New York

Tony Smith

Tony Smith’s Moondog, 1964, consists of extended polyhedral columns (the “legs” are octahedral; the top, tetrahedral) assembled in a structure that, according to the artist, “relates to Japanese and Korean lanterns.” Though Smith envisioned it at its current size—approximately seventeen feet high—the piece was originally three feet tall and only realized in its full scale after Smith’s death. Moondog is an elaborate, almost labyrinthine combination of form and volume; internal and external elements are fused in complex geometric configurations. Unlike most of Smith’s earlier pieces, which tended to be rectangular, Moondog cannot be apprehended in its entirety from any single vantage point. It appears frontal, but multiply so; planar, but volumetrically changeable (the bevel edges emphasize volume over plane, and lead the eye easily around the corners of the polyhedrons). From one angle, the intricate network of tetrahedrons and elongated octahedrons seems animalized, evoking a dog squatting back on its haunches or the one in Joan Miró’s painting Dog Barking at the Moon, 1926. Yet Moondog’s open lattice form, faceted planes, and crystalline structure change dramatically as one moves through the three-legged columnar formation; the eye is constantly led toward new configurations. Each viewpoint is independent of the last, offering new geometrical vistas before the previous ones are forgotten, but there is no logic to the sequence of viewing. Indeed, the difficulty in comprehending the structure and interpreting its composition seems central to this piece.

Smith’s work has often been subsumed under the category of Minimal art, due largely to quintessentially Minimalist works such as Die and The Black Box (both 1962.) but also to the fact that, like many Minimalists, he had his work fabricated. But Moondog, with its unpredictable lines and the rotating motion of its polyhedral forms, is more baroque than Minimal. Indeed, there is a play between the structure’s gestalt and its changing configurations in space that is evident not only as one walks around the sculpture but from its position in the gallery. The light reflects off the bevel facets, making it difficult to decipher whether the sculpture’s shifting planar surfaces and angles are coming in or going out. The sculpture thus appears as part of a continual space rather than as an autonomous object—it is at once void and solid, inside and outside. As one moves through Moondog and beholds the open vaulted space it creates, Smith’s structure becomes more like an architectural environment than a self-contained work.

The visual fragmentation, openness, and mutability inherent in Moondog contrasts remarkably with the other sculpture that formed part of this show. Entitled Smog, 1969, it consisted of an entirely regular, altogether logical modular system of interlocking tetrahedrons stretched horizontally across the floor. Nine and a half feet wide by six and a half feet deep, this is the small version of the large public sculpture Smug, 1973, that was installed in lower Manhattan several years ago. And yet, like Frank Stella’s early ’60s series of notch paintings, which generate a system that could be repeated indefinitely, more units could conceivably be added to Smog in all directions. Indeed a series of preparatory drawings exhibited along with the sculpture suggest precisely this. The nonhierarchical and, by implication, infinitely expansive nature of this work is evocative not only of Jackson Pollock’s allover paintings but also of Carl Andre’s and Donald Judd’s modular sculpture.

What is so interesting about Moondog and Smog, then, is that they point to the limits of the space in which they are installed while implicitly suggesting what lies beyond them. In so doing, these works straddle art-historical categories: Abstract Expressionism and Minimal art, and all that followed (including earth art and post-Minimalism) in the late ’60s and early ’70s.

Alexander Alberro