PRINT November 1998

Jean-Pierre Criqui

IT’S A VIRTUAL TRUISM THAT A LIFE’S WORK IS INEVITABLY destined to incompletion and unfulfillment, but in Tony Smith’s case, the cliché could not be more apt. Hence the inherent difficulty in any attempt to offer what the French call a “vue d’ensemble”: where Smith is concerned, the very notion of an ensemble—an oeuvre, a body of work—appears problematic and ambiguous, and despite a few obvious constants in terms of formal thought and cultural reference, it is not at all certain that Smith himself would have ever imagined gathering together his various drawings, paintings, sculptures (finished, in model form, or presented on a smaller scale than envisioned), and sketches and photographs of buildings. A clandestine painter as well as an architect who willingly abandoned the idea of practicing, Smith did not even gain recognition as a sculptor until he was more than fifty; he did not, in short, have a “career” in the sense of the strategy, the planning, that the word might imply. The cast of mind revealed in statements concerning his lack of interest in sketches in the service of his projects, and the consequential necessity of working in three dimensions from the outset (“I don’t have any sense of how a piece is going to turn [out], or even if it is going to turn out, until the end”), applies to his path more generally as well, suggesting that, whatever the medium or genre, his journey was literally a groping exploration—the way one might feel one’s way in the dark—of a few major motifs that held him in their sway, and his rediscovery, free from any agenda, of a few sensations and a few objects.

That’s why if one wants to understand what is really at stake in Smith’s work, it’s helpful to pay attention to his remarks about a childhood spent in isolation due to a youthful bout with tuberculosis, about his fascination with things as apparently anodyne as the big black stove that dominated his room, about his subsequent experience of various sites and situations that might fall under the category of the sublime—in short, everything that exceeds art and can therefore only cause an artist to despair (regardless of the ways in which such experiences might enable the art). His nighttime drive on the uncompleted New Jersey Turnpike, famously described to Sam Wagstaff in 1966, is not at all a kind of garnish meant to lend a dash of drama or grandeur a posteriori to Smith’s enterprise, but rather constitutes a genuine epiphany: a furtive moment of truth, the arrested and inevitable partial image whose materialization the works propose—“First we feel, then we fall,” as Joyce wrote in Finnegans Wake (words the artist could quote from memory). Similar epiphanic moments, similarly linked to night and to blackness, can be attributed to certain other artists. I am thinking in particular of two with whom Smith might be said to share affinities. In Architecture, Essai sur l’art (a treatise written in the second half of the eighteenth century that remained unpublished during his lifetime), the revolutionary architect Boullée recounts how, out in the country one night, he found himself immersed in a profound, enveloping blackness pierced by only a few pale glimmers (“Nature, in mourning, seemed to offer itself to my gaze”). In characteristic manner, he draws a lesson from the experience concerning the look appropriate to funerary monuments. (“It does not seem possible to me to conceive of anything sadder, than a monument composed of a flat surface, bare and stripped, made of a material that absorbs the light, absolutely devoid of details and whose decoration is formed by a tableau of shadows outlined by still darker shadows.”) The other example is that of Giacometti, and the childhood memory he relates in “Hier, sables mouvants” [“Yesterday, shifting sands”], published in 1933 in Le Surréalisme au service de la révolution: the unexpected encounter with a large black stone in the shape of a narrow pyramid that immediately appeared to him “as a live being, hostile, threatening,” and which he could not help but approach with the feeling of surrendering to “something reprehensible, secret, louche.” The following year, the sculptor would produce what might be considered a sort of paradoxical equivalent of this fateful object: Le Cube, a monolith with thirteen sides that he claimed was in reality, for him, a head.

There is more kinship here with Tony Smith’s sensibility than in all the supposedly self-referential and asymbolic “specific objects” that Minimalism would engender during the ’60s. For all their morphological similarity to the work Donald Judd was producing at the time, sculptures such as Black Box or Die (with its potentially polysemic title), closed in on themselves, opposed to any transparency or reflectiveness, clearly possess a funerary dimension: six feet wide, Die is the abstract and unheimlich image of an unknown, absent dead person (during a lecture, Smith would point out: “The cube you see doesn’t represent so much a space to live in as an actual person”). But the piece is also the negative of the “white cube,” a sort of refutation of the will to total legibility and literalness that often go hand in hand with the modem art gallery. There is no taboo on metaphor in Smith, and in this sense, Robert Smithson, led by his baroque taste for allegory to inject a large dose of science fiction into Minimahsm with the goal of detecting “new monuments,” no doubt approached, at least in part, the spirit that presided over his elder’s works. Without silencing it, the Museum of Modem Art’s retrospective does muffle this spirit. One gets little sense, for instance, of the excessiveness-the hubris, to use the title of one of his sculptures-that must have nourished all of Smith’s activity. Black Box and Die, in particular, lose a good deal of their auratic presence, exhibited as they are along with The Elevens Are Up and a number of paintings, in a gallery whose largest wall, of floor-to-ceiling glass, contributes both disagreeable back-lighting and a distracting view. Of course, the effect of total alterity achieved when the works are seen in isolation, or, especially as Smith preferred them to be, outside, in faint, almost crepuscular light, is virtually impossible to fully replicate given the constraints of the exhibition space.

On the other hand, it is with the least finished works, projects, and drawings that Smith’s visionary temper is restored. A drawing and small model (executed posthumously) for the project he submitted to a 1960 competition for a Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial in Washington, DC, inevitably suggest some grandiose daydream of an International Style Boullée or Ledoux. On a vast concrete platform constructed alongside the Potomac, Smith envisioned three white-granite walls of increasing size, forming the three sides of an incomplete quadrilateral; at each corner juncture, a narrow passage would be left open. Access to the platform was to be provided by a stairway behind the largest wall, around sixty feet high, on the front of which he imagined the following inscription: “This Generation of Americans Has a Rendezvous with Destiny.” (In a 1943 manuscript entitled “The Pattern of Organic Life in America,” Smith noted: “All monumental architecture is an objectification of the death instinct.”) The model, with its tiny, scattered figures indicating scale, perfectly conveys the utopian grandeur of the scheme. Yet his utopian dimension did not prevent Smith from having a sense of humor. A quick sketch, circa 1949, shows a pile of lines more or less evocative of spermatozoids to which two tires are added toward the bottom; ’Will Jackson Pollock affect our cars?" appears as a handwritten caption.

Much of Smith’s work requires the viewer to complete the few simple directions he was sometimes able to provide. As in the romantic theory of the fragment, what is proposed manifests the potentiality of an unattainable, impossible whole, which is nevertheless given to us to apprehend mentally. In any case, some of Smith’s most ambitious works had only an ephemeral existence. The modular tetrahedral and octahedral Bat Cave, a sort of pavilion realized on two occasions (for Osaka’s Expo ’70 and in 1971 for “Experiments in Art and Technology” at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art), was concerned with disturbing its occupants’ sense of spatial coordinates (the initial project went so far as to include breezes, an artificially humid atmosphere and a sound track that featured, most notably, the cries of bats). A sort of combination Buckminster Fuller, Archigram, and amusement park, Bat Cave is nothing less than a pop version of the Philips Pavilion, commissioned in 1958 to Le Corbusier and Iannis Xenakis for the Exposition Internationale de Bruxelles and incorporating as a sound track Edgar Varèse’s composition Poème électronique. It would have been nice to let the viewer know more about this piece, if only through photographs or descriptions. One’s curiosity again is left unsatisfied (but perhaps it is a curiosity that can’t be sated?) concerning the inflatable structures that Smith once planned.

Nevertheless, some of the sculptures exhibited in the garden at MoMA give the full measure of the unquiet geometry that is proper to Smith’s plastic thought. In the way they combine an understanding of the unconscious with rational building procedures, Moondog, For D.C., Amaryllis, New Piece, and Moses, sculptures of a new kind of formal and aspectual complexity, are milestones without equal in the recent history of art. The same can be said for several pieces installed concurrently throughout Manhattan. In Bryant Park, Smug, though cast in bronze and in a much smaller version than that originally envisioned by the artist, and Cigarette, placed at the southeast corner of Central Park, rise to the level of “formal and symbolic analogues of a breakdown in intellect and will” that their author foresaw. Evoking his endless fascination for such labyrinthine construction, Smith added: “Any search for the center, or for the ’recipe’ for getting out of the maze failed to interest me.” What would the game of art be if it failed to offer the supremely tempting risk of losing, and of losing oneself.

Translated from the French by Jeanine Herman.