PRINT November 1998

Yve-Alain Bois

I WENT TO THE MUSEUM OF MODERN ART’S TONY SMITH retrospective with mixed expectations. I had hoped to be pleasantly surprised, but I feared being confirmed in the rather blunt view of his oeuvre as a footnote in the history of postwar American art, something of an unfulfilled promise a severe judgment I had often been on the verge of expressing over the years, but which I never felt, for lack of knowledge, I had the right to utter. I had always enormously disliked the complicated sculptures made of conglomerates of tetrahedrons and octahedrons, such as Gracehoper, The Snake Is Out, and Moses, that eventually became Smith’s signature. To me, they had always seemed like the work of a Buckminster Fuller run amok, populating the world with modular UFOs to avenge his frustration at not being taken seriously. When encountering one of these—in a sculpture garden or public square—I had always felt that their contortions were nothing but a disguise destined to mask what was familiar about them, a strategy that repeatedly failed, for the more complex the volumes, the more powerfully would a traditional iconological reading creep in. Simpler works, such as Spitball or Amaryllis, had fared better with me, but I never understood why Smith had not pursued further the vein of Wandering Rocks, in which the witty ambiguity of the play of light on his characteristic prismatic surfaces is, for once, not dwarfed by the exaggerated size. And if I had always admired Die, I thought it was a fluke (I had never seen The Elevens Are Up); the lack of interest in scale displayed by the artist (to which his working method from small models to enlargements in various sizes amply testifies) simply did not square with the proportions of this black cube based on Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man. As for painting, was there a real corpus behind the occasional canvas one would come upon here and there? The series of drawings I had seen in gallery shows—evincing so many potentially fruitful directions—had left that question open. Finally, although I was aware that Smith had designed a few buildings, I knew little about the extent or specifics of his production beyond such well-known projects as the Betty Parsons house or Alphonso Ossorio’s proposal for a Pollock-filled church.

I am grateful to the Museum of Modern Art for having presented Smith’s case, since at last I can begin to grasp why I have always felt uneasy with his work. If some of my early skepticisms are confirmed, the picture turns out to be far more complex than I had allowed. More than ever I am convinced that Smith had no real interest in scale, contrary to what I take to be the standard wisdom concerning his work (typical is E. C. Goossen’s praise of his “use of the human module,” quoted in the catalogue accompanying the MoMA show). In that sense, Die and The Elevens Are Up, so perfectly proportioned to be neither an object nor a monument, are—indeed exceptions: the hideous juxtapositions of objects of disparate sizes in the MoMA garden made this painfully clear, as did the experience of seeing a small model in the third-floor galleries and its behemoth version outside. The gigantic Moondog, for me Smith’s most blatant failure, looked even more bombastic in the garden, thanks to its proximity to a small model of Smoke, which appeared to be its tiny offspring. Indeed, a dreadful fear of the possible multiplication of these structures, in all sizes, ensued. Once again, science-fiction imagery flooded my mind: I thought of a battery of At-Ats, the gargantuan camel-shaped tanks in The Empire Strikes Back. It is certainly true that Smith rarely had the occasion to realize his sculptures at the desired size, and that, given the opportunity, he would most often opt for the humongous; but model after model in the MoMA exhibition reveals that he thought of his volumes as geometric assemblages, as building blocks filling a “universal,” modular matrix indifferent to scale. The contrast between the regularity of the grid and the dumbfounding irregularity of the resulting shape seems to have most interested Smith, whatever the object’s dimensions. (Whenever the emphasis is put on the modular structure, as in Eighty-One More, Smog, and Smug, his work looks paradoxically too fussy for what it has to offer.) On the other hand, this inattention to scale—so much at odds with both the aesthetics of Smith’s intimate friend Barnett Newman (who never made a sketch for a painting) and that of the younger Minimalist sculptors (for whom overscaling was a way of sidestepping the issue of formal complexity)—confirms that Smith was, as he said himself and as various authors in the catalogue report, a designer at heart (that is, one who believes in a kind of formal Esperanto that can be applied in every context—someone who, for instance, sees no fundamental difference between streamlining the profile of a two-inch cigarette lighter or a 100-story skyscraper).

“This ideal of the ’all-purpose’ artist nicely coincided with the notion of the knowledgeable generalist that had been a part of Smith’s Catholic upbringing,” notes curator Robert Storr in the catalogue. It might also have led to a certain lack of focus, to dispersion and thus uncertainty. Indeed, to explain the stylistic eclecticism of his architecture and painting (much of which was uncovered for the first time in this exhibition) Smith spoke of his “Jesuit training,” adding, “I always worked in someone else’s style.” The modesty of the statement is striking, especially in the Abstract Expressionist context of macho individualism; given Smith’s existential doubts, which help account for the relative paucity of his production (compare his output, say, to that of Rothko), the confession produces a chord of sympathy. It should not be forgotten, by the way, that Smith’s production as a sculptor, which remains his major achievement, began only late in his career. But the statement about his “Jesuit training” is even more remarkable for its stress on education. Smith was, by all accounts, a spectacular teacher, which might not be entirely unrelated to why so much on view here (particularly his architecture and painting) looks like student work. His desire to verify vague principles of design (learned from D’Arcy Thompson, from Wright, or during his brief study at the New Bauhaus in Chicago) is a characteristic example of the, in many ways, disabling pedagogical curiosity that inspired what is most dated in his production; but in the end, it might also be what is most interesting.

Largely an autodidact, Smith endlessly tried to fuse incompatible systems of thought. What could be called a mode of inclusiveness was made very clear in the exhibition. (It is to mark the early appearance of this tendency in his work, I suppose, that a hideous but funny sketch of a transvestite Christ, dating from the ’30s, was included.) By and large, the results were disastrous. (I don’t think, for instance, that anyone exited MoMA with the impression that a great architectural talent had been unduly ignored: it is not that the merging of Wright and Le Corbusier is impossible per se—was it not one of Louis Kahn’s achievements?—but it would have required more perseverance and, once again, less doubt than Smith exhibited during the period he practiced architecture.) At times, however, Smith’s tendency toward inclusiveness was much more promising: we can regret that he did not go on with the humorous strand of painting he had begun during his stay in Germany in the first years of the ’50s—the “peanut” canvases that combine the highly composed European abstraction of the time with the “nonrelational” all-overness of Abstract Expressionism. And we can wonder if there is more than just Wingbone or Tetrahedron (both included in the exhibition) of the kind of “soft geometric” plaster sculptures he did in the ’60s.

But if the inclusive aspect of Smith’s production provides us with some welcome surprises, it also accounts for the limitations of his oeuvre. The artist did not care much for the realization of his ideas, often leaving it to assistants or students. He would exhibit mock-ups in painted plywood, which, invariably, were later destroyed. One misses in the catalogue a clear description of his working method, of the material status of the works on display: there are vast differences of finish, for example, between a piece like Die, whose rust emphasizes the passing of time, and others made of painted aluminum. Did Smith approve their fresh look? Are some of the realizations posthumous? None of the dates in the catalogue suggest this, and true, in the absence of commissions and given the cost of completing large pieces in metal, Smith’s apparent indifference to the material realization offered a good defense mechanism (he might also have considered it noble detachment). But it was crippling in the end, for it prevented him from benefiting from experience and obliged him to test his ideas each time anew. Thus the “fluke” structure of Smith’s development—the fact that he never capitalized on his successes, that he never realized that the destabilizing effects of light exploited so effectively in Wandering Rocks were wasted once he worked beyond a certain degree of complexity in the articulation of volumes.

Thanks to the MoMA exhibition, we now know for sure what Smith is not (an Abstract Expressionist, a Minimalist); we also know better that polyvalence was indeed one of his aspirations. Perhaps he cast his net too wide—as designers tend to do. Perhaps, in wanting to bridge so many things, in being so often “ahead of himself,” as Storr writes in the catalogue, he lost his edge. His fate, in many ways, would indeed be similar to that of Buckminster Fuller, the professional utopian whose modular Dymaxion projects were to provide a solution to problems as diverse as housing shortages for a growing world population or ecological crisis. (Fuller was obviously an important model for Smith, and is certainly another figure who deserves to be revisited.)

I do not think that Smith’s status as an artist will dramatically change as a result of the show, but the exhibition has afforded us the opportunity to put his enigmatic career, so full of false starts, into historical perspective, and to understand the contradiction between the monumental size of his sculptural projects and his own anxieties as more attuned to our end-of-the-century fragility—which is his gain and ours.