Minimalism and Post-Minimalism
Tony Smith 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.
Tony Smith (1912-1980) is best known for his abstract sculptures created in the 1960s and 1970s, each a unique fusion of modular geometric forms combined intuitively. Multilayered meaning embedded in the work stems from Smith’s wide-ranging passions, including the history of art and architecture, mathematics, science, and Asian philosophy, as well as the writings of James Joyce.
Smith’s career began at the Art Students League in the 1930s, like Jackson Pollock and other Abstract Expressionists who were his contemporaries and close friends. In 1937 he decided to pursue architecture, and enrolled at the New Bauhaus in Chicago where his teachers included László Moholy-Nagy, Alexander Archipenko, and Gyorgy Kepes. He left after one year, and in 1938-40 worked for Frank Lloyd Wright, beginning as a carpenter and rising to Clerk of the Works for the Ardmore project near Philadelphia, and then on several Usonian homes. From 1940 until the early 1960s Smith was an independent architectural designer. He realized more than nineteen private homes and other projects, but many of his plans, including a model Roman Catholic Church (1950), were never built.
Smith met and married the actress Jane Lawrence in 1943; they lived in Hollywood, California from 1943-45. He moved to Germany in 1953, joining Jane, who was there singing opera.
While in Germany, Smith completed the Louisenberg paintings, planned architectural projects, and developed new ideas, many of which affected his development in the next decade. Their daughter Chiara (Kiki) was born in Nurnberg in 1954; twins Beatrice (Bebe) and Anne (Seton) were born in South Orange, New Jersey, when the couple returned home in the summer of 1955.
Smith’s work came to prominence in the 1960s in the context of Minimal art. Free Ride (1962) was included in the landmark “Primary Structures” exhibition at the Jewish Museum in New York City in 1966. In 1967 he had concurrent solo exhibitions at the Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, and at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia; his work filled New York City’s Bryant Park, and the two-story crystallographic plywood construction Smoke was featured in “Scale as Content” at the Corcoran Gallery of Art.
In 1998, the Museum of Modern Art mounted a major retrospective of his sculpture, architecture, and painting. In 2012, institutions around the world celebrated Smith’s 100th birthday with special exhibitions, including an outdoor installation in New York’s Bryant Park and a symposium at the National Gallery of Art in Washington.
The Los Angeles County Museum of Art acquired the monumental sculpture Smoke in 2008, and in 2017 mounted a thematic exhibition highlighting this work.
Published interviews and statements, together with teaching at New York University (1946-50), Bennington College (1958-61), Hunter College (1962-74), and Princeton University (1975-77), enhanced Smith’s influence on a younger generation of artists and the postwar artworld.
Anthony Peter Smith, known as Tony Smith, was born on December 23, 1912, in South Orange, New Jersey. At age four he was diagnosed with tuberculosis. Rather than be sent away for recovery, he was moved to a prefabricated room that his father built in their backyard, an experience often cited for being highly influential throughout Smith’s life. He studied briefly at Fordham University, Bronx, New York, before enrolling at Georgetown University, Washington, D.C., from 1931 to 1932. Smith then returned home to work at his family’s factory and take night classes in painting, drawing, and anatomy at the Art Students League, New York.
In 1937 Smith followed his interest in International Style architecture by moving to Chicago, where he studied for one semester at the New Bauhaus School of Design before working as an assistant to Frank Lloyd Wright on his Usonian houses. By 1940 Smith had opened his own architectural firm while continuing to paint and draw (mostly geometric abstractions).
Through the 1940s and 1950s, Smith worked as an architect and taught at New York University; Cooper Union; Pratt Institute, Brooklyn (all in New York); and Bennington College, Vermont, while also traveling. During this time, he formed influential relationships with Jackson Pollock and Barnett Newman. In 1959 Smith designed the space for an exhibition of Newman’s work at French & Company, a gallery in New York. Two of his final projects as an architect were a guesthouse and a gallery for the art dealer Betty Parsons. As a peer to the Abstract Expressionists, Smith explored similar themes of self, spirituality, and monumentality in all of his chosen expressive mediums.
In 1962, while teaching design at Hunter College, New York, and looking for an alternative to architecture, Smith had the form of a black wood file-box enlarged and produced in steel by a fabricator in Newark, New Jersey. He put this work, Black Box (1962), along with two more steel pieces and a number of plywood mock-ups painted with automobile underpaint, in the same backyard where he had been quarantined as a child, and had since raised a family of his own with the actress Jane Lawrence (they had three daughters, Beatrice, Seton, and Chiara [Kiki] Smith). After exhibiting massive, black-painted plywood and sheet-metal works at several sites across the country and internationally, Smith was featured on the October 1967 cover of Time with his plywood structure Smoke (1967).
Smith’s museum debut as a sculptor of large-scale, geometric sculpture was at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, Connecticut, and the Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia (1966), followed by a nationwide traveling exhibition that began at the A. D. White House Museum, Cornell University in Ithaca, New York (1968), and a New Jersey–based traveling show organized by the Newark Museum and New Jersey State Council on the Arts (1970). His first major group exhibition was Primary Structures at the Jewish Museum, New York (1966). He was also included in a Guggenheim International Exhibition, New York (1967); the Venice Biennale (1968); Documenta 4, Kassel, Germany (1968); Whitney Annual, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (1966, 1970, and 1971); and Whitney Biennial, New York (1973). Until his death in December of 1980, he continued to exhibit internationally as well as teach. Smith’s first major posthumous retrospective was hosted by the Museum of Modern Art, New York (1998). This was followed by a survey at the Institut Valencià d’art modern (IVAM), Valencia, Spain (2002).