Richard Smith, Window I, 1978, acrylic on canvas, 75 1/2 × 72 1/2".

Richard Smith, Window I, 1978, acrylic on canvas, 75 1/2 × 72 1/2".

Richard Smith

Richard Smith, Window I, 1978, acrylic on canvas, 75 1/2 × 72 1/2".

In his wonderful book We Have Never Been Modern—the original, Nous navons jamais été modernes, came out in 1991—the French sociologist Bruno Latour shines a spotlight on the ways in which Western modernism was obsessed with a process of purification and segregation. In art, this meant that one either created stark abstractions, worshipping the sublime of the Abstract Expressionists or the purity of geometry, or favored Pop art’s embrace of the ordinary and quotidian. Blending the two was inconceivable, and artists who had the courage to experiment with hybrid forms and techniques found themselves pushed to the margins. That has been the fate of the artist Richard Smith, who was born in Letchworth, UK, in 1931 and moved permanently to New York in 1978. He has dared to mix abstraction with Pop and the cinematic image, and his art has been largely underappreciated as a result.

The recent Cologne exhibition of seven of Smith’s works made between 1959 and 1979 was stunning: The ambivalence of his paintings, their freshness and air of casual ease, remains spellbinding, and it is hard to believe that some of these canvases are more than half a century old. Smith was influenced early on by the British Pop art of Richard Hamilton and others; he confronted Abstract Expressionism when he first lived in New York, from 1959 to 1961. By the early 1960s, he was devising an idiosyncratic synthesis between these two contradictory approaches. A typical example is Tip Top, 1962, a painting in which colorful circles are set in rows framed by green and yellow arrow-like shapes on a white ground. The forms seem abstract and yet not, and indeed the circles allude to something perfectly concrete and utterly banal: the contents of a pack of cigarettes. Yet they are unrecognizably huge, as though caught on camera in extreme close-up. In fact, Smith often took inspiration from pictures he saw projected on the silver screen. In particular, close-ups that transform ordinary objects into oversize apparitions feature in his painting with some regularity. He relates his works’ scale to that not only of movie screens but also of billboards, both of which, as he’s said, “never present objects actual size; you could drown in a glass of beer, live in a semi-detached cigarette pack.” In conjunction with the title Tip Top, this technique gives rise to a cheerful absurdity that is alien to classical abstraction.

In 1972, Smith started making what he called his kite paintings—but though these works may be paintings, they are certainly not pictures. These are painted canvases stretched on aluminum poles with strings; they have a provisional look, as though they could be dismantled at any time, like tents. The braced canvases of various sizes are stacked atop one another; in Window I, 1978, for example, three orange rectangles on blue backgrounds overlap in a staggered arrangement. The finished constructions are suspended by a cord from a nail on the wall: abstract pictorial objects that allude to concrete—and in this instance, distinctly volatile and fragile—objects by virtue of their titles. Four of these “kites” from the 1970s were included in the Cologne show. Their physical presence, audaciously hybrid facture, and resulting absurdity anticipate a good deal of work made recently by far younger artists—and still feel fresher than much of it.

Noemi Smolik

Translated from German by Gerrit Jackson.