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Tony Smith

American Painter, Sculptor, and Architect

Born: September 23, 1912 - South Orange, New Jersey
Died: December 26, 1980 - New York City
Movements and Styles:
Abstract Expressionism
,
Minimalism
"I had always been impressed by systems of order. I always felt that instead [of] reducing a subject they lent to it an air of mystery."
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Tony Smith Signature
"The grid, the module, is still the basis of architectural order and freedom. It unifies what is similar and emphasizes what is dissimilar."
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Tony Smith Signature
"It is the clear realization of the cube in space which we cannot see, which informs and makes significant all that we do see."
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Tony Smith Signature
"Craftsmanship and art are much closer than artists seem to be willing to admit."
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Tony Smith Signature

Summary of Tony Smith

A prolific sculptor and painter, Tony Smith contributed much to the birth of Minimalism in the 1960s. Yet he was an anomalous figure, always occupying a slightly peripheral position in relation to the movements with which he was associated, and only exhibiting as an artist from his fifties onwards. Friendly with the Abstract Expressionists in 1940s-50s New York, his work bears no traces of the febrile spontaneity of Jackson Pollock's, for example. Indeed, at that time, Smith was primarily an architect, in the modernist tradition of Mies van der Rohe and Frank Lloyd Wright, while his painting had more in common with the measured, systematic compositions of European Concrete Art. When he turned to monolithic, system-based sculpture in the early 1960s, he took up a slightly awkward position within the burgeoning Minimalist collective. Older than its leading figures, Smith worked to some extent by intuition, without the earnest philosophical scruples associated with that scene. Underlying all his work, nonetheless, is an interest in the forms of repetition and multiplication of the visual and physical world. At its best, his paintings and constructions embody a mesmeric, cosmic process of growth.

Accomplishments

  • Trained at the New Bauhaus in Chicago in the 1930s, Tony Smith's work fused the traditions of European modernism with developments in post-Second World War North-American art. Significantly, it was during a stay in Germany in the early 1950s that he created his first important painted works, using a system of visual repetition akin to the principles of Concrete Art, yet based on an intuitive creative process reflecting his Abstract Expressionist connections. These influences combined in his sculptural works of the 1960s onwards, important precursors to the Minimalist movement of the following decade.
  • Like the creative pioneers of the Bauhaus, Smith was not constrained by medium-boundaries. However, he moved in the opposite direction to many of the luminaries associated with that school, turning from architecture to art rather than vice versa to realize his creative principles. The fullest expression of his aesthetic is arguably his sculptures: which he called his "presences", monumental constructions which combined the sheer physical presence of architecture with the conceptual resonance of abstract painting.
  • From the time of his earliest architectural constructions onwards, Smith was enthused by the processes of repetition and multiplication that underpinned the construction of natural and man-made forms. An afficianado of the Scottish biologist D'Arcy Thompson, many of Smith's striking biomorphic works are homages to the processes of tessellation, repetition, and fractalization that Thompson had defined in his seminal text On Growth and Form (1917): principles which, for Smith, applied equally to the natural and human universes.

Important Art by Tony Smith

Progression of Art
1951

Stamos House

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.

East Marion - New York State

1953-54

Louisenberg #8

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.

Oil on canvas - Tony Smith Estate

1961

Bennington Structure

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.

Plywood, metal, lathe and Portland cement - destroyed

1962

Black Box

The inspiration for Black Box came from a filing cabinet which caught Smith's attention during a meeting with department chairman at Hunter College in New York. He recalls: "I was sitting in a very low chair [...] and every time I looked up, I would see this 3x5 filing cabinet. And for some odd reason [...] some maniac had painted this black. I went home, thinking to go to sleep; but instead of that, all night all I could think of was that black box." The next morning, he asked a welding company to make him a black box out of steel. Though the welders were bemused by the request, they delivered the project to a high standard, and Smith was delighted with the result, which was five times larger than the original cabinet.

As he looked at the filing cabinet over the course of minutes and hours, Smith later recalled, "things [...]disappeared": "the line of the opening, the dovetailing of the joints, the hinges"; "[it] simply became a black prism. It became a geometric object; it was no longer a filing cabinet." The work's ambiguous title arose from this air of mystery which the cabinet acquired when its characteristics as a functional object were stripped away; though Smith's assistant James Sheppard has also suggested that the name was a reference to the corrupt administration of New York mayor Jimmy Walker.

Powerful and enigmatic, Black Box casts a shadow over the whole subsequent development of Minimalist sculpture. Receding from representation or even complex abstract figuration, it stands instead as a monument to the basic conditions and parameters of creative expression: an object set in space. At the same time, the work may have a subtle biographical significance. Likened to a gravestone, Black Box was placed on the site of the building in which Smith had been quarantined as a child, as if it were a monument to his youthful loneliness. Until it was mounted on a plywood base, his daughters would ask "[w]ho was buried there?" Their suspicion of the object was shared by other children in the neighborhood, who, unnerved and bewildered, would throw rocks at it.

Painted steel - Collection of Ellen Phelan and Joel Shapiro

1967

Smoke

Standing at 24 by 47 by 33 feet, Smoke is the largest sculpture that Smith ever realized in full scale. Conceived as a work in metal - though wood versions were also made - it takes the form of an open latticework, recalling various natural and architectural structures, from trees to scaffolding. The art critic John Chandler describes the piece's visual appearance: "[e]ach of the eight floor columns [...] stands at alternate angles of close-packed hexagons. At the top of each column there is a tetrahedral capital [...] to which additional modules are attached [...] Each triad of columns supports a hexagonal ring of the same". In short, the lattice structure is composed from six-sided figures rising out of three-sided ones. This is a formula for multiplication - a kind of fractal expansion - that could continue ad infinitum but for the enclosures of the gallery space, reflecting Smith's interest in repetition and tessellation in natural and man-made forms.

As Robert Storr notes, the formal language of Smoke is different to that of traditional Western architecture and sculpture: there are no curves, no arches, and no elements perfectly perpendicular to the ground. Smith took pleasure in distorting familiar shapes beyond recognition: the floor columns, for example, are distended octahedra. The sheer size of the work is also noteworthy: Patricia Johanson, one of Smith's students, describes viewing Smoke at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington: "[t]he fact that it expanded beyond the walls, it filled the entire atrium, it surrounded you, it encompassed you, it was there - it was overwhelming." But whereas Smith's early-1960s, proto-Minimalist works are striking for their monolithic quality, Smoke's monumentality belies the complexity of its form: its capacity to keep the viewer guessing at the underlying design principles. As such, Smith felt the title Smoke was appropriate, since the logic of the composition, clear enough from plans and formulas, dissipates like a gas in the viewer's mind when they are confronted with the visual expression of it.

Michael Govan, director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, has called this sculpture "jaw-droppingly beautiful"; the interior space of the Ahmanson Building was redesigned specifically to accommodate it for an exhibition in 2008. It is undeniably one of the grandest realizations of the principles that animated Smith's whole practice from the early 1950s onwards: the repetition of shapes across space, and over a range of scales, in ways which paid homage to the formal patterning of the man-made and the natural worlds. Indeed, the troubling of that conceptual and aesthetic boundary - like that between art and architecture - is one of the unique distinctions of Smith's art.

Aluminum and black paint - Los Angeles County Museum of Art

1971

Light Up

The 20-foot sculpture Light Up was commissioned as a public artwork for downtown Pittsburgh. It was intended to be set between two modern office buildings, and was constructed on site using a crane. Combining a tetrahedron and an octahedron, the work appears to reconfigure itself visually as the viewer walks around and through it, much like Smoke. Smith described it as a "continuous space grid", which "may be seen as interruptions in an otherwise unbroken flow of space." His inspiration for a burst of color in the urban landscape came from observing a yellow newspaper truck driving around Pittsburgh. Clad in bright yellow, Light Up energizes its surroundings, in the artist's words, "like a jolt of electricity", and represents a departure from Smith's previously predominantly black color scheme.

In the late 1960s, Smith became interested in designing for specific sites, especially in installing works amongst buildings and trees, to frame existing architectural recesses and natural spaces. Just as he had operated at the peripheries of the Abstract Expressionist movement in the 1940s and 1950s, drawing creative stimulus from the scene without being creatively engulfed by it, so Light Up gives some sense of the way Smith had moved by the 1970s away from the monochrome, Minimalist formal language that he helped to define during the early 1960s. At the same time, the evident interest in modular construction and in tessellation and repetition which the piece expresses can be traced all the way back to the Loiusenberg paintings of the early 1950s.

Since its original dedication in 1974, Light Up has been re-sited several times; it is currently located at the University of Pittsburgh. During the retrospective of Smith's work held at the Museum of Modern Art, New York in 1998, it was temporarily placed next to Mies van der Rohe's Seagram skyscraper, leading one critic to call it "a jazzy counterpoint to [the skyscraper's] staid geometry." Aesthetically thrilling, the sculpture has been pithily described by art historian Harriet Senie as meeting the requirements of both public art and art. It stands as a monument to Smith's daring and inventive adaptation of the principles modernist art, architecture and sculpture throughout his career.

Steel, yellow paint - University of Pittsburgh

Biography of Tony Smith

Childhood

Born in 1912 and raised in South Orange, New Jersey, Anthony Peter Smith used to say that his initials stood for "architect, painter, sculptor". The second of seven children, his father was a mechanical engineer for the family waterworks factory, his mother a homemaker. In 1915, the family visited the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. Smith later recalled his interest in the neo-classical Palace of Fine Arts, built by the Arts and Crafts-era architect Bernard Maybeck to house the Exposition's artworks, as well as a visit to the ruined dwellings of the ancient Puebloan civilization in New Mexico on the way home.

Shortly after this trip, and for the rest of his childhood, Smith was quarantined with tuberculosis. In 1916, he moved out of the family home into a small, prefabricated property within its grounds. He was cared for by a nurse and educated by a private tutor, occasionally attending the Sacred Heart Elementary School nearby. During his seclusion, Smith occupied himself by building models of Pueblo villages from medicine cartons, plasticine and matchsticks. He later referred to this period of isolation, and his earlier experience of visiting the Pueblos, as "formative influences" on his art.

Education and Early Training

Smith recovered from his tuberculosis around 1926. He studied at several institutions, including Fordham University and Georgetown University, but did not stay at any of them for more than a year. After his time at Georgetown, he returned to New Jersey to work, commuting into Manhattan at night to attend classes at the Art Students League. Juggling multiple commitments, Smith had to work quickly, recalling that "[s]ometimes I made quite a few things in one day".

In 1937, he enrolled at the New Bauhaus (now the IIT Institute of Design) which had been founded that year in Chicago by the Hungarian artist and former Bauhaus tutor László Moholy-Nagy (one of many European modern artists forced to flee Germany in the 1930s as the Nazis clamped down on cultural expression). Enrolled to study architecture, Smith soon befriended his course-mate Theodore van Fossen, whom he would partner with professionally between 1940 and 1944. Smith left the school after a year, however, to work with the iconic modernist architect Frank Lloyd Wright, having been inspired to ask Wright for a job upon seeing his work in Architectural Forum magazine. Within Wright's organization, Smith rose from bricklayer and carpenter to construction supervisor. Despite not earning official certification, he also set up his own architectural practice in 1940; a budding teaching career supported his creative work, affording him the time and resources to experiment.

During the late 1940s and 1950s, Smith established himself in the art world, though arguably more as a social than a creative presence. The art historian Phyllis Tuchman describes him as "a gaunt, bewhiskered Irishman with an indefatigable spirit and a raconteurial manner". He became known as the charismatic friend of prominent artists associated with the Abstract Expressionist movement, including Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Theodoras Stamos. Smith even designed a house for Stamos in 1951, and a painting studio for the artist Fritz Bultman in 1945.

Mature Period

In 1951, Smith had an epiphany about art whilst driving across the unfinished New Jersey Turnpike. Surrounded by the half-finished human landscape, he observed "dark pavement moving through the landscape of the flats, rimmed by the hills in the distance, but punctuated by stacks, towers, fumes, and colored light". The experience was deeply significant to Smith, inspiring him to develop a new creative language which would express the growth and repetition of objects in space.

Just after, Smith took a break from architecture, leaving New York City to join his wife, the opera singer and actor Jane Lawrence, in Heidelberg, Germany, where she was then working. Whilst in the country, Smith visited World War Two ruins, describing them as "surrealist landscapes, something that had nothing to do with any function, created worlds without tradition"; these man-made but inhuman worlds perhaps had something in common with the urban landscape around the New Jersey Turnpike. Between 1953 and 1955, Smith created what is known as the Louisenberg Series, paintings formed from colorful geometric grids of repetitive organic shapes, that can be viewed as an exercise in understanding sculptural form.

Smith returned to New Jersey in 1955, by which time he had three daughters, Kiki, Seton, and Beatrice. In addition to working as a draftsman for the architectural firm Edelbaum and Webster, he taught at the Delahanty Institute, the Pratt Institute of Art, and Bennington College. During his time as a teacher, he produced his first titled three-dimensional work, Throne (1956-57). Smith preferred the term "presences" over "sculptures" for these three-dimensional pieces, explaining: "I was just thinking about form [...] They just exist [...] They are just present."

Late Period

Despite his frustration at the way in which his architectural designs were often altered by builders, Smith worked primarily as an architect for much of his life, maintaining his practice until 1961, when he developed a rare blood condition following a car accident. Whilst recovering from the accident, he returned to his childhood practice of creating small sculptures from paper and cardboard modules, often aided by his own children, who staged 'exhibitions' of Smith's work in the backyard. His assistants would then construct the models on a larger scale using plywood, painted black in order to "camouflage [...] imperfections". The six-foot cube Die (1962) was one of the first models Smith created which was built to the desired scale, followed by his first steel sculpture, Black Box (1962).

Despite his active creative life, Smith did not exhibit as an artist until 1964, when The Elevens Are Up (1963) was included in the exhibition Black, White, and Gray at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Connecticut. Two years later, Smith's work was included in Primary Structures at the Jewish Museum in New York, an exhibition that, like Black, White, and Gray, helped to establish the stylistic parameters of Minimalism. Smith's first solo exhibition followed in the fall, whilst articles in Artforum and Time increased his public profile.

During the late 1960s, Smith designed several unrealized site-specific projects, including one for the University of Hawaii, where he was then teaching. He became particularly interested in installing works "against buildings or against trees and foliage so that you can feel the volume of the space within which the piece exists." Among his final works was a series of sculptures called Groves (1980), designed to be erected in parks and squares across America. He likened these works to "an avenue of sphinxes or an avenue of horses or camels", feeling that they offered an abstract symbol of American culture. By 1980, Smith's health had seriously deteriorated, and he died of a heart attack in December, aged 68.

The Legacy of Tony Smith

The art critic Robert Storr has called Smith "a true Renaissance man", a description befitting a figure who mastered architecture, sculpture and painting during his lifetime. Smith received the Award of Merit Medal for sculpture from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1978, and was elected a full member of the Academy the following year. His sculptures are found in museums and private collections throughout North America, Europe and Asia, often exhibited outdoors. The 31-foot red steel sculpture For Marjorie (1961), for example, stands in the grounds of MIT, whilst the 35-foot, 75-foot-wide orange arch Last (1979) is located in downtown Cleveland.

As well as excelling across multiple media, Smith was a pioneer of Minimalism. Exhibiting at the seminal Black, White, and Gray exhibition in 1964, he helped to introduce a new, monochrome and monolithic aesthetic into North-American art, signaling a decisive move away from the emotive spontaneity of Abstract Expressionism. Die (1962) has been seen as a key Minimalist work, its dark surface and lack of visual differentiation challenging traditional understandings of artistic expression as involving a finely wrought, complex aesthetic appeal. Nevertheless, Smith distinguished himself from the more famous initiators of Minimalism - Carl Andre, Dan Flavin, Donald Judd, Sol LeWitt, Robert Morris - stating that "Morris and Judd and all those guys really thought about what they were doing [...] I never thought about anything that I did. I just did it."

Smith was also a remarkable networker, and a larger-than-life presence on the American art scene; Phyllis Tuchman notes that "the pages of Smith's life read like a 'Who's Who' of American art". Smith developed friendships and creative relationships with prominent artists such as Jackson Pollock, whose stained-glass windows he included in designs for an unrealized church in 1950, and whom he would often watch painting. Smith was also responsible for remodeling the former French and Company Gallery in the Parke-Bernet Building, where both David Smith and Barnett Newman held influential shows in 1959, and even designed a headstone for Newman following his death. Smith's students at New York University included Larry Rivers and Robert Goodnough, both artists who found original routes through the byways of Abstract Expressionism. At Hunter College in New York he mentored the land-based sculptors Robert Morris and Alice Aycock. Two of his three daughters, Kiki and Seton Smith, also became visual artists.

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Content compiled and written by Dawn Kanter

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Greg Thomas

"Tony Smith Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Dawn Kanter
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Greg Thomas
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First published on 05 Oct 2018. Updated and modified regularly
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