Tony Smith was a pioneer of American Minimalist sculpture, most known for his large-scale, geometric sculptures made in the 1960s and 70s.Read More
Smith was born in South Orange, New Jersey to a waterworks manufacturing family. As an adult, Smith trained largely as an architect. He briefly attended Fordham University, New York and Georgetown University, Washington, D.C., before returning home to work at his family's factory while attending evening classes at the Arts Students League, the school that launched the careers of several of his contemporaries, including Jackson Pollock. In 1937, Smith moved to Chicago, where he studied at the New Bauhaus for a semester before working as an assistant to Modernist architect Frank Lloyd Wright.
Although his forms and materials locate him within the Minimalist movement of the 1960s, as a peer to the Abstract Expressionists Tony Smith also explored themes related to the self, spirituality, and monumentality. Informed by his architectural training, Smith's monolithic structures are centred around considerations of space, volume, and the notion that sculptures are objects that are activated through engagement with the human body.
Smith did not begin producing sculpture, or exhibiting his work, until the early 1960s. Throughout the 1940s and 50s, Smith worked as an architect and taught at several universities, during which time he also befriended Abstract Expressionists Jackson Pollock and Barnett Newman.
Smith's first foray into steel sculpture came in 1962, when, seeking an alternative to architecture, he had the form of a black wooden file box enlarged and industrially produced in steel, resulting in Black Box (1962). The enigmatic object eschewed both representation and abstraction, standing instead as a symbol of the basic conditions of creative production and setting a precedent for the development of Minimalist sculpture to follow.
Smoke (1967) is one of Smith's largest sculptures, standing as an imposing, modular latticework shape with eight leg-like supports. The work recalls various organic and architectural structures, including trees or scaffolding, and is rooted in Smith's interest in forms of repetition and multiplication found across natural and man-made forms. Reflecting a central concern in Smith's works, Smoke can only be apprehended by walking through and around it, drawing attention to the relationship between the viewer's body and the sculpture.
Throwback (1976), like Smoke, also reveals itself to the viewer through an ambulatory experience. The concertinaed shape of the structure, which folds back and into itself, rewards the viewer with a different view from every perspective, activating the surrounding space by offering a multitude of vantage points.
Light Up (1971) is a bright yellow, 20-foot public sculpture originally commissioned for downtown Pittsburgh. The work combines a tetrahedron and an octahedron, functioning as a 'continuous space grid' that reconfigures itself as viewers move through it. Marking a departure from Smith's previous, monochromatic works, the bright yellow of Light Up was inspired by Smith watching a yellow newspaper truck drive through Pittsburgh. Light Up is currently located at the University of Pittsburgh.
Tony Smith has been the subject of both solo and group exhibitions.
Solo exhibitions include Tony Smith: Smoke, Los Angeles County Museum of Art (2017); Tony Smith: Drawings, The Menil Collection, Houston (2010); Tony Smith, Institut Valencià d'Art Modern (2002); Tony Smith: Architect, Painter, Sculptor, The Museum of Modern Art, New York (1998).
Group exhibitions include the Whitney Biennial, New York (1973); Documenta 4, Kassel (1968); the 34th Venice Biennale (1968); Primary Structures, the Jewish Museum, New York (1966).
Smith's work is held in major institutional collections worldwide, including the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; Hirschhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humblebaek; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; The Museum of Modern Art, New York; Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; and Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.
Alena Kavka | Ocula | 2022