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.
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 São 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.
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.