Tony Smith
Paula Cooper Gallery through June 7
Alfred Jensen & Tony Smith
Personal Geometry
PaceWildenstein-Uptown through June 20

by Robert M. Murdock

To install a major work by Tony Smith (1912 -1980) at this point in time, when his daughter Kiki's name is more familiar to many in the art world, is both courageous and defiantly modernist. Although Smith is acknowledged as an innovator, in the same league with Calder and David Smith, his work has been less visible in the last decade. Two current exhibitions reassert Tony Smith's significant contribution to American sculpture.

Fabricated for the exhibition at Paula Cooper, in painted aluminum rather than steel or bronze, this is the first large-scale version realized of Moondog, 1964. Smith projected this 17-foot version and authorized its fabrication in that size in the early 1970s. Gigantic and pristine, its complex octahedral form commands the space in the high-ceilinged, skylighted main gallery. In the other gallery is Smog, 1970 in its smaller bronze version, accompanied by related drawings. The two sculptures form a dramatic counterpoint: Moondog is vertical, soaring and self-contained; Smog is low to the ground, horizontal and laterally expansive, only a foot off the floor but extending 9 1/2 ft. in width by 6 1/2 ft. in depth. Its large version was installed in the open space below Canal Street, next to the Holland Tunnel exit, several years ago.

Beginning in the mid-1960s, Tony Smith's sculpture cropped up everywhere, including museum collections, gallery and museum exhibitions, and numerous outdoor sculpture projects. Though actually a contemporary of the Abstract Expressionists and first a painter and architect, Tony Smith's emergence as a sculptor in the 60s caused him to be linked with the next generation of sculptors including Carl Andre, Donald Judd and Robert Morris. While he resisted any identification with those artists and their reductive concerns, curators and dealers tended to include him in group exhibitions of minimalist sculpture, as a father figure or precursor. In fact, there is a strong relationship to minimalism in such Smith works as Die, 1962, a massive six-foot cube. His more elaborate extensions of the cube such as Free Ride and Willy are basically frontal and apprehensible from one view. But in more baroque polyhedral compositions such as Moondog and Smog, Smith asserted his architect's mastery of complex geometric figures, as much related to forms in nature or science as to those in architecture or sculpture. The drawings for Smog reveal those associative references humbly sketched on yellow lined paper, they could be read as molecular structures or honeycombs.

To fully experience Moondog, you need to walk around it and observe its changing configurations in space; you can also walk through the three-legged structure and look up into the open, vaulted space. While I was there one visitor walking through the work remarked, "It's moving." Its octahedral form does appear to shift and move from one angle the whole sculpture seems to be listing. Its faceted planes and the dramatic shadow of the interior confound the eye. This difficulty in reading the structure and deciphering its form seems part of what this work is about. In one of the drawings from 1964 shown on the entrance wall of the gallery, I noted a similar suggestion, and simultaneous flattening, of volume. Tony Smith was not concerned with illusion, but such visual shifting does relate to architecture and also recalls Cubist painting and sculpture. More than most of Smith's works, the open yet self-contained form of Moondog places it in the tradition of modern sculpture as, for example, in works by Archipenko, Lipchitz or Henry Moore.

Smith acknowledged this work's debt to the closed form of Lipchitz's sculpture, and described the basic form of Moondog as a pelvis. He envisioned the work cast in bronze as a garden sculpture, and related it to a Japanese or Korean lantern or to a jade temple model he had seen illustrated. According to a statement by the artist, the title is a twofold reference: to the 1926 Miro painting Dog Barking at the Moon; and to the legendary New York street poet.

In a concurrent exhibition uptown, six sculptures by Tony Smith, all but one of which are bronzes, including the bronze version of Moondog, are shown with nine paintings by his contemporary, Alfred Jensen (1903-1981). What initially struck me as an unlikely pairing the two artists were obviously quite different in fact works well visually and to some extent, conceptually.

Compared to Smith and his rational, Euclidean approach to geometry and modular structure, Jensen was an eccentric and visionary who developed a personal vocabulary utilizing known, but often arcane, symbols. Yet the two artists share characteristics such as their consistent use of the grid or module, as well as their common interest in architecture and mathematical systems. Jensen's grid- based, schematic compositions are boldly graphic, painted in primary and secondary colors with black and white, and with a rich impasto surface. The installation at PaceWildenstein, with Smith's large black painted-steel work One-Two-Three, 1976 dominating the gallery, the intense visual activity in Jensen's paintings and the density of the Smith bronzes, creates a somewhat dizzying effect. The earliest Jensen painting included here, A Glorious Circle, 1959, contains the words "up" and "down" along with triangles and diamonds (no circle, despite the title), which struck me as analogous to the experience of viewing this exhibition: looking up at the paintings and down on the sculpture. Installed near this Jensen is Smith's bronze Gracehoper, 1961, the large steel version of which is in the collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts. Though solidly grounded, its convoluted shape seems poised to vault into space.

The bronze of Smith's Moondog does in fact look like garden sculpture or a Japanese stone lantern, as Smith first envisioned it it becomes an object. It also suggests more organic or anthropomorphic associations than are usually present in Smith's work. It seems squat and diminutive, and looking down on it eliminates the view through the open structure that is the essence of the monumental version.

An effective pairing of contemporaneous works by the artists is that of Smith's One-Two-Three, 1976 and Jensen's A la fin de l'automne, 1978. The scale and horizontality of both painting and sculpture, and the inherent arithmetic progressions in both, make a cogent comparison. The three separate units of the sculpture physically progress from one to three elements; each unit is composed of tetrahedral modules welded together. The Jensen painting appears to be more about intervals than increments, with various symbols, including + and = signs punctuating the gridded surface. The largest painting in the exhibition, The Pythagorean Theorem, 1964 (62" x 200"), is a bit of a tour de force, but nonetheless a confident statement of Jensen's artistic stance geometry, just as Smith's sculpture is a reflection of his personal geometry.

For its dramatic impact and its demonstration of Smith's mastery of monumental scale, Moondog at Paula Cooper is outstanding. The exhibition at PaceWildenstein further addresses the issue of scale in Smith's work and sets up an instructive dialogue with Jensen's painting. Both exhibitions enhance our knowledge of these pioneering American masters.

Copyright ©1997 Robert M. Murdock & REVIEW All Rights Reserved