Richard Smith, 1975. Photo: Rowland Scherman. Courtesy of The Rowland Scherman Project.


WHEN RICHARD SMITH, the British painter who spent much of his life in the United States, passed away in Patchogue, Long Island, on April 15 at the age of eighty-four, he was less well known than when he first came to New York, on a Harkness Fellowship in 1959. He had every opportunity to grab the brass ring on the merry-go-round of contemporary art, but for reasons no one really understands, he chose not to, preferring to virtually disappear from the stage where he had once been a shining star. When he was young, he knew all the celebrities in swinging London as well as all the Pop and Minimalist artists in New York, where Dick Bellamy gave him one of the first solo shows launching the Green Gallery, ground zero of the 1960s avant-garde.

Originally, Smith engaged with the new culture of commodity packaging and advertising; he experimented with film and extended his paintings into the space of the room to such a degree that the stretched canvases almost became sculptures as they slid from the wall to the floor. As an artist, he had the best training in the classical manner, but he rejected the stodginess of the past. In a letter to his tutor at the Royal College of Art he wrote, “To your generation the 30s meant the Spanish civil war; to us it means Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.” Astaire he certainly appeared to be: nimble and quick, amiable and charming. He wanted to look at ease, but there was always some nervousness and tension behind the relaxed facade.

Smith had everything going for him. He could draw, he could paint, and he was highly literate although never pretentious. He was a member of the generation that succeeded Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud. It was a generation whose great achievements have been virtually obliterated by the fame of the YBA—the Young British Artists launched by public-relations magnate Charles Saatchi and “Sensation” curator Sir Norman Rosenthal. Smith was one of the OBA—Old British Artists—who were schooled at the Royal Academy and were born painters. (Smith told me that his appreciation of graphic art came from the fact that his father was a printer for the British Parliament.) Some were representational artists such as David Hockney, Malcolm Morley, and Derek Boshier. Others, such as Howard Hodgkin and John Walker, remained faithful to abstract art.

In the early years they stuck together, leaving London for the country and then for the US. In recent years, first Hockney and then Hodgkin achieved a prominence that the others, including Smith, did not. I think the OBA will far outlive the YBA in terms of art history because they were connected to it, and tried to stretch tradition and push it forward, as opposed to simply thumbing their collective nose at convention.

Richard Smith, Mask, 1983, oil on canvas, 96 x 96". All artwork images courtesy of Flowers Gallery London and New York.


In the beginning, Smith worked on stretched canvas, first flat and then projecting into high relief, implying they might jump off the wall to become three-dimensional sculpture like the work of his friend Frank Stella. However, Smith always identified himself first and foremost as a painter, a creator of images, not objects. By the ’70s, he gave up three-dimensional shaped paintings in favor of unstretched canvases suspended from rods and interrupted by cords and threads hanging off and passing through them. He called these “Kites” because they resembled the form and buoyancy of the kites he flew with his young family. Gravity now became a key component in his work. He continued to make the “Kite” paintings throughout the ’80s, often multilayered, superimposed diagonals that made pictorial planes literal. In the next decade, he also painted more conventional works that married a highly individual color sense with geometric structure that was, however, not hard edged in the sense of Constructivism but, rather, soft and painterly.

Smith was originally grouped with the Pop artists because of his enthusiasm for film and popular culture, but he was unquestionably an abstract artist, who combined painterliness and visible brushstrokes with bold imagery, brash, clashing colors, and a new large scale that was distinctively American. This duality meant that in a sense he was a man without a country, living between identities. Indeed, it seemed he preferred the spaces in between styles and nationalities. Smith, like Hockney, was a Brit the Yanks could love. The artists went back and forth across the Atlantic, exhibiting in New York and in London with the eccentric and inimitable John Kasmin, who also showed the leading American painters of the ’60s. For someone who appeared very conventional, Smith managed to move around a great deal, switching galleries, studios, and even continents, so that both he and his art remained elusive. He was one of five artists who represented Britain at the Venice Biennale in 1966; the following year, he won the Grand Prize at the Ninth Săo Paulo Bienal and exhibited in museums in Europe and North and South America throughout the ’70s. Always a huge fan of Smith’s paintings, I was delighted to write the catalogue for his 1975 Tate Gallery retrospective, “Seven Exhibitions, 1961–75.” Each of these shows was like a chapter that opened and closed on a series of paintings dealing with a set of pictorial problems in a truly original fashion.

At thirty-four, Richard Smith was world famous. Instead of resting on his laurels, however, he called the Tate show a “kind of kiss of death” and left London for New York in 1978, which turned out to be a fatal career move. He lived in various places in the US and became known as a public artist who created installations for airports and Michael Chow’s trendy restaurants in Los Angeles, New York, and London. These decorative installations further confused his reputation as an artist.

When writing the Tate catalogue, I visited Dick and his American wife Betsy in East Tytherton, a small village in Wiltshire near the great megalithic complexes of Stonehenge and Avebury. Being in the country gave him more time to experiment. His palette changed to more muted colors, and his way of working changed as well. He invented new forms that were light and buoyant that he could move himself. In these radically reduced paintings, he removed the canvas entirely from conventional wooden stretchers and began to emphasize the literal quality of the canvas support as a piece of cloth, thus undercutting any residual illusionism.

For reasons of personality or psychology, Smith was an insider who chose to remain an outsider. He was clearly having a dialogue with Color Field painting and with the literalism of specific objects and Minimalism, but his activity was always distanced from any group or movement or critic. He acknowledged, without buying into, the graphic immediacy of Pop art or the insistence on explicit flatness as the sine qua non of high-modernist painting that required effacing brushwork as optically distracting.

Richard Smith, Round Flight, c. 1985, acrylic on canvas, 10' x 95". All artwork images courtesy of Flowers Gallery London and New York.


The unstretched “Kite” paintings are surface and surface alone. They assume their orientation as a result of gravity. Thread, string, ropes, or tapes articulate the thinly painted canvas ground, acting as a kind of literal drawing. Fragility is part of the content, a characteristic Smith shares with the delicate constructions of Richard Tuttle, or the wax surfaces of Jasper Johns or a younger artist such as Martin Kline.

There are as many contradictions in Smith’s works as there were in his personality. For example, he adopted the diagonal as opposed to the square as orientation in hanging his “Kite” paintings, which is more radical perhaps than it sounds, going back to the early Russian and Dutch avant-garde. The fundamentally geometric organization of forms characteristic of Smith’s work references Constructivism, but the tough structure is contradicted by Smith’s often pastel landscape palette and lyrical brushwork. However, it is precisely the tension of contradictions that keeps his work consistently alive and interesting. The “Kite” paintings defy the conventions of the rectangle. They are torqued and twisted in real space, rarely resting comfortably against the wall. The aluminum bars on which the canvas is stretched as well as the strings read as literal things at the same time as they function as linear drawing.

The unwillingness to trash history and decorum is part of Smith’s style. No matter how experimental, his works came out of the painting tradition and pushed it in new directions. Ironically, this is the direction that many young artists, sick of the macho rhetoric of heroism and gigantism, are exploring today in their rediscovery of the work of the French group Supports/Surfaces. And Smith’s “Kite” paintings have much in common with those painters who detached the canvas from its support in the late ’60s and ’70s. Smith’s deconstruction of the elements that constitute the conventions of easel painting was, however, more sophisticated and ambitious in its stubborn commitment to color contrast, light, and surface articulation as well as its redefinition of drawing.

The English are best known for their immense literary achievements rather than for their signal contributions to the history of painting. But when an exceptional British artist looks back to Constable and Turner, incorporating their technical skills and capacity to create texture and radiance in a thoroughly modern revision, then the result can be a Howard Hodgkin, a David Hockney, or a Richard Smith. Within this charmed circle, Smith was unique in his ability not only to revive and maintain tradition, but also to push painting forward to the point that it could stand with the most progressive, radical, and inventive art of its time.

Barbara Rose is a critic and curator based in New York and Madrid. Her exhibition “Painting After Postmodernism: Belgium-USA” opens September 14 in Brussels at the Vanderborgh and the Underground Cinema Gallery.

Steven Holl and Zaha Hadid in Steven Holl’s office, New York, 2005. Photo: Steven Holl Architects.


ON JANUARY 26, 2016, Zaha sent me a text saying, “Stevie Wonder, we must meet to celebrate forty years of friendship.” I hosted her and Thom Mayne at my apartment in the West Village two months later, on March 16.

I am still in shock over Zaha’s sudden departure from this world. I loved her deeply and valued our friendship beyond words. Here are a few projects in chronology:

1976–77
The Launching Place—Unit 9, the Architectural Association London: Malevich’s Tektonik was made to sing, bridging the Thames. . . . Birds were astonished. Elia Zenghelis, Rem Koolhaas, and I lunged forward in our jury chairs.

1977–78
Undulant ripple of the Museum of the Nineteenth Century climbing up and over. Struggling for independence in new space.

1978–80
Irish Prime Minister’s Residence feeling the wall’s deep tendency to fly. Black and celadon green swirl with cobalt blue making new journeys from painting into architecture.

1982–83
The mountain’s stratified layers explode into a suprematist geology; with the Peak, in Hong Kong, Zaha leaves this Earth in astonishing new space. Rhomboids fly toward unreachable centers. Floor plans leap and thrust, making a new right of way. An eye-wide hillside of tomorrow leaps with confident joy.

1983
The World (89 Degrees): An amazing painting summarizing Zaha’s then seven-year journey. Already leaving our planet via paintings of astonishing architecture.

1986
New York, Manhattan: A new calligraphy of plan departing from Le Corbusier’s Ville Radieuse for Manhattan correcting for the multilayered . . . compression and density, black with white flying lines, untwined confetti dream-level beginning.

1986
Kurfürstendamm constraints become Berlin IBA Housing sheet-metal wedge-shaped lofts . . . stupor of yes and no. Stepping slowly into the physical from the painted dream.

1986
Tokyo Tomigaya and Azabu-Jyuban releasing space in Blade Runner spirit piercing the Earth, slicing the landscape, toppling conventions . . . bird-future aleatory “breath light and air into the urban condition.”

1989–90
Fire and ice of Moon Soon in Sapporo, Japan. Glacial tables drift across space. . . . A whirling fire swarms above. . . . Orange-red peeling, microspatial in a self-starred soul spiral.

1990–94
Weil am Rhein Vitra Fire Station . . . the promise of new space in concrete full of inspiring detail! The hope of real joy of realization! The fire engine’s red lines written on the asphalt. We all attend this special opening. Philip Johnson is amazed and so influenced by Zaha he copies her geometry for a new pavilion at his Glass House.

1992
“The Great Utopia”: Guggenheim design for an exhibition of Russian Suprematism and Constructivism circles back to Zaha’s launching place with Malevich at the AA in 1977.

1994–96
Cardiff Bay Opera House, a winning competition design: a new bursting open of opera-house activities “like jewels in a necklace” bulging and joined together, dismantling taboos of architecture . . . flashing before the eyes then smashed by a pitchfork, niggling.

1997
Luxembourg Philharmonic Hall, a landscape of volumetric compositions erupting in separate rounded volumes. A precursor of the opera house to be realized in Guangzhou.

1997
Doha, Qatar, Museum of Islamic Art, a wholly original imagination of space and geometry . . . a landscape painting setting a new path for architecture like no other architecture to this day. Fluid and calligraphic.

1997–2003
Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art, Cincinnati, an urban carpet folding upward intersecting blocks of concrete. The push and pull of the paintings of Hans Hofmann.

1998–2009
MAXXI: Museum of XXI Century Arts, Rome, a turning linear urban texture; vectors of movement drawn in concrete. The competition—among seven—was fierce. At the end of the presentations, Jean Nouvel, Zaha, and I met for dinner at one of my favorite Roman restaurants, carved into the foundation of a two-thousand-year-old theater. I made a toast prediction: “The winner of this competition is sitting at this table!” I lost the competition by one vote but made a speech in praise of Zaha at the MAXXI opening in October 2009.

2000–2005
Phaeno Science Center, Wolfsburg, Germany: For science diagonal volumes floating in the shadows . . . monolithic curvilinear concrete whorls . . . dissolving the block, sliced-cone rooms turn inside-out. . . . Spatial wormholes are driven through, taking science for a flight. Architecture? It is a beautiful gift to culture, not a profession.

“Poetic activity is revolutionary by nature; a spiritual exercise”

Octavio Paz, The Bow and the Lyre, 1973

Zaha was extremely loyal to all her old friends, paying visits to their studios, offering humorous critical remarks: “Stevie Wonder, that looks like a watermelon with a stick in it!”

2003–10
When I walked inside the Guangzhou Opera House I was astonished at the liquid space of this large “house.” Photos cannot express the fluid theatricality of this spectacular space. The scala, that stalwart of opera-typology models, is nowhere in this rippling golden volume stippled with star points. The space renews the very idea of opera, giving it a twenty-first-century space of great acoustics and comfort. Instead of a choppy wood of Disney, a golden new fluidity.

2007–12
Heydar Aliyev Center, Baku, Azerbaijan: Curvilinear stitches of landscape rise up pitching the curves in waves of open space. Everything is joyfully limp. Against the box blocks of Baku, this white cloud flashing with inner light, pointing to some new world in the distant beyond.

2007–13
Dongdaemun Design Park & Plaza, Seoul, Korea, a blurred zone of park space, plaza space, public space, and new spatial space.

2009–13
Serpentine Sackler Gallery, a floating fabric shapes space where light enters at the support structure. A cloud overhead opens through the hole, the sun shines in.

2015
She said she did not really enjoy a big office. Dissipation? The swell and euphoric lift is eternal in the early and middle works.

Zaha’s space = a new optimism for twenty-first-century architecture. . . . The eclecticism launched by postmodern cynicism is over. She found a new path and forged it. Propelled by her teachers Elia Zenghelis and Rem Koolhaas, she swirled past them in inventive space.

Swept along, inhabiting radical spatial paintings of her own invention, she created in a very different way than the collage-sketch beginnings of Frank Gehry. When I asked her what she thought of Bilbao, she replied, “like a turkey popping out of an oven with foil peeling off.”

Her spatial horizon was much wider, aching for the light. Le Corbusier wrote in the last year of his life:

Over the years a man gradually acquired through his struggles, his work, his inner combat, a certain capital, his own individual and personal conquest. But all the passionate quests of the individual, all that capital, that experience so deeply paid for, will disappear. The law of life: Death . . .Thought alone, the fruit of labor, is transmissible.

Zaha’s spatial thoughts open doors to a new world . . . a ferry crossing from darkness . . . from oblivion of postmodern words . . . a new journey!

What space Zaha imagined! What cities, what marvelous geometries she invented! The most amazing architect of her day, and with such human kindness she lived her life—now suddenly gone—but her gifts will constantly move us in the new spaces of the transparent future.

  • Zaha Hadid Architects, Guangzhou Opera House, 2003-2010, Guangzhou, China.

  • Steven Holl and Zaha Hadid at Vitra Fire Station Opening, 1993. Photo: Steven Holl Architects.

  • Zaha Hadid, Malevich’s Tektonik, 1976-77.

  • Zaha Hadid, The Peak Leisure Club, 1982-83.

  • Zaha Hadid, Cardiff Bay Opera House, 1994-96.

  • Zaha Hadid, Philharmonic Hall, 1997.

Steven Holl is an architect based in New York and Beijing.

For additional Zaha Hadid Passages, see the Summer issue of Artforum magazine.

LiLiPUT, 1989. Photo: Livio Piatti.


ACCORDING TO LEGEND, in 1978 Marlene Marder quit Nasal Boys—one of just a few bands in Zurich’s tiny punk scene—because the fame-seeking Boys thought the saxophone was uncool. But for Kleenex, her new band, she immediately gave it up to play guitar and sing, which goes to show that her break with them wasn’t really about the sax. She sought freedom generally, in principle, to do whatever. A few other young women from the group’s ever-shifting lineup were responsible, over the next five years, for the controversial instrument’s haywire presence—as a growling texture or startling punctuation—in amazing, clamoring compositions, such as one of my favorites, “Hitch-Hike” (1980). The song also incorporates a crossing-guard whistle and either a flute or an oboe into its brightly melodic, rhythmically precarious lattice of sound. Rising from the ashes of punk (if we accept 1977 as the genre’s initial death date), Marder’s so-called post-punk girl band began as a lark and ascended to fame on jagged beams of cartoon sunshine (her guitar), contagious call-and-response gang vocals, and a feral but stylishly restrained stage presence.

Kleenex/LiLiPUT, “Hitch-Hike,” 1980

Bold amateurism is at the heart of the Kleenex origin story; only Marder had played as a teenager and knew a few chords. And yet their music isn’t simple. In recordings, the women sometimes linger on a spare groove or a Ramones-y riff, but it always serves to throw their complex, expansive, no-holds-barred genius into relief. Interlocking parts chase the beat, and percussive shouts cascade like the urgent communications of friends running for a train or chasing a ball onto forbidden turf together. Wordplay, absurdism, and simple stories drive their difficult-to-discern lyrics across three languages. Lauded early on by John Peel, the tastemaking BBC Radio 1 DJ, Kleenex was shortly picked up by the legendary London label Rough Trade, then threatened with legal action by the band’s namesake (the preeminent tissue brand). So they rechristened themselves LiLiPUT.

I first heard of the band more than a decade after they broke up, their song titles handwritten on twice- or thrice-dubbed grunge-era mixtapes circulating in my Pacific Northwest feminist milieu. While Riot Grrrl is known for presenting a disunified aesthetic and political front against sexist exclusion in local underground scenes, it’s less frequently understood within a hard-won musical matrilineage. The movement’s pre-Internet participants often devoted themselves to searches for female precursors in record stores and the annals of punk, embedding tributes to their emboldening discoveries in new experiments. Kleenex/LiLiPUT’s influence, both acute and atmospheric, can be heard in pretty much all of my post–Riot Grrrl contemporaries, from Erase Errata’s queer poetics and puzzle-piece rock to the take-me-to-the-Kunsthalle electro-conceptualism of Chicks on Speed. And for sure my own band Le Tigre took the lessons of Marder et al—in instrumentation, arrangement, fashion, and freedom—to heart.

News of her death—she was only sixty-one—delivered a sharp pang. I didn’t know Marder personally, though. I only have the information available to the whole world, and thanks to the 2001 rerelease of the Kleenex/LiLiPUT catalogue on the independent label Kill Rock Stars and to the advent of YouTube, that’s kind of a lot. One need not rely on fanzine rumors and warping cassettes anymore. Watching footage online now, I get a sense of her—as a performer, at least. She’s unfeminine. In a corrugated paper skirt-form, blue Mylar, or leopard-print jeans, she inhabits a dandy, not a girlish, persona. Stage right, close-cropped hair, un-eyelinered, and looser than her bandmates, she appears as an inspiring, low-key leader, shouting her parts precisely into the mic, with a black guitar and a singular lust for life.

Johanna Fateman is a musician, a writer, and an owner of Seagull Salon in New York. She is currently coediting a collection of Andrea Dworkin’s writings for Semiotext(e).

Slideshow: Marlene Marder at Zurich University, 1978. Photo: Ueli Frey/www.drjazz.ch.