PRINT December 1966

Talking with Tony Smith

The sculptor-painter-architect, Tony Smith, born in South Orange, New Jersey in 1912, is one of the best-known unknowns in American art. Most people involved in the art world around New York have met him or know of him. Of the generation of, and a friend of Pollock, Still, Rothko and Newman, he has “always” painted and “always” made sculpture, which he has thought of as a private and purely experimental pursuit. (“I didn’t think of them as sculptures but as presences of a sort.”) Therefore he has not exhibited either. But he has put much of his energy into teaching art and design at, among other places, NYU, where his students included Robert Goodnough, Larry Rivers, and Al Leslie, Cooper Union, Pratt, Bennington, and Hunter, where he is teaching now.

From 1940 to 1960, after working as clerk of the works on several Frank Lloyd Wright houses, and after having spent about five months with Wright at Taliesin, Spring Green, Wisconsin, he developed a successful architectural practice of his own, but became disillusioned by the domestic restrictions set by clients interested in comfort before form. He began to despair at the impermanence of the houses he had built, and the changes they underwent. In about 1960 he shifted his attention, therefore, to sculpture, and his civic sense of being a builder gave way to an intense private consideration of form in sculpture, a medium which might provide a more permanent stake in the ground, something for him to refer to as constant.

When I was putting together the show, Black, White & Grey, for the Wadsworth Atheneum late in 1963, Ray Parker told me about Tony Smith but was sure he would not be interested in exhibiting. I went out to South Orange, and he lent me a plywood piece, The Elevens Are Up, for the show which, as it turned out, was the first place he had ever exhibited. Only about a half dozen people had seen the sculpture in his home before that; it was that private. Just recently, Free Ride, the second piece to be shown, was in Primary Structures at the Jewish Museum.

The joint exhibition at Hartford and Philadelphia is the first one-man show Smith has had. There will be eighteen pieces in all—eight in Philadelphia and thirteen in Hartford, with three seen in both places. All are of plywood painted with black automotive undercoating, except Cigarette which in Philadelphia will be white (black in Hartford), Fixture which will be grey, and the three of steel plate.

The notes which accompany the photographs here are culled from a summer and fall of talking with the artist. They were sometimes written down, sometimes dictated.

IN THEIR “INTERNATIONAL STYLE in Architecture,” (1932) H. R. Hitchcock and Philip Johnson said that the style was characterized, among other things, by ordering the plan through structural regularity, rather than through unilateral symmetry. I had been familiar with the root rectangles of Jay Hambidge’s Dynamic Symmetry since before I started high school. I had no experience in architecture and the notion of planning according to regular Bays, although all over the place, hadn’t occurred to me. In painting, however, as I tried more and more schemes, I reduced the size of the format. I painted dozens of 8″ × 10″ panels, and began to use a 2-inch square module instead of the application of areas based upon the root rectangles.

When I saw the January 1938 Architectural Forum, devoted to the recent work of Frank Lloyd Wright, one of the things which struck me most was his use of the modular system of planning. I spent the summer of 1938 in the Rockies and had an opportunity to design and build some small buildings based on plans from the Department of Agriculture, and on modular organization. By the time I began to work on the Ardmore Experiment (designed by Wright) in the spring of 1939, I began to see the limitations of systems based upon material sizes as units. At some point, the book, Das Japanische Wohnhaus made it clear that the tatami (or mat) modules of the Japanese had the same shortcomings. I hadn’t heard of Beamis until the publication of the A62 guide. After this, most building materials became available in sizes based upon a continuous space grid of four inches.

Meanwhile, I had been interested in the exposition of close-packing in D’Arcy Thompson’s On Growth and Form. A large structure based on the tetrakaidecahedron was built by students at Bennington College in the spring of 1961. Another, based on the rhomboidal dodecahedron is shown as a mock-up in Philadelphia. Thompson was writing about the effects of mathematical and physical laws upon living form. He did not, therefore, go into space frames based on the tetrahedron which is the basic unit of many of these figures.

The Honeycomb House on the Stanford University campus had been published in the January 1938 Forum. A few years later I had the opportunity to design a large house on a hexagonal module. I used one twice the size of that used in Wright’s house. Also, instead of pigeonholing the bricks at the 60° and 120° corners, I used rhomboidal bricks manufactured for the job. I was very pleased with the flow of large surfaces, and the substantiality of the paced unfolding of form in this house undoubtedly relates to some of the present work.

An article appeared in Architectural Forum by the engineer, Fred Severud. Several structures, including the Johnson Wax Administration building, were analyzed and alternate schemes demonstrated. For the Johnson columns and roof sections, Severud showed an inverted pyramid instead of Wright’s shallow cones. I immediately tried to do something of the same sort on a hexagonal plan. The scheme for my church was ultimately an outgrowth of this exercise. The development was moving in the direction of close-packing in three dimensions.

It was at about this time that I saw, for the first time, the kites, towers and other structures based upon the tetrahedron which Alexander Graham Bell had made in 1901. While the axes normal to the surfaces of a cube are three, those perpendicular to the planes of a space-lattice made up of tetrahedra and octahedra are seven. This allows for greater flexibility and visual continuity of surface than rectangular organizations. Something approaching the plasticity of more traditional sculpture, but within a continuous system of simple elements becomes possible. The hexagon offers possibilities for greater flexibility in planning and, even construction, for certain problems. But in spite of far greater advantages for building at least, the tetrahedron was taking me farther and farther from considerations of function and structure toward speculation in pure form.

If I were to say what I had accomplished, one of them closest to me would be the French and Company gallery in the Parke-Bernet building. It was here that I perhaps realized my sense of scale and monumentality for the first time. (It’s unrecognizable as it exists today.)

Corbusier is by far the greatest artist of our time—greater than Michelangelo—though he never did anything so great as the Medici Chapel. I’m not saying that Corbusier is finer. He is tougher and more available. The direct and primitive experience of the High Court Building at Chandigahr is like the Pueblos of the Southwest under a fantastic overhanging cliff. It’s something everyone can understand.

Architecture has to do with space and light, not with form; that’s sculpture. Craftsmanship and art are much closer than artists seem to be willing to admit, but the question is, where does the distinction seem to take place?

I view art as something vast. I think highway systems fall down because they are not art. Art today is an art of postage stamps. I love the Secretariat Building of the U.N., placed like a salute. In terms of scale, we have less art per square mile, per capita, than any society ever had. We are puny. In an English village there was always the cathedral. There is nothing to look at between the Bennington Monument and the George Washington Bridge. We now have stylization. In Hackensack a huge gas tank is all underground. I think of art in a public context and not in terms of mobility of works of art. Art is just there. I’m temperamentally more inclined to mural painting, especially that of the Mexican, Orozco. I like the way a huge area holds on to a surface in the same way a state does on a map.

I’m interested in the inscrutability and the mysteriousness of the thing. Something obvious on the face of it (like a washing machine or a pump), is of no further interest. A Bennington earthenware jar, for instance, has subtlety of color, largeness of form, a general suggestion of substance, generosity, is calm and reassuring—qualities which take it beyond pure utility. It continues to nourish us time and time again. We can’t see it in a second, we continue to read it. There is something absurd in the fact that you can go back to a cube in this same way. It doesn’t seem to be an ordinary mechanical experience. When I start to design, it’s almost always corny and then naturally moves toward economy.


When I was a child of four I visited the Pueblos in New Mexico. Back in the East, I made models of them with cardboard boxes. While still quite young I associated the forms of these complexes with the block houses that Wright built in and around Los Angeles in the early twenties. Later I associated them with Cubism, and quite recently thought of the dwellings at Mesa Verde in relationship to the High Court Building at Chandigahr. They seem to have been a continuing reference, even though they were never in my consciousness except as that. In any case they seemed real to me in a way that buildings of our own society did not.


I’m not aware of how light and shadow falls on my pieces. I’m just aware of basic form. I’m interested in the thing, not in the effects—pyramids are only geometry, not an effect.


My speculations with plane and solid geometry and crystal forms led me to making models for sculpture, but what I did always made use of the 90-degree angle, like De Stijl. I only began to use more advanced relationships of solids after working with Wright and then related the thirty and sixty-degree angles to the ninety-degree angles.


We think in two dimensions—horizontally and vertically. Any angle off that is very hard to remember. For that reason I make models—drawings would be impossible.


I’m very interested in Topology, the mathematics of surfaces, Euclidian geometry, line and plane relationships. “Rubber sheet geometry,” where facts are more primary than distances and angles, is more elemental but more sophisticated than plane geometry.


When I was teaching at Cooper Union in the first year or two of the fifties, someone told me how I could get on to the unfinished New Jersey Turnpike. I took three students and drove from somewhere in the Meadows to New Brunswick. 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 had 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 had about art. It seemed that there had been a reality there which had not had any expression in art.

The experience on the road was something mapped out but not socially recognized. I thought to myself, it ought to be clear that’s the end of art. Most painting looks pretty pictorial after that. There is no way you can frame it, you just have to experience it. Later I discovered some abandoned airstrips in Europe—abandoned works, Surrealist landscapes, something that had nothing to do with any function, created worlds without tradition. Artificial landscape without cultural precedent began to dawn on me. There is a drill ground in Nuremberg, large enough to accommodate two million men. The entire field is enclosed with high embankments and towers. The concrete approach is three sixteen-inch steps, one above the other, stretching for a mile or so.

I think of the piece as pretty much in a certain size and related to ordinary everyday measurements—doorways in buildings, beds, etc. All the pieces were seen in greenery in the past. I might change a piece which was to be on a plaza to accommodate its scale, size, and color. Generation is the first piece I thought of as a citified monumental expression. I don’t think of it as personal or subjective. I attempted to make it as urbane and objective as possible. 

Samuel Wagstaff, Jr.