The Evolution of Abstraction in Tony Smith’s Artwork
The hexagon offers possibilities for greater flexibility in planning and, even, in construction for certain problems. But in spite of far greater advantages for building at least, the tetrahedron was taking me further and further for considerations of function and structure and toward speculation in pure form – Tony Smith, 1966
The Newark Museum’s collection of American art holds a number of artworks by Tony Smith, and reflects on the artist’s multidisciplinary career and practice as a painter, architect and sculptor. In all of Smith’s work, geometric and cubic elements are echoed and resonate throughout these disciplines. One of the earliest pieces in the collection was created during Smith’s enrollment at the The Art Students League of New York in the 1930s, while studying with Vaclav Vytlacil and George Grosz. This early work (Untitled, 1932) was probably sketched from a live model; however, since his early career as a painter, Smith rejected traditional modes of representation and was primarily attracted to abstraction and the transformation of geometric shapes.
While Smith is not largely credited for his career as a painter (but is rather famous for his sculptures), he did produce a number of paintings in the 1930s, mid-1950s and early 1960s. Many times, through trial and error, Smith experimented with abstraction as well as with simple geometric forms in logical, constructive compositions. Thus, Smith’s paintings vary in style and approach but are also derivative. An early painting from the 50s, Untitled, 1958, for example, demonstrates Smith’s inclination to abstraction and his experimentation with and integration of positive and negative space, organic and abstract forms. Thick layers of paint and opposition between solid and void, recall Clyfford Still’s juxtaposition of colors and irregular, pointy shapes.
Even though Tony Smith shared similar views and elements with members of the Abstract Expressionist pantheon, his engagement with architecture and other experimentations with forms varied frequently and distinguished him from his contemporaries and peers Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko and Clyfford Still. Tony Smith was born in South Orange, New Jersey on September 23, 1912, the same year as Jackson Pollock, whom he knew very well and was very close with. Belonging to the generation of the Abstract Expressionists, all born between 1900–1915, he had a particular vision and was not restricted to one style, medium or technique. It was only during the 60s that Smith’s style and artistic language was defined and characterized by his constructive compositions, containing cubic forms, which were also incorporated into Smith’s black, modular sculptures of the 1960s and 1970s. Untitled,ca. 1960, exemplifies Smith’s geometrical style of this later period, consisting of mostly free flowing cubic forms. This geometrically structured painting demonstrates Smith’s mature and most comprehensive style, and compared to his earlier work created almost a decade earlier, the abstraction and the transformation of shapes evolved quite a bit.
One of Smith’s artworks in the collection is a rare and fascinating early painting, dated ca. 1949–1953. Celebrated for its unusual style, scale, context and history, this painting (Untitled (Mural for Stone House), 1949-53) was actually proposed and intended to function as a mural in a house Tony Smith had designed himself in Bernardsville, New Jersey (see photo.) Smith studied architecture in 1937 at the New Bauhaus in Chicago and in 1938–1939 worked for Frank Lloyd Wright. As an architect, Smith designed many private homes, among them the house of the painter Theodoros Stamos’s in 1951. Smith was influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright’s sensitivity to the natural site and the organic patterns and structure are clearly derived from Wright’s shapes and style. His commission for the 1939 home in New Jersey included this mural, which Smith planned for the house’s foyer. Sadly, the house was demolished and no longer exists, but the mural brings an exciting aspect of Tony Smith’s career as a painter. Placed on the wall that faced the front door, Smith worked on this mural intermittently over an extended period. This mural was never fully completed due to Smith’s frequent change of mind, which finally pushed the homeowners to vote against its display, and instead, turned into the wall, which was then covered with wallpaper. Even though there is a moral dilemma about reclaiming an artwork the artist did not complete and rejected, this object not only represents an interesting moment in Smith’s career as a painter, but also is a testimony to an unusual style and technique, not typical of his other work. This painting contains gestural motifs and a celebration of colors, which elicits a certain rhythm, almost calligraphic, as well as surreal inspired elements and biomorphic shapes. Additionally, there is a use of warm and cold color palette, emphasizing positive and negative spaces. Different from his later constructive paintings, this mural has multidirectional movements. This oeuvre demonstrates Smith’s affinity for abstraction and at the same time, this composition reveals structural, geometric forms, presenting us with Smith’s versatility and shifts between abstraction and geometrical lines. This fascinating, experimental work of art is different from the constructive compositions executed in the 60s, while the latter bear a relationship to his cubic sculptures and evoke architectural elements. (This wonderful mural is temporarily on view in the Museum’s Picturing America galleries, for the celebration of Smith’s centennial.)
Smith’s constructivist approach and aesthetics, both in painting and sculpture from the 1960s and 1970s, has replaced the Abstract Expressionist style seen in the mural. The brushstrokes and the gestural elements have been converted into solid, cubistic shapes, recalling Minimalist sculpture. For J.C, 1969, is a delightful sculptured displayed in the NewarkMuseum garden, and is part of a series conceived in 1969 in which Smith dedicated sculptures to close friends, whose titles bear their initials. J.C. refers to the French cubist Jean Charlot, who was an instructor at the Arts Students League of New York and an advocate muralist. This sculpture was done not too long after Smith’s first public debut as a sculptor in 1966 at the age 54, in a show at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, titled “Black, White and Grey.”
There is no doubt that Smith the architect influenced Smith the sculptor. Additionally, Smith’s awareness and admiration of the Bauhaus style and other European artists, especially Kasimir Malevich and Piet Mondrian, rooted in him his Constructivist aesthetic. Thus, this sculpture could also be associated with twentieth century constructivists whose forms and measurements were prominent characteristics in their work. Smith’s modular system and rearrangement of forms resulted in absent counterparts, so that only one side of For J.C. contains a geometric component. For J.C. is a dynamic sculpture, as it is not immediately clear how many faces it has or what shapes the other side will reveal. This notion of presence and absence does recall Smith’s earlier experimentations with positive and negative spaces.
Smith used common industrial material when working on his sculptures. To make them, Smith would call the Industrial Welding Co. in Newark, New Jersey and ask for the following: “Build me a six-foot cube of quarter-inch hot-rolled steel, with diagonal internal cross bracing.” Ordering the construction of black steel, five times the size of his maquette, these sheets were marked and sheared to shape. Hexagonal elements, tetrahedron and octahedron forms demonstrate Smith’s architectural background and also echo the geometric shapes that appear in his paintings.
Painter, sculptor and architect, Tony Smith’s artworks are uniquely presented in the NewarkMuseum’s collection and demonstrate the links between these practices. The sculptures, based on Smith’s solid cubes and rectangles, molecular and crystalline structures, were executed in various dimensions, mediums and materials. His sculptures reveal geometric components that his
paintings may not, creating a dynamic dialogue between two distinct constructed situations, and thus complementing each other conceptually and configuratively.
─Shlomit Dror, Research Associate, American Art
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