New York

Richard Smith

Hudson River Museum, Kornblee and Bernard Jacobson galleries

Almost from the beginning, Richard Smith’s paintings have been trying to get off the wall. In 1963 Smith was making pictures from which bright enormous boxes protruded or slithered out onto the floor, while in his subsequent, tamer works, a whole edge might peel gently away from a picture until it stood perpendicular to the wall, staring the viewer in the face. All these early Smith works seem to be straining for some kind of liberation from having to be pictures, as if being flat meant being a window (no matter how abstract the view was) and that being a window was servile and inhibiting. Smith seems to have been trying for a work which would not be a vehicle for an image, but would be an autonomous image, an object, all by itself. He must have intuited that his painting would not really take flight until it had somehow become completely autonomous, and the contortions his pictures went through on the way were often enough very awkward.

As of 1972 Smith’s paintings almost literally took flight. They became kite- or sail- or winglike constructions whose physical support structure is as obvious and interesting as their colorful designs on canvas. They are often displayed dangling from a ceiling, and never hang from a wall by more than a few plainly visible strings. The entire mechanism by which one of these paintings is given shape is right out on its surface, and while we are aware that, say, three aluminum rods are what keep the work stretched taut, the same rods channel the painted stripes that run across the canvas: picture and support are one and the same. Even the strings with which the canvas is tied to its rods become details of the picture: they are left long and dangle downward, looking like the traces the picture has left in the air as it has soared aloft.

As these works developed they began to fill with variation and nuance, and Smith was able to give meaning to all their elements. In White Rope, 1973, the cord from which a frail, kitelike canvas depends is much heavier than it need be, so that it emphasizes the lightness of the canvas by contrast: this white rope is thus at once the picture’s servant and its subject. Then, in subsequent works Smith would use series of canvases which would rotate by degrees and in sequence—in Diary, 1975, the canvas farthest to the left is nearly squared against the wall; the one farthest to the right, seven panels later, is a diamond—and this rotation is filled with a sense of taking off, of moving upward, or leaping outward, through air. In the most complex works, so many units are employed that a piece will begin to look quite heavy, but Smith handles the rotation of its parts and the details of color and rod and string with such deftness that one gets the exultant sense of some huge and cumbersome bird, slowly and with difficulty but nevertheless surely lifting itself into the air.

As with all good art, there are many ways to read Smith’s paintings. But their two most prominent themes—the idea of a kite or sail, and flying, and the idea of an autonomous, independent picture—are at once ironic and joyous, and all about liberation. One can look all around these self-supporting, self-reliant works, pulling them away from the wall and examining their backs, and find no bare canvas or stretcher bars, nothing incomplete or hidden. They suggest a kind of pure theatre, a theatre with no backstage, which is all illusion, and, at once, all real. Like a complete man they stand in space with all their inflections and devices showing. They are quite beautiful and moving works.

Leo Rubinfien