Re-Approaching Tony Smith

Light Up, 1971. Painted steel, 21 x 16.5 x 28.75 ft.
Light Up, 1971. Painted steel, 21 x 16.5 x 28.75 ft.

Once in a rare while you come across a public sculpture that so transforms the space its in that it takes your breath away, and you return again and again to see if surprise and delight vanish with familiarity. Tony Smith’s “Light Up” (1971) in front of the Seagram building only gets better with repeated visits. Recently, on a hot summer weekend in New York, I found several men quietly photographing it from all angles and a group of three twenty-something adults discussing it enthusiastically. It was not their first visit either.

Light Up, 1971. Painted steel, 21 x 16.5 x 28.75 ft.
Light Up, 1971. Painted steel, 21 x 16.5 x 28.75 ft,

The 20-foot-9-inch steel sculpture seemingly transforms itself, changing configuration as you walk around or through it. Like a jolt of electricity, it energizes its environs, bright yellow against the bronze of Mies van der Rohe’s elegant skyscraper, a jazzy counterpoint to its staid geometry.1 Part of “Tony Smith in the City,” the civic component of “Tony Smith: Architect, Painter, Sculptor” at the Museum of Modern Art (July 2– September 2, 1998), it exemplifies Smith’s best sculpture and challenges contemporary thinking about public art. Neither site specific (on loan from the University of Pittsburgh), nor community-based, it nevertheless succeeds both as art and public art. It is aesthetically challenging and it is also a public amenity—people really appreciate and enjoy it.

Light Up, 1971. Painted steel, 21 x 16.5 x 28.75 ft

Two other temporary installations of Smith’s sculpture, also by the Public Art Fund in cooperation with MoMA, are not nearly as well placed. “Smog” (1973) at the Sixth Avenue and 4lst Street entrance to Bryant Park, the site of Smith’s first successful public art exhibition in 1967, is so low to the ground that it is barely visible against the fountain behind it. On a day when the park was well in use, the sculpture was largely ignored except by a small girl who asked her parents to photograph her as she climbed all over it and by two young men who tapped its surface as they walked past, trying to determine its material (cast bronze with black patina). Suggesting some kind of mutant geometric spider, the modular sculpture would have fared better on grass, not possible in the Bryant Park of today with many public events scheduled for the lawn.2

Smog, 1969-70. Painted steel, 1 x 9.5 x 6.5 ft.

“Cigarette” (1961), situated at Doris C. Freedman Plaza at the entrance to Central Park on Fifth Avenue and 60th Street, seemed to lack breathing room.3 Sharply angled and potentially as endlessly intriguing as “Light Up”, it appeared cramped by overhanging trees in full bloom and an array of vendors, somehow managing to get lost in the crowd in spite of its scale.

Cigarette, 1961. 15 x 25.5 x 18.75 ft.

Siting problems also marred the effect of some of Smith’s work in MoMA’s sculpture garden, the first time this favorite NYC spot has been devoted to one artist. Works of disparate scale were often too close to one another. “Gracehoper” (1962) up on a platform looked stranded in mid-space while “Smog” (1969-70), perhaps appropriately, disappeared on the ground. Faring far better, “Moondog” (1964), alone in a corner framed by museum and cafeteria walls, invited visitors to walk through its strange open faceted space and experience a structure that seemed potentially endless and abrupt at the same time, suggesting a larger mysterious order of things.

Moondog, 1964. Painted aluminum, 17 x 13.75 x 15.75 ft.

Grasping an underlying universal structure, in the end, is what Tony Smith was always about, an ambition associated with many of the Abstract Expressionists. Born in 1912, close friends with Jackson Pollock and deeply influenced by Barnett Newman, he shared their spiritual, if not utopian, ambitions for art. And as the catalogue essay and exhibition, curated and sensitively installed by Robert Storr, cogently demonstrate, the generally historicized view of Smith as a minimal sculptor is way off the mark.4 Although his first ambition was to be a painter, he actually entered the art world working on a building project. Sculpture came last to this enigmatic artist who was over 50 when he first exhibited publicly. No Minimalist he; it only looked that way.

Influenced early on by reading naturalist D’Arcy Thompson’s “On Growth and Form” (1917) pertaining to geometric form found in nature and Jay Hambridge’s “Dynamic Symmetry” analyzing the Golden Section as a link between natural forms and ideal geometry, his architecture and painting explored both biomorphic and geometric form as essence. Considering space as a whole, he saw sculpture as a void in a larger invisible structure. A self-taught maverick and mystic, he referred to his buildings as designs and his sculptures as presences. Smith’s dense and difficult work is charged throughout by the tension created when seemingly irreconcilable opposites are fused.

Olsen House (site plan), c.1951. Colored pencil on paper, 18.75 x 24 in

Smith’s forays into architecture synthesize Frank Lloyd Wright’s American expression of organic architecture and European Bauhaus Modernist forms.5 He spent some time during the late 1930s working as a carpenter’s assistant and bricklayer on Wright’s Ardmore project outside Philadelphia, studied briefly at Taliesen, and helped build Wright’s Armstrong House in Ogden Dunes, Indiana. Influenced earlier by the 1932 International Style exhibition at MoMA curated by H.R. Hitchcock and Philip Johnson, and a brief stint at the New Bauhaus in Chicago headed by Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Smith was also a great admirer of Le Corbusier, searching for essential structure in planning as well as architecture.

In 1943 Smith wrote “The Pattern of Organic Life in America”, lamenting our “lack of any integrating and unifying element, any myth, any bible by which we can relate and interpret the complexity of our vast experience.” This void, he thought, might be filled by abstraction because “the shadow of the underparts of the train—the poles and cross pieces, insulators and wires against the sky—the forms of the factories for crushing stones, etc. the corrals and fences and loading stations for cattle…demand a tremendous abstract form.” Smith shared the modernist enthusiasm for substantial industrial structures. When he remarked in 1966, “There is nothing to look at between the Bennington Monument and the George Washington Bridge,” he was still thinking of art on this mega-scale.

For a brief time Smith ran the family business started by his grandfather, learning to use the tools and dies manufactured by the A.P. Smith Manufacturing Company. Later on, although intrigued by technical solutions, he cared less for the hands-on experience of making art, with many of the structural solutions and actual painting carried out by students working as studio assistants.6 Since art for Smith was always “a conduit for spiritual things,” actual execution was presumably immaterial. Salvation lay in the concept and for Smith, raised as a Catholic and educated by Jesuits, religion was a force to be reckoned with.

Church (model), 1951. Wood and cardboard with paint and plaster, 17.2 x 47 x 73.7 cm.

One of Smith’s most interesting architectural projects was a 1951 design for a monumental Catholic church.7 Prompted by Matisse’s chapel in Vence consecrated that year, MoMA curator James Johnson Sweeney and a group of Catholic patrons asked Jackson Pollock to create a cycle of paintings for a contemporary church. He agreed only if Smith would design the building. Pollock planned a series on glass to serve as clerestory windows in Smith’s modular scheme.  Based on a hexagonal unit, the church was to have no true center, no traditional hierarchical plan, reflecting, as John Keenan observed, Smith’s sense of the “problems of Christianity and democracy.” Not built due to lack of financial support, it remains a challenging concept, an indication of Smith’s rethinking traditional building forms.8

In time the client-imposed constraints of architecture proved too frustrating for Smith, and he turned to expressions of pure form in painting and eventually to sculpture. Exploring both biomorphic and geometric structuring elements, his paintings suggest shapes that push the constraints of the picture plane, squeezing out the available space, or structure it geometrically by eschewing symmetry for imbalance in an apparently stable instability. His hard edge paintings suggest both ground plans and architectonic forms. He explored the former architecturally in his 1960 proposal for a memorial to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, consisting of three white granite monumental walls that would have defined an awesome space. A decidedly “less is more” approach, especially when compared to the sprawling design that was finally built in Washington, it suggests a stark and focused experience.

Die, 1962. Painted steel, 6 x 6 x 6 ft.

Smith’s explorations of architectonic space in painting began in the early 1960s, perhaps influenced by Rothko’s eventually abandoned experiments for the Seagram murals, in which he approached painting as an architectural element. Smith’s most stunning accomplishment was a 1980 painting enlarged according to his specifications by studio assistant, Jim Sheppard, from a 1962 composition to an 8-by-13-foot canvas in oil and alkyd. The resulting monumental work, exhibited in the powerful last room of the exhibition, together with the sculptures “Die” (1961) and “The Elevens Are Up” (1963), reveals how tenaciously Smith explored his formal thinking in different dimensions and how closely his strongest work is allied with the dark spirituality that animates the work of Rothko and Newman. The painting in layered somber tones envelops the viewer in a starkly beautiful visual space, while the black sculptures with their ominous titles structure space in terms of ultimate obstacle (Die), and limited vision as well as inclusion and exclusion (The Elevens Are Up).9

The Elevens Are Up, 1963. Painted plywood (destroyed), 8 x 8 x 8 ft.

“Bennington Structure” (1961) marks Smith’s turning point from architecture to sculpture. Following the hexagonal model of his unbuilt church, it expands over the ground, some forty feet overall, suggesting a potentially never ending growth. After a debilitating automobile accident in 1961, Smith began making small cardboard models for larger works. Returning to an early childhood practice of building with small medicine cartons that began when he was four and quarantined with tuberculosis in a one-room structure behind his family’s house, he now amused himself with more complex explorations of three-dimensional form. Displayed in the penultimate gallery of the exhibition, a series of small-scale modules and maquettes distill some of his most sophisticated visual thinking.

Bennington Structure, 1961. Plywood, metal, lathe, and Portland cement, 40 ft. long overall.

“All of my sculpture is on the edge of dreams,” Smith once remarked. Indeed, everything in his work happens at the edge and each time he felt his way toward this critical juncture and demarcation: “You have to take each plane as it comes and find out in what way it will join the other planes.” The edge is the point of greatest tension, the structural boundary, the transition from here and now to there and then, the last point of equilibrium before change.

Considering Smith’s work in its entirety, as this exhibition so ably makes possible, one approaches it somewhat as one approaches infinity never quite seeming to grasp its essence fully. Always on the edge, eluding us even as we near it, it remains a powerful expression of complex visual thinking about essential structure and the possibility of a larger order of things. Judging from some recent visits to MoMA, it may be that, as in the late ’60s, Smith’s work is again being shown at a time when it is in a fundamental way at odds with current art practice and criticism. Thinking grandly, perhaps at times grandiosely, Smith’s words and works challenge the prevalent distrust, if not disparagement, of a generation of artists who thought themselves capable of taking on the world. We might, now that we have a clearer view of the socio-political context in which they worked, do well to reconsider the possibility that their words were spoken in good faith and their works made with the intent to expand rather than limit the range of human potential and understanding.

Free Ride, 1962. Painted steel, 6.75 x 6.75 x 6.75 ft.

Tony Smith’s art is difficult to grasp visually, verbally, and intellectually. It offers a pre-Pop experience. What you see is never all there is because from a different angle you always see something else. It requires that you look seriously and think about it. But if you choose to engage it, it prompts musings about complex structure, the meeting of impossible opposites (like anthropomorphic geometry), the nature of infinity, and the impossibilities of easy answers and labels.


This is Smith’s only full scale yellow sculpture and, according to Joan Pachner, the only one he “felt had the visual strength to hold its own against the gridded buildings around it.” (See Joan Pachner, Tony Smith: Architect, Painter, Sculptor, Ph.D. dissertation, New York University, Institute of Fine Arts, 1993, p.37.) The color may have been suggested by a news truck Smith saw when looking at the city from Mount Washington, but it was also appropriate to the original client, Westinghouse Electric Corporation.

2 Smith often expressed a preference for siting his works amidst grass and trees, feeling that the hard edge geometry of urban sites reinforced the two dimensionality of his work, rather than its sculptural qualities.

3 Both works refer to smoking, at the time not considered the social pariah it is now. Smith arrived at the title “Light Up” after searching the dictionary for an appropriate synonym for incandescence, found corona, and then associated it with the cigars he smoked all his life. (My thanks to Joan Pachner for this information.) It seems a gratuitous and humorless bit of “pc” overkill that the NYC Parks and Recreation Department required a public disclaimer on Public Art Fund labels: “The exhibition of the work “Cigarette” is not intended to promote cigarette smoking, a habit which is always dangerous and sometimes fatal.” Get real—the sculpture is not Joe Camel.

4 See Robert Storr, “A Man of Parts,” in Tony Smith: Architect. Painter. Sculptor (NY: The Museum of Modern Art, 1998), pp. 10-35. Surprisingly, this was the first U.S. retrospective of this influential artist.

5 In addition to Storr’s catalogue essay, see John Keenan, “Architecture,” in Tony Smith, pp. 36-49.

6 For example, it was Smith’s Pratt student, Arthur File, who suggested the method of constructing his ever larger sculptures by joining cheaply made exterior planes at their edges and painting the resulting forms with black automobile undercoating. See catalogue, pp. 191-92.

7 Robert Storr, “A Man of Parts,” p.16. See also John Keenan, “Architecture,” p. 45. Smith’s quotation is from a 1954 lette

Smith’s other architectural projects included a studio for the painter Fritz Blutman (1945), a summer house for the painter Theodore Stamos (1951), gallery space for French and Company and the installation of Barnett Newman’s first major show (1959), a live-in studio and guest house for Betty Parsons (1960–62) and her gallery at 20 West 57th Street a year later.

9 Smith observed that the dimensions of “Die”, a six-foot cube, also refer to being six feet under. “The Elevens Are Up” refers to the veins protruding on the necks of serious drinkers when they’ve had too much, a sign to bartenders to stop serving them.

Harriet F. Senie is the author of Contemporary Public Sculpture: Tradition, Transformation, and Controversy.