Tony Smith (1912-1980) did not begin to make the geometric sculptures for which he is known until he was past fifty. Before that, he dabbled in a variety of artistic pursuits, trying this, trying that, and failing more often than not. He studied painting and architecture in his twenties, but high school was the only formal course of study that he ever completed. In 1938-39, he worked for the architect Frank Lloyd Wright in different capacities. At other times, he painted, practiced architecture, and supported himself as a tool maker, purchasing agent, bookseller, plant nursery worker, art teacher, and assistant to a dealer in Viennese furniture.
Smith never made much money. He could not afford to fabricate most of his sculptures in steel, so he built them in plywood for exhibition, made photographs, and destroyed the work when the show came down. In addition to a few sculptures, we have these photographs, some scattered architectural projects, and paintings that Smith made at different times in his life.
The Valerie Carberry Gallery is exhibiting 18 early painted studies by Smith until October 31. Thirteen of these were made between 1934 and 1936 when the 22-year-old artist-to-be worked for his father’s New Jersey manufacturing plant and commuted to night classes at the Art Students League in New York City. During those two years, Smith began to circulate in New York and saw important shows at the Museum of Modern Art and elsewhere.
The Art Students League brought Smith into contact with professional artists for the first time. He studied drawing with George Grosz, who got him to look at the life of the city, but otherwise had little apparent influence. His most important teacher was the Modernist painter Vaclav Vytlacil who helped him see how the Cubist painters flattened shapes and orchestrated the interplay between foreground and background.
Vytlacil’s influence lasted lifelong. In 1971, Smith stated: “My interest in painting remains that of dealing with the interchange of figure and ground. I don’t think of certain shapes. I am mainly involved with trying to make equilibrium over the surface based on fairly close values . . . . That goes partly with my dislike of fragmentation, of busyness, and disturbing overlays of speed and noise.”
Under Vytlacil’s direction and probably also on his own, Smith painted small studies in oil, gouache, and tempera on canvas board, paper, and cardboard. These unsigned, untitled works are in no way original. Smith imitates Picasso, Braque, Gris, Matisse, Vantongerloo, and the Russian Avant-Garde as he explores the styles of his time. Some of the studies are Cubistic still lives while others are geometric patterns that may possibly foreshadow the forms in his later sculptures.
It is these works that the Carberry Gallery is showing. Smith leaves many studies unfinished once he’s gotten what he wants from them. He finishes a Picasso-like collage at the center, but leaves empty space all around it with drawn lines that suggest what the remainder of the image might have looked like. He does not repair tentative brushwork in a Matisse-like still life of oranges and a vase, perhaps because he’s lost interest.
Tony Smith (1912-1980). Untitled. Gouache on cardboard. ca. 1934-36. 13.875 x 9.75 inches. Image courtesy of Valerie Carberry Gallery. ©2009 Tony Smith Estate/Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY
The show includes five abstract gouaches with squares at the centers and colored rectangles surrounding them. These architectural designs suggest windows, cavities, and doors. Though the colors are flat, subdued, and without interest, these paintings are better developed than the earlier pieces. Smith would do his best painting between 1953 and 1955 when he lived in Germany.
So what are we to make of this? Like every other artist before or since, Smith had to learn his trade. He did so by imitating the masters and exploring different styles before he found his way. When he died, his student work was left in his studio. It would have been best to give these works to a museum where specialists could study them. Instead, the Tony Smith Estate has seen fit to offer them for sale. This show does Smith’s reputation no good.
--Victor M. Cassidy