Nominally a show of sculpture, Matthew Marks is presenting something more like relics of art world myth, or a romanticized artist-buddy story (think Lust for Life or Schnabel’s Basquiat). It seems an odd pairing at first glance—Pollock, whose paintings consist of poured or dripped skeins of paint, is the archetype of Ab Ex passion, and Tony Smith, with his Buckminster Fuller-like geodesic monuments, ushered in an Age of Cool. This show presents the remains of a day, one spent at Smith’s New Jersey home, when Smith tried to coax out of the fallow (and soon-to-be-dead) Pollock a few last attempts at making art and ended up becoming a sculptor himself.
This five-work show is essentially a teaser for the über-Minimal show, Source, at Marks's larger space on 24th Street. Although Smith produced relatively few actual objects (hence his early claim to a Conceptual artist title), during his brief career as a sculptor (he began as a successful architect), he managed to leave behind a body of work that vigorously explored both an orthodox form of Minimalism as well as working in a vein of seemingly antithetical investigation into relational figuration (for example, Die ) and illusionism. His Source (1967), first exhibited at Documenta IV in Kassel, Germany (1967), weighs in at over six tons and refers to Gustave Courbet’s 1864 painting The Source of the Loue. Smith, speaking about Source in 1971, said, “It would take many lines to explain why I consider Coubet’s Source of the Loue to be so uniquely related to Ab Ex painting, but I do associate it with the work of many of my late friends. Anyhow, when I saw my sculpture [Smith usually sent or telephoned instructions, measurements, and materials lists to industrial fabricators], I thought of this great flood gushing from the rock face.” With its hint of splayed limbs, one might also “see into” Source Courbet’s other great painting, Origin of the World (1866).
Tony Smith, Source, 1967, steel painted black, 132 x 354 x 408 in.; Courtesy of Matthew Marks Gallery.
It is quite fascinating, after seeing the work of the mature Smith, to see his literal artistic birth in the Pollock/Smith sideshow. Untitled (1956), a cob-job of carpentry, presents insight into the psychology of creating sculpture—that most hands-on of art forms—in such a detached manner. Two-by-four boards, which are already a standardized unit of material, are roughly nailed together. Their joining is less important than the jutting angles and forms they produce. In another Untitled (1956), we see the embryonic core of all of Smith’s later works: an egg carton, cast in concrete, covered in sand, resembling some sort of placenta or slime left behind from an emerging sea creature. Egg cartons, like two-by-fours, serve as a pre-determined grid. Like Smith’s early graph paper drawings, honeycomb paintings, or pod paintings (see Untitled , hung next to Source with its colored bars of flat, straight-out-of-the-tube colors), all share the same concept of his mature works—that of geometric, modular composite forms.
Jackson Pollock, Untitled, 1956, plaster, sand, gauze, and wire, 12 1/4 x 12 x 17 1/2 in.; Courtesy of Matthew Marks Gallery.
If Smith’s sculptures represent the Alpha of this exhibit, Pollock's are the Omega. By the time of their Jersey weekend, Pollock had all but ceased producing work. Following an earlier intervention with Barnett Newman, who, along with Smith jumpstarted Pollock with the seeds of paint that became Blue Poles (1952), Smith again played art therapist, presenting Pollock with materials and objects for him to press into service as sculpture. The less said about the results here, the better. There is little that can be added to the cairn of Pollock lore that would shed any light on his already monumental achievements, and to dwell on his faltering end smacks too much of the gleeful necrophilia usually reserved for Marilyn Monroe, Jack Kennedy, or Elvis. Instead, let’s leave today’s story on a hopeful note, however false it may be.
Pollock excavated large, glacial boulders from behind the Springs, New York, house he shared with the painter Lee Krasner, piling them up for some unrealized future project. At one point he had told Krasner that he might even carve into them. “One of these days,” he told her, “I’ll get back to sculpture.”
(Image on top: Tony Smith, Untitled, 1954, wood, 21 3/8 x 20 1/2 x 12 in.; Courtesy of Matthew Marks Gallery)