Humanist Geometry

By Morgan, Robert C. | Art Journal, Summer 1999 | Go to article overview

Humanist Geometry


Morgan, Robert C., Art Journal


Humanist Geometry Robert C. Morgan

Tony Smith:Architect, Painter, Sculptor. Exh. cat. New York: The Museum of Modern Art, i998. Distr. Harry N. Abrams. Essays by Robert Storr, John Keenen, Joan Pachner. 200 pp., 108 color ills., 235 b/w. $50, $22.50 paper.

Exh. schedule: The Museum of Modern Art, July 2-September 22, 1998. Concurrent outdoor exh.: Tony Smith in the City, July 1-September 22, 1998; temp. install. Doris C. Freedman Plaza (Fifth Avenue and 6oth Street), Seagram Plaza (Park Avenue and 53rd Street), Bryant Park (Sixth Avenue and q.cst Street); perm. install. Hunter College (Lexington Avenue and 68th Street) and rear courtyard of International Paper Building (i i66 Sixth Avenue) .

Why has it taken so long for a major institution to do a comprehensive exhibition of this major U.S. sculptor? With museum exhibitions in recent years of virtually all of the artists associated with Minimalism or Primary Structures-considered by some the more appropriate term (adopted by curator Kynaston McShine in his 1966 survey at the Jewish Museum)-it seems almost anticlimactic to pay tribute to the progenitor of this monumental development in post-World War II U.S. art nearly two decades after the artist's death in 1980. Given the superb, though somewhat overwhelming, four-star exhibition schedule last summer at MoMA, including retrospectives of the French painter Pierre Bonnard, the Japanese proto-Pop artist Yayoi Kusama, and the Russian Constructivist Alexander Rodchenko, one might conceivably underestimate the importance of the Tony Smith retrospective in clarifying the artist's position in recent U.S. art. His contribution is one of the most revolutionary in contemporary sculpture.

Like Arshile Gorky, who was wedged between late Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism, Smith was on the tail end of one movement and at the genesis of another. He functioned as a bridge between the heroic internal myths of Abstract Expressionism and a more public-directed, systemic approach to sculptural form. In another sense, he could be understood as a bridge between late modernist aesthetics and what came to be the postmodern anti-aesthetic. Regardless from what angle one may evaluate the significance and timeliness of this transition, Smith's work belongs there. He set the stage for most of the important sculpture of the 1960s. Robert Storr, the exhibition organizer, wanted to present Smith as a "total artist" by showing the three interrelated aspects of his career: architecture, painting, and sculpture. (The term "total artist" was generated by the Bauhaus, and, in fact, Smith's brief stint at higher education took place at the New Bauhaus in Chicago in 1937.) From a conceptual viewpoint, one might argue that mediumistic differences were irrelevant in the context of the artist's overall concept concerning modular form and space. But the actuality of mounting such an exhibition, based on the artist's concerns for structural coherence, is not so easy to translate when there are obvious spatial limitations to be overcome.

Given the total amount of floor/wall space made available for special exhibitions in the upper galleries, there simply was not enough room to adequately show what the curatorial staff had in mind. Because too many special exhibitions had been scheduled for the same time period, the upstairs galleries had to be shared between Smith and Kusama. Had the exhibition focused only on Smith's later sculpture (from 1961 through the mid- 1970s), for which he is best-known, the problem could have been alleviated. As it stood, the best works were either situated in MoMA's sculpture garden or sited at various locations throughout Manhattan. …

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