New York

Tony Smith

Mitchell-Innes & Nash | Uptown

One pleasant surprise of Tony Smith’s retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art (five years ago already!) was the group of paintings known as the “Louisenberg” series, dating from 1953–55, together with a related set begun at the same time but completed earlier and left untitled. (For brevity’s sake I’ll christen this group “Robotnik,” after a popular Tetris-like computer game called Dr. Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine.) Reviewing the MoMA exhibition in these pages, I voiced my regret that Smith had not pursued this vein further, and I privately hoped that there might be more work of the kind. The recent Mitchell-Innes & Nash show of Smith’s paintings unfortunately did not alter the size of the corpus, but it did provide an opportunity to zoom in on these works, whose importance in Smith’s development—and extraordinary inventiveness in the context of the early ’50s—was somewhat lost in the retrospective, dwarfed, in my mind without justification, by the gigantism of the sculptures.

What is immediately striking is the date of the paintings—they look a decade ahead of their time, at least in the situation of postwar American art. They share this characteristic with the work executed by Ellsworth Kelly during the period he lived in Paris (1948–54)—and perhaps for the same reasons: Not only were the “Robotnik” and “Louisenberg” series painted during Smith’s two-year stay in Europe, but like Kelly’s early works they also revolved around the dialectic of order and randomness, chance and systematicity. It is not fortuitous that Kelly’s and Smith’s work from the early ’50s should have been selected by Eugene Goossen for his “Art of the Real” show of 1968, for they look contemporary to the Minimalist sculpture that exhibition was devoted to glorifying. Nor was it fortuitous that their radical novelty should have gone mostly unnoticed at the time: Praising someone for being a “precursor” might be well intentioned, but it ends up providing nothing more than a first-class burial.

This is not to say that artists work in a vacuum, unaware of their predecessors. There is definitely something European about the two Smith series, for example—and Robert Storr, the author of the catalogue essay, is right in alluding to Hans Arp’s biomorphs and to the paintings of Arp’s wife, Sophie Taeuber-Arp. But finding out whether Smith was aware of the Dadaistic overtone of his work during his sojourn in Germany is less relevant than understanding why he would have been drawn to a way of thinking close to Arp’s and Taeuber-Arp’s from twenty years prior.

Unlike Kelly, Smith was probably not engaged in a search for ways “not to compose” when he set out to paint during his prolonged European vacation. It is more likely that he wanted to find a way to begin, or rather to begin anew. He had not painted much since his student years at Chicago’s New Bauhaus, and since the end of the war he had earned his living as an art teacher and architect while befriending many Abstract Expressionists, foremost among them Pollock and Newman. With his intimidating AbEx friends no longer lurking over his shoulder, and in need of some footing, he felt free to reconnect with his youth—where indeed we can find the origin of his extraordinary painting campaign of 1953–55.

Smith’s interest in D’Arcy Thompson’s On Growth and Form (1917) figures prominently in all major studies of his work, and rightly so. The artist’s rather awkward use of a hexagonal grid as a planning device for his first major architectural project, the Brotherton House (1944), bespeaks his early fascination for the honeycomb pattern celebrated by the Scottish zoologist (more at least than it betrays his debt to Frank Lloyd Wright, for example). But I don’t think Smith knew how to channel his lust for modularity until the “Robotnik” and “Louisenberg” series.

Another trope of the Smith literature is the artist’s interest in mazes. Late in life (1975) he described labyrinths as “formal and symbolic analogues of a breakdown in intellect and will,” adding, “They are of the underworld and they fascinate children.” The remark is rather counterintuitive, coming from an admirer of Thompson and his zealous attempt to find a geometric rationale behind all natural shapes. Labyrinths are dangerous—one gets lost in them, even their makers. The sculptor Daedalus, who built the most famous maze for King Minos (to host the Minotaur), could not remember its plan: When Ariadne secretly asked for his help he gave her a ball of thread, and once condemned for such a treasonous act to being trapped in his own construction with his son Icarus, his only escape was by inventing artificial wings to fly out. Yet labyrinths are orderly. Like Thompson’s honeycomb, they are decentered but reticular. The main difference between the two structures is that in the bee’s alveolate architecture repetition is the rule; in the human-made maze it is a lure.

“Any search for the center, or for the ‘recipe’ for getting out of the maze failed to interest me,” Smith wrote in the same 1975 statement. He could have penned the sentence two decades earlier—with the “Robotnik” and the “Louisenberg” series he discovered the connection between his appetite for “systems of order” (his words) and the pleasure one can find, momentarily at least, in being lost. An anecdotal, serendipitous element might have informed Smith’s eureka: The “Louisenberg” series, we are told, was named after a geological site near Bayreuth recently identified (so recently that this fact could not be included in the catalogue) as the Luisenburg Labyrinth, a park celebrated by Goethe for its multiple assemblages of peanut-shaped boulders. This is no more to say, of course, that the peanut forms populating Smith’s “Louisenberg” series are based on the configuration of Luisenburg’s rocks than to claim that the overall structure of these paintings would be based on the labyrinthine promenade loop found at the park. But something there might have triggered Smith’s revisiting of Thompson, and my guess is that it may be the way in which rounded boulders aggregate to form a mass and the nature of interstices between the stones (a 1954 drawing included in the MoMA retrospective and reproduced on page 81 of the catalogue to that show provides us with the best evidence).

The passage that most impressed Smith in On Growth and Form is Thompson’s discussion of “close-packing,” with its brilliant exposition of the bee’s hexagon as a space-saving device, a product of natural forces striving to square the circle, so to speak (having to grow within a limited surface, circular cells will of necessity become hexagonal because this represents the maximal possibility of expansion). In the “Robotnik” and “Louisenberg” series, Smith asks: And what about mergers? What happens when the destiny of a cell is not expansion (through occupying as much space as possible) but through fusion with its neighbors?

The two series provide a somewhat different answer. The works in “Robotnik,” like its namesake computer game, stress dynamism, temporality: We are witnessing the process in which a cohabitation of circles arranged in a regular grid pattern arbitrarily transforms itself, by sheer capillarity, into a differentiated grouping of amoebas of various sizes and colors. The more unit cells merge, the greater are the possibilities of morphological change. A two-unit group will invariably be a peanut, either vertical or horizontal, but a three-unit group can be formed of three cells in a row, in a right-angle configuration, or in what would be the equivalent of the knight’s march in chess. Four cells could assemble to form a squarish shape or a rhomboid one, but they may lead to irregular formations as well. As a rule, the potential for irregularity grows with the numbers of cells that fuse, and the degree of anthropomorphism (or at least zoomorphism) increases as well.

In the “Louisenberg” group, it is the seriality of the system that is emphasized, and as if to make the point ever clearer, Smith charted the whole set in a single drawing (the many diagrammatic sketches in the exhibition, transforming us into attentive sleuths, was a major component of its success). The beauty of his concept lies in the fact that the largest canvas, Louisenberg #4, contains all the twenty-four other compositions. That is: Except for Louisenberg #8, which reproduces it in toto, albeit in other colors, the composition of every single canvas of this series is the duplication of a fragment, at a different scale or not, of the mother composition #4 (and when he re-created the mother composition in a mural scale for the “Art of the Real” show—at 8' 3⁄4“ x 11' 7 3⁄4”—Smith also made sure to exhibit close to it about half its offspring). The growth is not by accretion, as was the case in the protozoan “Robotnik” series, but scission (another strong biological model). The result is perhaps less comic, but more rewarding, for it raises an essential question—one that, sadly, Smith chose to ignore when he turned to sculpture a decade or so later.

One of the complaints I have expressed about Smith’s mode of working is that it ignores scale (he proceeded from small models up, as if the size of a shape had no bearing on its effect). But looking at several paintings of the “Louisenberg” series side by side, one realizes that in these works scale, particularly internal scale, was a predominant factor, a variable that Smith set out to test with remarkable wit and flair. Louisenberg #2 comprises two peanut shapes, one stacked above the other, filling a square canvas; in Louisenberg #7, also square but about two-fifths the size of #2, the lower peanut has been replaced by two circles, the peanut form’s antecedent before merger. The configuration of Louisenberg #2 is to be found in the upper-left corner of Louisenberg #4, and that of Louisenberg #7 close to the lower-right corner, but it takes a special effort to identify the precise nature of the kinship. The main source of difficulty is the dramatic alteration of internal scale (two or three shapes are of a much larger scale, no matter what their size, than the same shapes within the context of a multitude). And we can see how Smith inquired about external scale as well: The size of his peanuts and circles are the same in Louisenberg #7 and #4 (the original 1953–54 version), but not so in #2, where the units are much larger, in proportion with the increased size of the square support. Perhaps so we can’t miss his point—that variation in scale necessarily alters our perception of a shape and how we relate to it—Smith multiplied the colors and textural modalities in the series: In some the paint is brushed with bravado, allowing the white ground to breathe through, and the color contrasts are gentle; in others the paint is applied as flatly as possible, the edges are sharp, and the optical, simultaneous contrast of color dizzying. More likely, he wanted to prevent his work from looking too much like a pedagogic demonstration. By all accounts Smith was a brilliant teacher, and he knew that a lesson is always better learned if received unknowingly.

Yve-Alain Bois is a contributing editor of Artforum.