Tony Smith (b. 1912, South Orange, New Jersey; d. 1980, New York) considered his process to be intuitive, his work resting close to the unconscious and exploring themes of spirituality and presence in a synthesis of geometric abstraction and expressionism. He studied painting at the Art Students League, New York (1934–36) and attended the New Bauhaus, Chicago (1937–38), before apprenticing with Frank Lloyd Wright (1938–39). For the following two decades, he worked professionally as an architect and held teaching positions at numerous institutions in New York and Vermont. In the early 1960s, Smith turned his focus to sculpture, with his architectural background informing one of his most radical innovations—having his work industrially fabricated. Widely recognized for his large-scale, modular works produced throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Smith was included in the seminal group exhibition Primary Structures at the Jewish Museum, New York, in 1966. His profound achievements in American sculpture have been honored with retrospectives of his work at The Museum of Modern Art, New York (1998); Institut Valencià d’Art Modern (2002); Menil Collection, Houston (2010); and Los Angeles County Museum of Art (2017).
“I like a certain amount of mystery involved, which demands involvement on the part of the person seeing it. I think the guise of the work has something to do with the kinetic quality. It demands a certain amount of action.” Tony Smith, interviewed for “Art of the Sixties: The Walls Come Tumbling Down.” Eye on Art CBS, 1968.
New York—Pace Gallery is pleased to present an exhibition of monumental sculptures by Tony Smith. Encompassing three works—Tau (1961-62), Source (1967), and Throwback (1976-77)—the exhibition touches on key moments in the artist’s evolving sculptural practice. Shaped by his training and prior career as an architect, Smith’s work is animated by a dynamic concept of space and a commitment to sculpture as an object to be catalyzed by the direct engagement of the human body. Possessing no traditional front or back and occupying non-linear planes of space, Smith’s sculptures reward an ambulatory viewing experience, offering a range of perspectives and understandings as one circulates the work. Pace represented Smith during his final years and following from 1979 – 1983, and this will be the first exhibition dedicated to the artist since the gallery began representing the Tony Smith Estate in 2017. Tony Smith: Source, Tau, Throwback, will be on view from April 26 to June 22, 2019 at 510 West 25th Street, with an opening reception held on Thursday, April 25 from 6 – 8 pm. A full color catalogue with an essay by Christopher M. Ketcham will be published in conjunction with the exhibition.
Spanning Smith’s career in the medium, from the early 1960s to the late 1970s, the works in the exhibition epitomize the artist’s characteristic black-painted aesthetic articulated in large-scale and mathematically-determined geometric forms. The works also illustrate the artist’s shifting modes of formal construction and geometric massing, as well as his evolving approach to sculpture’s relationship to the body and surrounding environment.
The artist’s first work to be placed on permanent display in a public space in New York, Tau (1961 – 62) was one of a series of new sculptures conceived by Smith as a speculation in pure form. While Tau was not installed outside Manhattan’s Hunter College until 1984, four years after the artist’s death, Smith created the sculpture with a vision to animate its immediate environment, not simply adorn it—to powerfully confront the daily masses of students and the public that traveled the corner each day. In a manner that would come to characterize many of Smith’s sculptures, Tau is constructed of tetrahedral modules that have been precisely and idiosyncratically stacked; yet the fundamental geometry of the piece is concealed by Smith’s distinctive material and finish – steel painted in semi-gloss black.
Conceived by Smith in 1967, Source was first exhibited the following summer at Documenta IV in Kassel, Germany and more recently was presented by Pace at Art Basel Unlimited in 2017. Encompassing two, united sections that span more than twenty-five feet across and rise over nine feet high at the tallest point, Source marked a significant moment in the trajectory of Smith’s work. Whereas Tau functions as an intrusive object in space, in Source, Smith advanced sculpture’s ability to create a spatial field of its own. Through its composition of various-height walls, cantilevered forms, and competing acute and oblique angles, the sculpture activates the area that surrounds it, drawing people into a heightened level of physical engagement and fostering its own sense of interior and exterior space.
Developed in 1976-77, Throwback was presented in Smith’s first exhibition at Pace Gallery in 1979. That exhibition, Tony Smith: Ten Elements and Throwback, featured a painted plywood version of the sculpture realized at Smith’s full intended size, as well as a smaller version in black-painted steel. Now, exactly forty years later, Pace will exhibit Throwback as the artist originally envisioned—rendered in painted black aluminum at full scale. While composed of Smith’s familiar combination of tetrahedrons and octahedrons, Throwback ranks among Smith’s most complex and dynamic forms. Its crystalline shape projects erratically into space, destabilizing the boundaries between sculpture, viewer, and environment. Entirely resistant to a stable, singular point of perspective, the energy and force of Throwback compel the viewer’s movement and direct confrontation.