Magazine article Artforum International

Tony Smith: Mitchell-Innes & Nash, New York. (Reviews)

Magazine article Artforum International

Tony Smith: Mitchell-Innes & Nash, New York. (Reviews)

Article excerpt

One pleasant surprise of Tony Smith's retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art (five years ago already!) was the group of paintings known as the "Louisenberg" series, dating from 1953-55, together with a related set begun at the same time but completed earlier and left untitled. (For brevity's sake I'll christen this group "Robotnik," after a popular Tetris-like computer game called Dr. Robotnik's Mean Bean Machine.) Reviewing the MOMA exhibition in these pages, 1 voiced my regret that Smith had not pursued this vein further, and I privately hoped that there might be more work of the kind. The recent Mitchell-Innes & Nash show of Smith's paintings unfortunately did not alter the size of the corpus, but it did provide an opportunity to zoom in on these works, whose importance in Smith's development--and extraordinary inventiveness in the context of the early '50s--was somewhat lost in the retrospective, dwarfed, in my mind without justification, by the gigantism of the sculptures.

What is immediately striking is the date of the paintings--they look a decade ahead of their time, at least in the situation of postwar American art. They share this characteristic with the work executed by Ellsworth Kelly during the period he lived in Paris (1948-54)-and perhaps for the same reasons: Not only were the "Robotnik" and "Louisenberg" series painted during Smith's two-year stay in Europe, but like Kelly's early works they also revolved around the dialectic of order and randomness, chance and systematicity. It is not fortuitous that Kelly's and Smith's work from the early '50s should have been selected by Eugene Goossen for his "Art of the Real" show of 1968, for they look contemporary to the Minimalist sculpture that exhibition was devoted to glorifying. Nor was it fortuitous that their radical novelty should have gone mostly unnoticed at the time: Praising someone for being a "precursor" might be well intentioned, but it ends up providing nothing more than a first-class burial.

This is not to say that artists work in a vacuum, unaware of their predecessors. There is definitely something European about the two Smith series, for example--and Robert Storr, the author of the catalogue essay, is right in alluding to Hans Arp's biomorphs and to the paintings of Arp's wife, Sophie Taeuber--Arp. But finding out whether Smith was aware of the Dadaistic overtone of his work during his sojourn in Germany is less relevant than understanding why he would have been drawn to a way of thinking close to Arp's and Taeuber-Arp's from twenty years prior.

Unlike Kelly, Smith was probably not engaged in a search for ways "not to compose" when he set out to paint during his prolonged European vacation. It is more likely that he wanted to find a way to begin, or rather to begin anew. He had not painted much since his student years at Chicago's New Bauhaus, and since the end of the war he had earned his living as an art teacher and architect while befriending many Abstract Expressionists, foremost among them Pollock and Newman. With his intimidating AbEx friends no longer lurking over his shoulder, and in need of some footing, he felt free to reconnect with his youth-- where indeed we can find the origin of his extraordinary painting campaign of 1953-55.

Smith's interest in D'Arcy Thompson's On Growth and Form (1917) figures prominently in all major studies of his work, and rightly so. The artist's rather awkward use of a hexagonal grid as a planning device for his first major architectural project, the Brotherton House (1944), bespeaks his early fascination for the honeycomb pattern celebrated by the Scottish zoologist (more at least than it betrays his debt to Frank Lloyd Wright, for example). But I don't think Smith knew how to channel his lust for modularity until the "Robotnik" and "Louisenberg" series.

Another trope of the Smith literature is the artist's interest in mazes. Late in life (1975) he described labyrinths as "formal and symbolic analogues of a breakdown in intellect and will," adding, "They are of the underworld and they fascinate children. …

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