New York

Tony Smith

Hunter College

Despite their eminence within the Minimalist community, Tony Smith’s sculptures never seem quite at home in it. Always a bit quirky and sometimes too boldly grand in a brotherhood of no-nonsense, solid citizenry, Smith’s large sculptures are the big black sheep of Minimalism. Several of the 24 drawings that comprised this show (many of them never before exhibited) help clarify Smith’s iconoclasm.

In the drawings for such large-scale works as Hubris, 1970, Smith’s architectural training comes to the fore; these are plans, elevations, and isometric views as few sculptors care, or are able, to make for their work. Perhaps one reason Smith’s work survives when paired with Modern architecture as little else does is precisely because of his firsthand experience with the constraints of the practice. Certain of the earlier drawings—numerical schemes and formal permutations—underscore the more orthodox aspects of Smith’s geometrically derived forms; Smith’s enterprise (as that of his contemporary Ron Bladen continues to be) was to impart meaningful nuance to universal constructs. He and Bladen deal similarly with volume and illusionist mass, issues of little ostensible concern to other geometry-oriented sculptors of the day.

Anyone familiar with Smith’s paintings of the ’60s will recognize their genesis here. In one drawing Smith is working out the configuration of one of the paintings, while another shows a series of hexagonal ink figures on a grid of penciled circles. Notes on the first drawing describe his preferred coloration for its shapes, which he sees as making a “door” painting in reference to their acknowledged spatial illusions.

Considerably less familiar were the suites of drawings—some ink, some graphite—that read as fusions of anatomical and biomorphic forms with landscapes. Three faint graphite-on-paper works appear to hold images of natural phenomena—rock bridges, cave entries, estuarine inlets or the like. A group of five related litho-crayon-on-paper pieces reverse the figure-to-ground relationships of the graphite drawings, so that the parts of the paper left white show as the quasi-naturalist blobs. Two ink drawings, both from 1970, are unusually complex biomorphisms that configure almost skeletally; A. R. Penck’s paintings come to mind.

All these blatantly subjective exercises at creating imagery fed Smith’s more subdued and well-known three-dimensional work. The fused body-and-landscape references of the more eccentric of the drawings suggest another reason for Smith’s unique success with freestanding urban sculpture: an architect by profession, he may have been a romantic by temperament. He could thus situate art so that it could address both man and mortar.

Richard Armstrong