Important Art by Tony Smith
Influenced by the modernist architecture of Mies van der Rohe and Frank Lloyd Wright, the underlying structure of Tony Smith's Stamos House comprises a rectangle on stilts, though the pitched roof and angled trusses provide a hexagonal facade. This striking geometrical shape is emphasized by lifting the main body of the building off the ground, as if it were floating: an idea Smith would return to in later sculptural works. Unlike Smith's other projects of the 1950s-60s, such as his unrealized church and the so-called Bennington Structure, Stamos House does not follow a repeated cell structure - involving reiterated, correlating three-dimensional forms - but instead resembles instead a single, hexagonal module.
The house was built for the Abstract Expressionist artist Theodoras Stamos, a friend of Smith's, who granted him control over both the design and construction of the work. As such, the materials, construct techniques, and visual design were all devised in harmony, thereby avoiding the friction with constructors that Smith experienced on some of his architectural projects. The art historian Robert Storr notes that prior to working on the Stamos House, Smith had studied Alexander Bell's experiments with Chinese kites (1901), and Buckminster Fuller's Dymaxion House (1944-46), which was also designed to be raised off the ground. Taking inspiration from these projects, Smith developed an interest in prefabrication and modular assembly which was also in line with contemporaneous developments in architectural theory. He likened the Stamos House to a 'tetrahedral kite' - a phrase Bell used to describe the flying machines he constructed during the 1900s - which could be built from standard materials specified by a designer, assembled like a kit of parts. This construction technique was similar to that of Dymaxion House.
Raised off the ground, Stamos House has been likened to a spaceship. In spite of its modest size, the appearance of the building is monumental, and the innovation of its design can be seen as a significant contribution to the second wave of modernist architecture following the Second World War. Emphasizing Smith's reticence about describing his work as either art or architecture, critic Robert Storr has described Stamos House as a "presence", a term the artist used to describe his sculptures.
The Louisenberg series (1953-55) is a suite of twenty-five colorful, geometric paintings, bound together by an underlying compositional ideal. Each painting is made up of variously colored, identically sized circles, some of which combine into composite 'peanut' or 'amoeba' shapes. These shapes are arranged in a grid system, with a circle taking up one space, a peanut two, and a larger, amoeba-like shape four. The critic Yves-Alain Bois notes that most of the Louisenberg paintings comprise small sections of the fourth and largest work in the series, Louisenberg #4: as if the painting had been split into pieces to make the others. The work above, by contrast, is a reproduction of Louisenberg #4 with a loosely inverted color-scheme. This method of working, producing variations on a single design, gives an indication of how Smith's practice as an architect and artist was developing at this time. In 1968, a mural version of the largest Louisenberg painting was created, measuring around 8 by 12 feet; the creative format thus served as a creative impetus over the next 15 years.
The Louisenberg series was created during Smith's sojourn in Germany - named after a geological site near Bayreuth containing distinctive, peanut-shaped rocks - and it is difficult not to spot an affinity with contemporaneous Northern-European Concrete Art in the execution of the series. Following a compositional formula which is exhaustively and methodically expressed by an evolving series of works is a creative approach favored by Josef Albers, for example, in his monumental Homage to the Square (1950-76). But Smith's inspiration for this serial work and others like it was somewhat esoteric and intuitive, perhaps reflecting his primary connection to the North-American Abstract Expressionist circle. Driving through the darkened landscape of the unfinished New Jersey Turnpike in 1951, the artist was struck by what he later defined as an underlying geometrical structure to the visual and physical world. In 1953 he wrote: "[t]he grid, the module, is the basis of architectural order and freedom [as it] unifies what is similar and emphasizes what is dissimilar."
The Louisenberg series thus represents a fascinating synthesis of Smith's North-American and Northern-European artistic affinities and influences. At the same time, the use of repeated elements (or modules) in the paintings serves as a two-dimensional expression of his interest in modular architecture, and thus as heralding his shift into sculpture by the 1960s, when he would employ similar techniques.
Sharing affinities with both architecture and sculpture, the Bennington Structure was a temporary abstract installation built on the grounds of Bennington College in Vermont. The Tony Smith Estate classifies it as sculpture, whilst the Museum of Modern Art in New York prefers the term "semi-architectural work". The piece was constructed from a set of interlocking, 14-sided, three-dimensional shapes - called "tetrakaidekahedrons" - fabricated from metal and plaster. It was built on a human scale, with openings akin to windows appearing at various points. However, covering 40 feet of ground, the finished work gave the suggestion that the repetition of elements might continue indefinitely, a process of unlimited biomorphic growth. Though its design seems more spontaneous, the form is somewhat similar to that of Smith's hexagonal model for his unbuilt church (1951).
The inspiration for the Bennington Structure derived loosely from the games which Smith played as child quarantined with tuberculosis, using small medicine cartons to build up elaborate cardboard models. The medicine carton-shape has been replaced by a new module, however, inspired by a project Smith undertook whilst teaching painting and architectural design at Bennington in the early 1960s. Smith became interested in geometry in nature, and particularly in the Scottish biologist D'Arcy Thompson's analysis of the structure and "close packing" of cells in his famous 1917 book On Growth and Form. Bennington Structure can even be seen as a built expression of Thompson's theories, its form emulating a soap-bubble molecule, while also drawing on the properties of the hexagon as an inherently flexible unit of design, which Frank Lloyd Wright called a "'universal modular".
Smith described his exploration of shape and correlation in the Bennington Structure as a "speculation in pure form". The work marks a turning point in his career, away from what he saw as the constraints of the architectural profession - the "business of architecture", as he put it - towards functionless three-dimensional works such as Smoke (1967) and Bat Cave (1969). It thus stands as a monument to his exploration of the thresholds between two media, like his modernist predecessors in the Bauhaus and European Constructivist movement.