Tony Smith: Source, Tau, Throwback
April 26 - July 26, 2019
By JONATHAN GOODMAN, June 2019
Tony Smith was one of the founders and major practitioners of minimalism, as this astonishingly accomplished show of three major sculptures proves. Born in 1932 in South Orange, New Jersey, Smith suffered from tuberculosis as a child and was educated at home. He spent a short time studying at the New Bauhaus School in Chicago, under the constructivist Lazlo Moholy- Nagy, and then worked for Frank Lloyd Wright, for whom he eventually became a valued assistant. From the mid-1940s until 1970, Smith taught at New York art schools, including Cooper Union and Pratt Institute. Around the end of this period, he began to become known for his monolithic black steel sculptures, whose polygonal, geometric forms, highly idiosyncratic in their angled, shifting planes, result in the monumental presences that have helped define the minimalist movement. This show is adding to the perception that Smith was one of the very best American sculptors working in the latter half of the twentieth century.
Two of the three sculptures are monumental in size: Source (1967), a very large steel sculpture painted black, looks as much like its influences are architectural as it is sculptural in nature. One of the marvelous things about the work, and the other two as well, has to do with the abrupt, radical shifts in viewing perspective. One turns the corner of the work and finds, completely to his or her surprise, an entirely different facade. The sharp angles are softened slightly by the beveled edges that define them. But this work is entirely about weight and mass building a presence nearly epic in its proportions and formal depth. Space itself is carved from the air, just as the volumetric presence of the steel masses indicates how a planar surface can take on magnitude and bulk when seen both in isolation, as an element contributing to the overall gestalt, and in the work’s entirety, made visible by our distancing ourselves physically from the actual structure. Source is a two-level sculpture, with flanges opening upward from the higher level, although the work is horizontally aligned. It is a primary structure--one whose massive presence refuses to be eradicated under any circumstances.
Tau (1961-62) was made in an edition of three--one version is located in front of a Hunter College building uptown. Like Source, it thrusts irregularly into the air from a horizontal base that is slightly angled. The top part has two protruding shapes, roughly triangular, that rise from another horizontal base set on top of the lower one. The word “tau” refers to the 19th letter of the Greek alphabet; it can also denote an unstable subatomic particle. In both cases, the meaning of the title doesn’t seem to have too much to do with the actual sculpture, which manages to be both monumental and lyric in the same moment. Installed in the same space as Source, the two works develop a conversation intimating a similarity but not a close sequence of the sort one finds in the paintings of Mark Rothko. Instead, these are relatives of a certain kind of thinking, in which geometric volumes are cut into so that they suggest architectural form or mineral crystal. The coat of black paint accentuates the mass of the sculptures, which demand being walked around, resulting in an experience that is time-based as well as being visually immediate. Most interestingly, Smith concerns himself with the space closely embracing the work of art. The airy volumes both works construct are just as important to viewing the sculpture as the actual sculptural masses defined by the shaping of the space immediately surrounding them.
The third work, Throwback (1976-77), is smaller and more convoluted in its organization. It consists of an open space created by fairly thick steel beams; from a corner of one of them, we see an undulating geometric strut, embellished to some extent by steel additions to its top and sides, always geometric in nature. If one were to extrapolate it toward figuration while looking at the piece, it might make sense to see it as a kite with a tail (but such a reading of so inexorably an abstract work of art is admittedly risky). The point is that abstraction is never exceedingly far from a figurative orientation--we regularly, if not always, deem abstraction as being in conversation with the natural world in which it occurs. But, even so, it is pretty clear that Smith, a major artist, wasn’t looking at the landscape or recognizable objects. Instead, he was reducing--minimalizing--mass to a primary existence. As happens so often with minimalism, Smith’s subtle reductionism results in astonishing complexity. All three works in the show were made some forty to fifty years ago, so it is possible to evaluate them with a degree of objectivity a consideration closer to the time of their making would not have allowed. It is clear that Smith is going to be around, as an artist of unusual achievement, for quite some time--just as long, and maybe longer, than the duration of minimalism as a general movement. WM
Thumbnail credit: Tony Smith, Source, 1967. Steel, painted black. Storm King Arts Center. © 2019 Estate of Tony Smith / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Jonathan Goodman is a writer in New York who has written for Artcritical, Artery and the Brooklyn Rail among other publications.
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