Magazine Home  |  News  |  Features  |  Reviews  |  Books  |  People  |  Horoscope  
    tony smith:
architect, painter, sculptor

by Phyllis Tuchman
Light Up!
at Seagram Plaza in New York
Corcoran Gallery
at Paula Cooper Gallery, 1997
Stamos house elevation
ca. 1951
Model for church,
Louisenberg #2
Free Ride
Tony Smith (r.), Jackson Pollock and Barnett Newman
Photo by Hans Namuth
"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.

Tony Smith, a gaunt, bewhiskered Irishman with an indefatigable spirit and a raconteurial manner, began in the early 1960s to populate his backyard in South Orange, N.J., with black-painted geometric forms made of wood or steel. In a few years he had made the cover of Time magazine in 1967, notably filling the quaintly classical atrium of the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C., with a full-scale wood mock-up of the monumental, lattice-like structure, Smoke (1967). By the end of his life (1912-1980), he was celebrated as the leading sculptor of the proto-Minimalist wing of Abstract Expressionism.

The present exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, organized by curator Robert Storr, is the first major museum survey of Smith's work since his death. It features a range of sculptures and models, as well as some 50 paintings and 50 drawings, and a complete survey of his architectural projects (organized by architect John Keenan). In a dramatic move, the museum's revered sculpture garden has been cleared out of its usual assortment of modernist works and filled with Smith's sculpture. There, the recently fabricated Moondog (1964) is star of the show.

Storr notes that Smith's inspiration derived "from geometric forms found in nature: molecular and crystalline structures, the hexagonal grid of a beehive, the closely packed formation of bubbles." The exhibition begins with Die (1962), Smith's famous six-foot black cube whose dimensions are extrapolated from Leonardo Da Vinci's famous study of human proportions, which depicts a man positioned within a square within a circle. (In conjunction with the exhibition, both Die and Moondog has been acquired by the museum.) And the show includes examples of Smith's later works, dramatic and exotic black sculptures that are intuitively constructed with multiple pyramids, tetrahedrons or octahedrons as a basic element.

Several of Smith's many public commissions have been relocated to spots around the city in collaboration with the Public Art Fund. The yellow-painted Light Up (1971), which ordinarily brightens the plaza between two dark Pittsburgh skyscrapers, is re-sited at Seagram Plaza on Park Avenue. Cigarette (1961), the 19-foot-tall archlike sculpture usually found in the grass at Battery Park, now serves as an entrance to Central Park at Fifth Avenue and 61st Street. And a 16-foot-long bronze version of Smug (1973) has been placed in Bryant Park.

It's unfortunate that the exhibition doesn't contain any of the monumental plywood mock-ups that in the past have served Smith's vision so well (and so economically). One example was the 78-foot plywood version of Smug that was sited in downtown Manhattan during 1988-93. Constructed solely of plywood triangles connected by hinges, Smug was a structural tour de force.

Smith shied away from referring to his three-dimensional works as sculptures, instead calling them "presences." "I was just thinking about form," he explained. "They just exist," he told an interviewer. "They are just present."

Smith was one of the first truly contemporary American artists to begin receiving commissions for large, outdoor sculptures. Now, Smith's works command attention in cities across the United States. For Marjorie, a 31-foot-high Indian-red steel behemoth whose aspects constantly change as one walks around and under it, is situated on the grounds of MIT along the Cambridge bank of the Charles River. Gracehoper (1962-72), named from a passage in Joyce's Finnegans Wake, is perched on four spindly appendages on the front lawn of the Detroit Institute of Arts. She (1974), a two-toned, three-tiered work at the Department of Labor in Washington, D.C., is Smith's federal GSA commission (a notable honor in the early days of government arts support). Located in downtown Cleveland is Last, a 35-foot-high, 75-foot-wide orange arch that weighs 36 tons.

These awesome creations issued from a red brick, simply furnished house near Orange Park in New Jersey. Smith lived on a typical tree-lined and driveway-filled suburban street with his wife, the actress and opera singer Jane Lawrence Smith (she debuted in the Salzburg production of Mozart's Idomeneo and in more recent years has appeared in a variety of avant-garde theater productions in New York, where she moved after her husband's death). Together they raised three daughters, two of whom -- Kiki Smith and Seton Smith -- have become well-known artists in their own right.

Smith was born in 1918 into a prominent and close-knit Essex County clan of seven children, one girl and six boys. Grandfather A.E. Smith was a waterworks manufacturer, and the family firm made hydrants that were established as the standard for New York City as well as many other large U.S. cities. Smith would fondly point out, "All the hydrants have my name, A.E. Smith, on their tops because I was named for my grandfather. I remember traveling all over the country as a very small child and always seeing these hydrants. They are the only things that look the same anywhere."

Felicitously, the subtitle of the exhibition -- "Architect, Painter, Sculptor" echoes the initials of Smith's full name, Anthony Peter Smith.

What might have been a privileged existence was far from that, however. As an infant, Smith was stricken by tuberculosis and was moved into his own pre-fab quarters erected in the backyard of the South Orange home, where he was attended by a nurse. The year before he had been taken on a trip to Mesa Verde National Park near Taos, N.M. Smith considered both his quarantine as well as what he had seen in the Southwest as formative influences. "Certain ancient cultures such as China and Egypt produced a kind of intuition toward form that colored the entire society." In America, Smith maintained, only the Southwest Indians came close to accomplishing such an integrated sense of culture in their pottery, basketwork and blankets.

"The first things I ever did that I think of as examples of sculpture," Smith said, vwere models of Pueblo villages." On trays made of papier-mâché so they would not be too heavy for his lap -- "I had to be in bed all the time" -- the boy covered his medicine boxes with gray and mustard-colored plasticine. After filling a tray with these desert adobes, he "took kitchen matches, charred their ends, and stuck them along the sides to represent the rafters which projected from the buildings, and occasionally I made little ladders to the next level."

Smith also recalled being intrigued by the pot-bellied stove that warmed his small, bare, backyard quarters. "If one spends a long time in a room with only one object, that object becomes a little god," he claimed. Private tutors educated the boy until he recovered. Later on, he spent four years at a rigorous Jesuit high school in Manhattan, and subsequently spent two years at Georgetown University before leaving college and returning to New Jersey.

He next opened his own bookstore in Newark. After hours, he commuted to New York to take drawing and painting classes at the Art Students' League on 57th Street. Jackson Pollock and David Smith were fellow students; Barnett Newman and Adolph Gottlieb had just passed through the program. With limited time at his disposal, Smith worked avidly and quickly. "Sometimes I made quite a few things in one day," he says. A work from this period, ca. 1932, is a black-painted canvas with silhouettes of objects like a knife and a coffee pot.

When the government began to support painting projects in the mid-'30s, Smith, unlike his more impoverished friends, was not eligible. So in 1937 he enrolled in Chicago's newly established New Bauhaus, studying architecture with European émigrés Moholy-Nagy and Alexander Archipenko. A year later, when a new director with a new program was named, Smith withdrew. Among his vivid memories of the time were having lived next door to the Glessner House, a granite "hut" designed by the American architect H.H. Richardson in 1886 at a cost of $74,000. Smith called this structure the quintessential building, the one in which the architect who initiated the Romanesque Revival in the States brought all of his ideas together. (In 1973, the Glessner House was restored and reopened as the Chicago School of Architecture Foundation.)

While he was in Chicago, Smith read and was impressed by the January 1938 issue of Architectural Forum, which was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and devoted to Wright's work. Smith asked Wright for a job, and joined the Master Builder's team, first as a laborer and welder, then as a layout designer and cost estimator. Rapidly, he rose to become "clerk-of-the-works," or superintendent of construction.

After less than two years of working for Wright, Smith set out on his own. He established an architectural practice in New York, which he operated for more than 20 years. During this period, he designed more than two dozen private residences, many for art-world clients such as dealer Betty Parsons and painter Theodoros Stamos. The Stamos studio-home, painted yellow and white and elevated off the ground on pylons, remains unaltered out on the North Fork of Long Island.

In 1950 Smith worked on plans for a church in East Hampton that would have featured stained-glass windows by Jackson Pollock. What these might have looked like are captured in Pollock's great black-and-white series of 1951. Smith was also responsible for remodeling the former French and Company art gallery in the Parke-Bernet building where both David Smith and Barnett Newman held extremely influential shows in 1959. It was with this particular project, Tony Smith said, that he "realized my sense of scale and monumentality for the first time."

Smith's major paintings date to the mid-1950s, when he was living in Germany. This group of 25 works, which he termed the "Louisenburg" series, is based on a grid composed of circles, some of which are self-contained while other are fused into "peanut-shaped" groups of two or more. According to Storr, these modular works constitute the first systematized allover paintings.

The pages of Smith's life read like a "Who's Who" of American art. A studio he deigned for a friend in Provincetown was also used for a short time by the legendary Hans Hofmann School as a headquarters. A roll call of his own student roster begins with Larry Rivers and Robert Goodnough at NYU and ranges on to such lionized contemporary artists as Robert Morris and Alice Aycock, who took classes with Smith at Hunter College after he joined its faculty in 1962. The studio he used at NYU had been turned over to him by Mark Rothko. He was so close with Pollock, he often watched him paint. "He moved like a tiger," Smith recalled. After his friend Barnett Newman died in 1969, Smith designed for his grave an African black granite headstone.

In 1961, Smith had a car accident on a curving and precipitous road between Albany, N.Y., and Bennington, Vt., which terminated his practice of architecture. He had already become disenchanted with the way his designs were being altered by unsupervised construction crews and, having developed a rare blood disease in the wake of his accident, he could no longer safely drive to building sites without the fear of blacking out behind the wheel. He decided that henceforth he would teach. He taught for many years at Hunter, and also taught art at New York University, Cooper Union, Pratt Institute and Bennington College. He was widely admired as a erudite and inspiring instructor.

To fill the void previously spent designing buildings, Smith would putter around the house with design exercises he had always assigned his students. But more importantly, Smith's esthetic was formed by an epiphany he had in the `50s during a car ride with three of his Cooper Union students along an unfinished portion of the New Jersey turnpike between the Meadowlands and New Brunswick. The story has become one of the most repeated anecdotes in the annals of contemporary art. As Smith told it, the incident sounds much like an occurrence in a Joan Didion novel, hardly the stuff one relates to Minimalism.

According to Smith, "It was a dark night and there were no lights or shoulder markers, lines, railings or anything at all except the dark pavement moving through the landscape of the flats, rimmed by hills in the distance, but punctuated by stacks, towers, fumes and colored lights. This drive was a revealing experience. The road and much of the landscape was artificial, and yet it couldn't be called a work of art. On the other hand, it did something for me that art has never done.

"At first I didn't know what it was, but its effect was to liberate me from many of the views I had about art. It seemed that there was a reality there which had not had any expression in art." The industrial environment captivated him more that evening than many smaller sculptures and colorful paintings he had seen and previously admired in art galleries. The large looming unlit shapes combined mystery with power. Smith wanted his three dimensional forms to operate the way the stacks, towers and fumes had that "dark night."

Once the brooding black works that Smith had been setting up at his home were brought to the attention of a Hartford curator (the late Sam Wagstaff, who went on to become well known for first his photography collection and then a silver collection) who was organizing an exhibition entitled "Black White and Grey" (1964), there was no turning back. Two years later, when Free Ride, a steel piece with three, 6'8" pillar-like elements at right angles to each other like the edges of a cube, was featured in the Jewish Museum's fabled "Primary Structures" exhibition, his pieces were greeted as important examples of the new "object-type" work then sweeping the country.

During the winter of 1966-67, large exhibitions devoted to his work were held at the Wadsworth Atheneum, the Philadelphia ICA and in Bryant Park behind the New York Public Library. In October 1967 he was featured on the cover of Time.

Some critics went so far as to call Smith the father of Minimal Art. Yet he had been working independently of the initiators of that exciting movement, Carl Andre, Dan Flavin, Donald Judd, Sol LeWitt and Robert Morris. They were similarly unaware of what Smith was doing. "Morris and Judd and all those guys really thought about what they were doing," Smith was quoted as saying. "I never thought about anything that I did. I just did it."

Donald Judd once wrote, as a reviewer for Arts magazine, that a Smith structure was "mysterious," in part because it was painted black. But covering surfaces with matter devoid of color and incapable of reflecting light suggested itself to Smith initially only because some edges on his models were being attached to one another with scotch tape and the planes were not always as smooth as he would have liked. "So I just painted them black in order to camouflage all of those imperfections."

Smith liked to install his works "against buildings or against trees and foliage so that you can feel the volume of the space within which the piece exists. That's a very different thing than looking at something visually and seeing silhouettes." Among Smith's final works, made while recovering at home from an accident in 1980 in which he broke his hip in three places, were a series he called "Groves." They were to consist of large, geometric elements set up like "an avenue of sphinxes or an avenue of horses or camels." Avenues of these sculptures could be erected, says Smith, in parks or squares "across America in such a way that they would represent the kind of image that we associate with Egypt or China -- you might say, a symbolic image of the form/content of our culture."

Smith hit his stride at a later time in life than his Abstract Expressionist friends -- he was just turning 50 -- and like many of them, unfortunately, he died before his work could be finished. Still, his oeuvre is as plentiful as that of Barnett Newman, and of a quality on par with Jackson Pollock. His visions were grand. Among his heroes is the ancient Egyptian Imhotep, the designer of the Pyramid of Zoser and the first artist whose name has been recorded in history. Smith created similarly charged images to represent our society to future generations.

Much of this article was originally published in slightly different form in New Jersey Monthly in January 1981.

PHYLLIS TUCHMAN is a New York art historian and critic for the New York Daily News.