New York

Tony Smith

Pace | 32 East 57th Street

Ten Elements is the title of a recent work by Tony Smith. It’s a fine sculpture but, as it looks like a model for a larger project, it’s hard to know how it should be discussed. The case itself is not so troublesome (it’s likely that the present version is the only version we’ll see); what is troublesome is that it leads one to consider what “sculpture” is nowadays and how hard it is to come to terms even with conventional work. No one wants a strict definition of sculpture; an operational idea or two would suffice, and a few have come up. As it is, Ten Elements could be seen as either a “modernist” or a “post modernist” sculpture, as a more or less “pure” instance of the medium, as defined in “modernist” terms, or as a kind of negative description of another medium or term (here, architecture), like a lot of “post modernist” work.

Each element is a solid made of plywood and painted black, and they are all bizarre; there are cubes that lean, wedges that barely stand—few resemble common forms. Yet, as elements, they are technically parts of one original whole, and Smith does claim that they can be so assembled. One wants to imagine it so, but the formal oddity won’t allow it. Nor will the disarray let one reorder the elements (visually) as an even field of things. Somehow Smith “catches” disorder and constructs a caprice that lasts. As far as that goes, the elements resist entropy or refuse to be “reduced” to a simple or “economic” configuration (e.g. for three things, an equilateral triangle; for four, a square; etc.). The work is a study in disequilibrium (or “inefficiency”) in a context—architecture —that values the opposite things.

Ten Elements could be seen in terms of what is not minimalist about it. For example, each element is “compositional” (a part of another thing) in a way that the gestalts of minimalist sculpture are not, with the result that the “experience” of the work is “within” each element and not, as with minimalist sculpture, “outside” the work in the space it inhabits. But to come at the work that way doesn’t really get at it.

Each element veers and recedes so sharply that the face nearest the viewer may narrow to a line or even a point. The solid becomes oddly immaterial, as if it didn’t displace space. Each face offers a kind of version, a (mis)representation, of the object as a whole; each in turn acts as the medium of the object, while the other faces act as its support. Somehow the thing itself gets lost or never quite appears: walking around it does not disclose one form. Ten Elements blithely eludes.

Hal Foster