New York

Tony Smith

Matthew Marks Gallery

Although Tony Smith is no longer “one of the best known unknowns in American art,” as Sam Wagstaff was able to write 30 years ago, he still has not enjoyed a large-scale presentation of the totality of his work and thought. In lieu of such a retrospective, however, this group of drawings spanning three decades (roughly 1940 to 1970) reflects the diversity of Smith’s activities (architecture, painting, sculpture), as well as, thanks to the addition of several letters and postcards, his particular place in the artistic circles of his time, including his ties with Barnett Newman. Born in 1912, Smith experienced a sort of time lag in his artistic career that caused him to accede to relative fame alongside the Minimalists, beginning in 1966 with his first solo exhibition and his appearance in “Primary Structures” at the Jewish Museum in New York. But most of his esthetic concepts—notably those involving the combination of modules—were already present by the ’50s in some of his architectural projects and his paintings, as well as in his writings. All that was missing was the sort of inaugural event, the sort of release, later described by Smith himself, that in 1962 prompted the creation of Black Box and made a sculptor out of him.

Smith’s relationship to what one calls Minimalism, whether it be the work of Donald Judd, Sol LeWitt, or Carl Andre, has much to do with historical coincidence or pseudomorphism. It would certainly be more fruitful, if only in terms of chronology, to talk about Swiss artist Max Bill (an architect himself) and concrete art. However, Smith stood apart from both currents in his refusal of literalness and in the importance he placed on unconscious processes (Smith’s work demonstrates a profound familiarity with Joyce’s writings, whose influence is evident even in certain titles); at the same time, he stuck closely to rigorously abstract sculpture—or, more precisely, to sculpture founded on geometric figures, the manipulation of which allowed him to attain what he defined as “something approaching the plasticity of more traditional sculpture, but within a continuous system of simple elements.”

Smith’s drawings evoke less a draftsman’s precision than the perpetual renewal of a field of ideas. One sees both the assimilation of a part of European art—echoes of Arp, Matisse, perhaps the early work of Alberto Magnelli—and the coeval experience of American painting (the ink on paper entitled May 14, 1946, brings to mind the work of Smith’s friend Jackson Pollock; some of the large untitled pastels of 1953–55 evoke Clyfford Still’s canvases). At the same time there are architectural drawings, rough sketches, plans, and axonometric drawings. Starting in the ’60s, sculptural projects are sketched out, sometimes with their dimensions. On the back of an envelope in 1962, Smith christened a piece Monster, which assembled cubes embellished with circular openings: above his drawing he jotted “Asbury Park (?),” and below, “practically a hydrant!” Untitled 1–4, 1954, a group of four charcoal drawings, suggests a study of mass and weight analogous to a sculptural pile. Other charcoal drawings executed in 1953–55 while Smith was living in Germany, and related to his “Louisenberg” series of canvases, exploit the coordinates of a grid with the help of modules derived from the circle: the equilibrium between the figure and ground, maintained over the entire two-color surface, already touches on what the artist would later say of his sculptures: “they may be seen as interruptions in an otherwise unbroken flow of space. If you think of space [as] solid, they are voids in the space.” This principle of potential reversibility can be found again in two beautiful series from 1961: one consisting of 12 sheets of line drawings, executed on April 23; the other involving large masses of black ink on white paper, executed from April 20 to April 26. In the latter series, the date is often used as a plastic element; like a small floating capsule, it imparts, not without irony, a somewhat moonlike tonality to the composition.

Jean-Pierre Criqui

Translated from the French by Jeanine Herman.