Tony Smith: Architect, Painter, Sculptor, July 2-Sept. 22, 1998, at the Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53rd Street, New York, N.Y. 10019.
The major sculptor, erstwhile architect and peculiar painter Tony Smith, who died in 1980 at the age of 68, is proving a hard sell to today's art fans, from what I gather. Please give him a second look. In the ways that Smith is important, he is blazingly important, and if in other ways he's incoherent, so what? It's a drag. The pith of this first-ever Smith retrospective seems to be hiding in plain sight, exciting almost no one.
I'm excited, albeit fitfully. Smith was a person of sprawling contradictions and warring intensities who regularly fell between the stools of himself. He was a trained disciple of Chicago's New Bauhaus and of Frank Lloyd Wright, a close colleague of the leading Abstract Expressionists (and bosom pal of Tennessee Williams), a polymath steeped in Freud and Jung, a spirit-haunted Irish drunk who could and would recite slabs of Finnegans Wake from memory, and, by the way, Kiki Smith's dad.
Most of all, Smith was an esthetic visionary whose prophecies came so true that we take them for granted. More than anticipating Minimalism, the '60s movement with which he was not allied, he foresaw how and why the principles that informed Minimalism would revolutionize the late-20th-century built environment. He did so in what can look now, to an idle glance, like a heavy-handed period style of geometric sculpture. But the stuff remains ferociously potent if you give it a chance.
Start at the plaza of the Seagram Building, the most exacting plinth for outdoor sculpture in the world. Smith's 20-foot-high Light Up!, a yellow-painted steel arch on loan from the University of Pittsburgh, will occupy that bully pulpit until the end of the MoMA show. To get what it preaches, walk around it, stopping frequently for views. As many times as you pause, that's how many mutually distinct sculptures you will behold.
Try to anticipate, from each point of view, what you will see from the next. You'll be surprised every time. There is no way to grasp Light Up's form except via local, fleeting impressions, each with its odd metaphorical hit: forest, wall, striding figure, crouching critter. The form's elusiveness humiliates and exhilarates. You may feel, with justice, that your traveling gaze creates the art. Keep going until tired. The piece's mystery is inexhaustible.
Historically, Smith faced a terminal condition of modern sculpture that was in thrall to pictorial esthetics. The genius David Smith had made the most of the condition, fashioning lyrical presences that privilege one or two viewing angles, but then the most was over. Anthony Caro and other Greenbergian formalists reduced pictorial sculpture to a sterile game. Meanwhile, the outside world was changing convulsively in ways that such hothouse art could not begin to address.
The moment needed a rare combination of worldly sophistication, historical intuition and mystical confidence. As an inventive architect (though chronically hamstrung by his aversion to compromise), Tony Smith had the first quality already, and he proved to possess the other two in abundance.
One night nearly a half-century ago, Smith had an epiphany. His account of it fortuitously entered art lore by way of hostile quotation in the critic Michael Fried's famous, brilliant, weird defense of formalism, Art and Objecthood (1968). Holding Smith's vision up for negative judgment, Fried put the vision in play, where it has stayed ever since. There is no decent way to cite the classic text except in full. It appears on a linked page. Kindly read it now.
Welcome back. What have we learned? Among other things, that our contemporary common sense of public space as a centerless expanse, altered moment-to-moment by our position in it, was not always in force. People used to assume a fairly neat separation between organized space, whose most refined expression and choicest ornament was art, and other kinds of space, deemed essentially chaotic. On the new-minted Jersey Turnpike (harbinger of the U.S. interstate highway system, the single grandest engineered artifact on this planet) and a defunct Nazi drill ground, Smith perceived that old bets were off.
I think that at mid-century a balance tipped against a primordial human habit of experiencing the world as so many islands of civilized fabrication in a sea of wilderness. Concatenating technological revolutions finally rendered human-made environments potentially as sublime as God's trusty repertoire of deserts and hurricanes. The human spirit needed to take responsibility for what had been wrought. A start was made by four trespassers on a road to New Brunswick. I'm thrilled imagining the mood in the car whizzing along black, incredibly smooth asphalt that night.
In his best sculpture, Smith made manifest in three dimensions some of the epochal content of Abstract Expressionist paintings by Pollock, Rothko, Newman and Still. The paintings poetically evoked the world's new spatial dispensation. Smith's sculptures inhabited it, usually with an inevitable loss of poetry. But there are exceptions, such as Smog in MoMA's sculpture garden. A ground-hugging bronze grid of robotic, sinisterly creeping modules that could, in principle, be repeated infinitely, Smog tickles and haunts.
Smith tried painting, too, and his various abstract formats were fully up to speed with advanced esthetics of the 1950s and early '60s. But he lacked a love of paint. His execution feels choreful, a labor of filling-in. And his color choices seem arbitrary and shaky. Smith plainly had no heartfelt use for painting's virtuality. He was an actuality-intensive kind of guy.
He was also often a mess, as the titles of a couple of elegant sculptures slyly acknowledge. The Snake is Out borrows a barroom allusion to a blood vessel that visibly swells on the temple of someone at the far end of plastered. (If you have never observed this curious phenomenon in a mirror, congratulations.) The Elevens Are Up cites a yet more dire prominence of the tendons that flank the throat, bespeaking dangerous illness. When he died of a heart attack, Smith had diabetes and cirrhosis.
Whether due to alcoholism alone or to some other debility as well, Smith seldom enjoyed a sustained creative groove for long. A sputtering, ad hoc quality attends this show. But laced throughout is a passionate, amazing intelligence. When Smith rotated polygonic shapes in his mind, he saw around the corner into everybody's future.
PETER SCHJELDAHL is art critic for the Village Voice, where this column first appeared.