by Paul Laster
Making Pop Art before it was even called Pop, British artist Richard Smith has been painting and exhibiting for more than 60 years. Coming to America on a fellowship in 1959, he quickly found himself at the center of New York’s downtown art scene, with a string of solo shows at the seminal Green Gallery and later the Jewish Museum and Richard Feigen & Co.
Exhibiting with Kasmin Gallery in London in 1963, Smith soon had shows at Whitechapel; the Sao Paulo Biennial, where he received the Grand Prize; and the Venice Biennale, where he was part of a five-person show at the British Pavilion in 1966, and again in 1970, where he solely represented his country with an adventurous body of work that pushed painting to an new edge.
Smith’s triumph in Venice was followed five years later by a survey show in 1975 at Tate Gallery in London, and since that time the museum has acquired numerous pieces by the artist. Tate Britain recently included one of his stellar works, a three-dimensional painting from 1963 titled Piano, in its critically acclaimed rehanging of the collection, which covers work from 1545 to the present.
Besides the Tate, Smith’s work resides in the collections of MoMA, the Met, MCA Chicago, the V&A, the Walker, and the Hirschhorn, as well as many other museums and private collections worldwide.
Whitehot contributor Paul Laster caught up with the 82-year-old artist on the last day of his show at Flowers in New York to discuss his latest body of work and how it relates to his past production.
Paul Laster: When did you start working on your new paintings for the show at Flowers in New York?
Richard Smith: I began working on them sometime around October of 2012.
Laster: Do you work toward a show or just for the sake of working?
Smith: I had a show in mind when I started this body of work. Initially, I had four large canvases stretched and I started one; but it was too reflective of what I had previously been doing, so abandoned it.
Laster: All of the new paintings have a frame within the frame of the canvas structure. It seems new to your work to me, but is it a motif you’ve previously explored?
Smith: I don’t ever remember using this type of confining or delineating frame structure in the past. I was absorbed by this idea of a frame within the painting, because in the previous show I had actually framed the paintings for the first time ever. They seemed to demand a frame at that time, but I don’t necessarily think so now. These new paintings all have a frame within the painting.
Laster: In a 2010 interview with Robert Ayers, you said that your sources had become more self-referential, that your paintings had a more simplicity and directness to them, and that they have an outsider feel to them; and the press release for your current show states that with these new paintings you’ve turned the exploration more inward. How are those realities expressed in your current body of work?
Smith: I’m not sure how private the interior of these paintings is, but there were two themes that I was exploring: a local view within a room or a confined area and the S paintings.
Laster: The four S paintings—Blue S, NY S, S Team, and On Ice—have double S shapes interwoven with the painted rectangles. What does the S signify?
Smith: Some people think it’s a reference to Superman, but that wasn’t really an image that I had in mind. I wasn’t brought up with Superman. I think the S is a beautiful shape—and it’s the Smith initial.
Laster: But why is it doubled?
Smith: I’ve been thinking about that. There are two for emphasis, and then two for way of distortion—so that the S isn’t pure. It’s as if there is a reflection of it on something or an interference of sorts.
Laster: Except for On Ice, the paintings have vibrant, contrasting colors. What do you think about when choosing colors?
Smith: I don’t find the colors especially bright in this show. They seem to me more subdued—pinks and sort of sky blues. The colors are actually more inward looking. The interior paintings have colors like you might find on a swatch for choosing upholstery—they’re quiet.
Laster: Do you use paint directly from the tube or do you mix it?
Smith: I mix it with a medium and water.
Laster: Even though the colors aren’t that bright, what I’m seeing is that when the colors are contrasting it creates a vibrant surface. Like the yellow contrasting with the blue in Blue S or the green and red contrasting in Red Spiral. That seems to be a way of working in a lot of your paintings. Is that something that you always have in mind?
Smith: Yes, it’s something that’s occurred in a lot of works. I was thinking back to the last show, where the paintings were much more complicated—they were more jazzy, I thought. These are less so—they are really quite severe, in a way.
Laster: The title On Ice makes me see the S shapes like the tracks of a car spinning out of control on a winter road or a skater moving across an icy pond.
Laster: You always seem to title your works, even when they are very abstract. How important are titles to you?
Smith: Titles can be a real pain to consider; they can often be a good explanation of an aspect of a painting. On Ice has an ice-like aspect to it—those dull blues. I like it quite a bit.
Laster: Do you have a process for choosing titles?
Smith: No, it’s usually a struggle; but in the end I try to pare it down to something quite simple.
Laster: The brushstrokes in these paintings seem looser and bolder. Is that something new or does it beckon back to earlier work?
Smith: The paint mark has always been present in the work. Looking back at my explorations that were more minimal, they were never that clean—which minimal work most often is. For these paintings I used substantial brushes; I painted with two-inch brushes quite a bit.
Laster: You have three paintings that are titled in relation to a domestic situation—In House, Interior, and Bright Room—which have overlapping rectangles and straight lines. What are the thoughts that are being conveyed in these paintings?
Smith: I think there’s an order where the rectangle can sometimes be confining and at other times expanding. I don’t have rigid ideas about placing either furniture in a room or objects on a table. I’m not that kind of neat person, but I do like the couch parallel to the wall rather than kiddy-corner. I’m like that as a person.
The studio is a good, regular space. I like my big table in the middle of the room and the couch against the wall. It’s quite a good space.
Laster: Is your studio space inspiring those paintings?
Smith: Yes, I’m pleased with that kind of regularity to the space of the studio, and the order of the paintings.
Laster: The overlapping rectangles in Bright Room seem to make a face that’s contained within the canvas. Is this a figure happily living in a situation or trying to get out?
Smith: A face is such a presence. It so easy, just two dots and a mouth shape. I don’t really think of these shapes as making a face.
Laster: The paintings Red Spiral and Small Red Spiral depict a universal symbol for a life force contained within overlapping rectangles.
Laster: The spiral leads inward and outward at the same time, but in both paintings it has a red tip that differs from the rest of its coloring. Why the red tip?
Smith: It’s something that’s flashing out. It’s a kind of tail, but not a rattler. I definitely think of it as a tail rather than a head.
Laster: After making paintings for 60 years, how do you see this show in relation to your previous exhibitions?
Smith: I think it of it as—I was going to say somber, but it’s not true. I think it’s quite a lively looking show. It was just part of a gallery, rather than going on and on. I like the modest size of the paintings. The size of paintings is important to me. I can’t handle canvases that get out of reach anymore. I can’t stand on anything. I have to do everything on the wall.
I read a piece about Braque, which talked about how in his later years the most worked areas of his canvases were all at the bottom, because he was sitting.
Laster: Do you make all of your paintings on the wall?
Smith: I make the big ones on the wall and the smaller ones on a table. Working horizontally cuts down on the drips, and it’s more accessible. I can’t kneel down to work on the floor—well, I can kneel down, but I can’t back up.
Laster: So what’s up next?
Smith: Well, I’m part of a summer invitational at the Royal Academy in London; and I just ordered some new stretchers that are a bit taller than the largest paintings in my show. It’s a more extended shape, but I’ve yet to figure out what to do. I’ll make some drawings and go from there. WM
Flowers in New York
link to http://www.flowersgallery.com/exhibitions/flowers/2013/richard-smith/#.UbvSOfbip7s
2010 interview with Robert Ayers
Paul Laster is a writer, editor, curator, artist and lecturer. He’s a contributing editor at ArtAsiaPacific and Whitehot Magazine of Contemporary Art and writer for Time Out New York, Harper’s Bazaar Arabia, Galerie Magazine, Sculpture, Art & Object, Cultured, Architectural Digest, Garage, Surface, Ocula, Observer, ArtPulse, Conceptual Fine Arts and Glasstire. He was the founding editor of Artkrush, started The Daily Beast’s art section, and was art editor of Russell Simmons’ OneWorld Magazine, as well as a curator at P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center, now MoMA PS1.
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