New York

Tony Smith

Paula Cooper Gallery | 529 West 21st Street

Tony Smith’s sculpture Willy, 1962, and his series of drawings of the cube, in various states of monadic completeness, straddle the boundary between sculpture and architecture, stretching the limits of both. Willy exists in the space between them: more than figural in scale, it still measures itself by the figure; less than architectural in scale, it is quasi architectural in its monumentality. Even more disconcertingly, there is a discrepancy between our cognition and our perceptual experience of both Willy and the cube. We know them to be basically rational—the former is a construction of tetrahedral and octahedral modules—but they look irrational. The cube, cut in a seemingly arbitrary way, however much it suggests architectural function, looks absurd; Willy looks even more so—its radical change in appearance as we change point of view suggests a fundamental lack of coherence. The geometry of the module gets lost in the seemingly bizarre shuffle of perceptual contrasts, which also deny the validity of the module as a measure of scale. Abstraction at its most hermetic, Willy becomes what might be called a cabalistic construction.

One could say that Smith has made an uncannily expressive piece. It is certainly, as he said of his work in general, a great “departure from the Hellenistic standard of things.” In fact, he apparently shared the Abstract Expressionist belief that the most powerful imagery is unconscious, and Willy certainly conveys a sense of primary process that makes it an evocative, as well as provocative, piece. But unlike his friends Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman, and Mark Rothko, and unlike the Minimalists with whom he is usually associated, Smith never reduced structure to a minimum of design making it seem almost not to exist. (Die, 1962, and Black Box, 1961, appear to be exceptions, but their grandiosity renders their simple geometry complex.)

This aspect of Smith’s work is evident in his use of the tetrahedral module, with which Alexander Graham Bell designed his kites and towers of 1903. Is it too much to say that Smith, a practicing architect, created in Willy a work that is a kind of grounded kite and collapsed tower, when it is not a fallen figure? Is it a kind of stylized ruin? It does seem recursively convoluted. Its heroic dimensions and air of abandonment and isolation make of it a prehistoric and memorial monument in one. The tetrahedral module, with its built-in complexity, and the cube in its state of “deconstruction” and complication, become unconscious expressions despite themselves. Because Smith seems to be destroying the discursiveness and readability of geometrical form, his works are all the more like unconscious expressions. Smith may say he is revealing the strangeness of his self, but the cleverness and obscurity of Willy suggests, rather, that Smith doesn’t know what he is hiding.

Donald Kuspit