Tony Smith

Fischbach Gallery

Nobody is going to want to admit that Tony Smith’s show of the Wandering Rocks at the Fischbach Gallery—five relatively small pieces fabricated in a dull, grey finish steel—is really about theater, more than it is about sculptural form, but that is indeed what the arrangement boils down to. Of course Smith has not abandoned his unpredictable and refined use of volume and geometry, nor the poetically expressionist implications of his enterprise, despite the modest scale of these works. The five separate pieces, Crocus, Dud, Shaft, Smohawk, and Slide sit on the floor of the dimly-lit gallery in a manner suggesting a Japanese rock garden. Yet one realizes that just as the faceted shapes may be seen variably, so too might their disposition be altered. The forms jut rakishly out into space, poking at each other and at you, or shooting levelly along the floor. Any attempt to describe a specific shape is inevitably frustrated by the degree to which it abruptly and radically changes from each particular viewpoint. Crocus, for instance, reads as an acutely angled wedge, as a trapezoidal silhouette, a single plane tilted in space, as a chunky, polyfaceted solid, or as any number of other volumetric or even two-dimensional shapes. Nevertheless, all of the pieces possess the nondescript hollow weightlessness—that unconvincing quality—of stage props. This has been interpreted by some critics as a kind of mysteriously neuter, yet poetic presence, part of the fascination of Smith’s more monumental work.

Larger than the matter of how each piece must, or should, or can be perceived, however, is Smith’s use of the gallery room as a space in which a theatrical situation is set up. (The grey silence, the coffin-like prop structures, the environmental disposition, all enforce this mood of stage set or scenery.) The very fact that this show depends for so much of its total effect on the amount of spatial and temporal incident which occurs between all of the forms calls attention to what Michael Fried has characterized as the “theatricality of objecthood,” (Art and Objecthood, Artforum, Summer 1967) which he sees as the major drawback of most “literalist” art. And Fried argues that as art (modernist painting and sculpture) approaches the conditions of theater it degenerates: as distinctions between the essential conventions of each art crumble away, quality is seen to decline.

My own view of the Wandering Rocks as a complete idea is that each piece is actually more interesting in itself, outside of and apart from its relationship to the other structures, and that, as Fried suggests, the ultimate value of the works decrease in proportion to the theatricality of their disposition as objects occupying a scenically conceived space. But here—and in contrast to Fried’s casting of Judd, Morris, and others into the mold of “theatricality”—I would only criticize Smith’s calculated use of a specifically environmental procedure (corresponding to the overbearing and impressive scale in his earlier single pieces). And this, it seems, is not the most important concern in either Judd’s or Morris’s works. One may like the idea of such an arrangement, but this interest or attraction is lodged in reasons other than those which raise the issue of purely formal quality. It is a distinction between entertainment and a radical sculptural art which is at stake here, and in this show Smith takes an ambivalent position between the two.

Emily Wasserman