn in Conceptualism than Land Art, along with especially Robert Barry and James Lee Byars, but also the proto-Conceptualist Yves Klein. Despite his own unique version of dematerialization, Kinmont is too anchored by the vast landscape to float away into the invisibility of the void. A student of Zen, Kinmont’s work—wizened, subtle, and deeply embedded in the natural world—carry the seriously sly sense of humor of a good koan, spiritually profound with nary a kumbaya.
In Just the Right Size, 1970/2008, the artist—easily identified as a rough denizen of the West, in bluejeans, t-shirt and beard—holds up simple objects in eight photographs: a pot, a bouquet of flowers, an old boot, a two-by-four. These things, all things, are the size they are supposed to be. The truth is so obvious and simple, but weirdly it make the world feel a bit more harmonious than before.
Robert Kinmont riddles us quietly, gently, with a secret smile.
Everything is and always was just the right size.