The shape shifting work of Tony Smith has such a distinct impact on one’s visual sense that it is no wonder that he has been exalted by many critics and artists as a generative influence. At once turbulent and in repose, the asymmetric forms he created in painted metal have presence but seem to defy easy classification - despite their somewhat primitive, elemental beginnings. The architectural implications of his work also have a capricious intrigue, given that the abstractions he formed simultaneously reverberate in an emotional and visceral sphere. To define his technique as merely challenging “geometrical systems” would miss the forest for the trees. The surreal implications of the scale of his sculptural work make it nearly impossible to have a reaction that is purely based in an intellectual realm. Rather, as a spectator, one is drawn in by the impossibility of angular momentum he forces from different viewpoints. His use of folding and perspective unveils a thought process that might actually be closer to philosophy than pure artistry.
Smith could also be classified as a mystical futurist, attempting to create fascination by assembling his geometry in an intuitive, discreet style – he seemed to pay no heed to the traditionalist forms that had regulated the world of art for centuries, even the ones used for justification of early 20th century modernist architecture. Phillip Johnson, for instance, used historical precedent to help justify his “futurist” glass house, alluding that there were several rationales he used as a springboard for his implementation. Despite his citation of modernist and abstract influences - for instance, Theo Van Doesberg’s “Sliding Rectangles”, and Kasimir Malevitch’s “Circle”1 - his inclusion of other influential ideas, namely a farm village plan and a plan of the Acropolis, seem to pay reverence to aspects of a “grounding” nature that make his thesis seem “rational”. Theorists like Colin Rowe even went so far as to compare and analyze Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye, alluding that it was derivative of the Palladian Villa.2 One could argue that Smith managed to find a profound sense of his own discipline, without having to resort to the inclusion of direct background references. Craig Owens has also reiterated that Modernism, of which Smith was a contemporary, was focused on the future, a “clearing operation”, as he calls it.3 Despite this, Smith never seems to pay full homage to the traditional sense of mass, volume, or scale that dominates his work. He manages to transcend these elements and leave the interpretation of his work open ended. What then, are some of the criteria that would help quantify Smith’s success that should or should not be emulated? What essential elements can the art and architecture world learn from Tony Smith to discover new truths? It may help to consider the opinions of several theorists who have speculated on this subject before, during and after Smith’s heyday.
If we are to believe Rosalind Krauss, who outlined an analytical spectrum for determining the function of a sculptural work4, she describes how certain artists like Serra, Le Witt, Irwin, and Smith managed to occupy the gray area within her spectrum (architecture vs. non-architecture.) She calls this a “historical rupture”, although if you consider the highly liberal experimentation that occurred during the 20th century, it does not seem an unlikely event to have happened. Similarly, Smith occupies an area that Krauss also describes as a duality – architecture and monumentality. Moreover, Smith actually occupies a cross-contaminated pluralistic world between architecture, sculpture, monument, mathematics, and minimalism. It is precisely this combination of experimental values that engendered his specific technique.
One might argue though, that these techniques are not intrinsically free-form - they did not appear as mere randomized combinations in his execution. It would be prudent to justify Smith more as a perfecter of a specific combination of techniques that he honed and embellished. This is why the future of art / architecture / design depends on an ambidextrous infusion of ideas – not assembled in a haphazard combination, but combined with skill and determinacy - a concept reiterated by Eric Owen Moss in his prologue, in which he cites several examples for why architecture “touches everything”.
Smith’s works also have “aura”, a concept defined by Walter Benjamin as a fulcrum for authenticity.5 He was not emulating a convention – his ideas were slightly more radical, although not as derisive as Duchamp might have been. He was neither a sculptural suprematist, nor was he a minimalistic totalitarian. Still, his sculpture could be classified as a challenge to the status quo, in that the scale he used to execute his ideas made the human scale seem relatively unimpressive.
Benjamin also iterates two other concepts that appear valid to the discussion. He said that the ease of creating semi-authentic works of art based on real works devalues the ideal of “ritualistic” art, allowing politically disingenuous use of artistic concepts. He also mentions that the “exhibition” of art displaces cult value, which is dependent on ritual.6 It could be suggested that the minimalistic movement Smith and his contemporaries belonged to eschewed both of these types of subterfuge - they managed to remain, ostensibly, on the edges of abstraction. One might also notice that the same exhibition creates new functionality for works of art, freeing them to be transformative. Benjamin, for example, states “Dadaists attached much less importance to the sales value of their work than to its usefulness for contemplative immersion.”7 Perhaps this is why Smith’s art is not nearly as reproducible or value-driven as Benjamin would suggest a photograph might be. Smith’s procedure is a bit like Benjamin’s portrayal of a cameraman, in that cameras “inherently delve deeper into reality than painters would because cameras permeate reality – isolating fragments of it for introspection”. Smith utilizes his own isolated fragments, inducing contemplation in the viewer. In this regard, Smith’s singularity should be taken as an inspiration instead of reverentially emulated.
When we examine the inspiration that spawns more individualistic art and architecture, it usually finds a focus by combining seemingly divergent ideas – this is why the modern design world tends to shift in movements that are hard to classify. In the 20th century, Modernism yielded to PostModernism, eventually yielding to Deconstructivism, and these much larger reactionary movements enjoyed broader acceptance. Today’s focused movements could be seen as much more fragmented socially, perhaps bogged down with an overload of information. Splinter concepts, such as Light Construction, the movement classified by Hayles and Gannon8 as a shift in sensibility that focuses on material effects, is an example of the specificity of thought that is required to find new pathways in art. InFormation and DeFormation are also two splinter movements identified by Jeffrey Kipnis that explore hybridized monolithic-geometry, and a technology-driven institutional aesthetic respectively.9 Light Construction’s transformative use of ambient “background noise” into something meaningful became a modus operandi that led to enlightenment but not necessarily a broadly recognized typology. It remains to be seen how exactly InFormation and DeFormation will influence architectural development.
Given that these movements all found an essential concept that became technique, what other values would be fruitful to take away from Smith’s process to form a new “splinter”? One element to cull would be Smith’s “authenticity”. Despite the fact that some might say he once worked for and was influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright, he managed to transcend Wright’s influence, avoiding being classified a simulacrum and instead, he became an icon himself. Gilles Deleuze classified a dividing line between successors, between the authentic and inauthentic.10 Giles said that “aesthetics suffers from an agonizing dualism,”11 meaning that art needs to be experienced from both an ideological and possibility laden perspective, and the actual, real experiential perspective. One could say that Smith managed to accomplish those goals with his art, effectively overthrowing any evidence of being a simulacrum.
A final concept to interject would be the use of theater, or rather, how the framework of Tony Smith subdues theater as a value. The belief that “theater” was tantamount to minimalism’s objectification of itself through its gestalt was touted by Michael Fried. He stated that “the object, not the beholder must remain the center or focus of the situation, but the situation itself belongs to the beholder”.12 He used this posture to try to categorize Tony Smith as “hollow” despite Smith himself explaining his position as a creator of “inscrutability and mysteriousness”13 very clearly. Despite the fact that Smith revealed a “spiritual” experience on the New Jersey Turnpike that he felt was liberating and cathartic, Fried assumed this meant that Smith believed that art has a need to be “defeated” or overturned in some theatrical way. This “blaming of the messenger” for news that one does not enjoy hearing obscures Smith’s intentions which are clearly much more reverential, in terms of him discovering some sort of elemental “truth” that did not reflect any theatrics.
Today, the authorship of architecture has come under the gun, as “objective measures and standards of cleverness” are sought after by a new generation of designers. However, great architecture is not always quantifiable in total, nor is great architecture always clever. According to Wes Jones it should “exceed satisfaction and bypass all requirements for justification.”14 He also claims that, currently, Rational Architecture versus Clever Architecture are in a jousting match for respectability.
Smith’s overall ideological perspectives very well may have achieved a perfect “Black Box” described by Reyner Banham in 1990, attempting to explain the “mysterious” nature of successful art and design. He wasn’t an imitator of the “effect” of art (defined as “kitsch” by Clement Greenberg) - he created his own process. Nor did he isolate his audience by creating pure avant-garde abstraction. In truth, he elucidated that great art is a matter of perspective, and not simply about objectifying it through dramatic juxtapositions or cheap effects.
One could speculate that as futurists interested in understanding trends of design and architecture, we should not emulate our inheritance of “cleverness” from the “Dutch” architects described by Jones15, nor should we be content with sly or subversive tactics. We should exude the authenticity of our own internalized logic and procedures, filtered by our personal experience, intuition, and idealism – à la Tony Smith. What’s trending next should be an authenticity that abstains from the trite vernacular that permeates the consciousness of our consumable culture.
- Philip Johnson, “House at New Canaan, Connecticut”, (pages 10,12)
- Colin Rowe, “The Mathematics of the Ideal Villa”
- Craig Owens, “Phillip Johnson: History, Genealogy, Historicism”, (page 88)
- Rosalind Krauss, “Sculpture in the Expanded Field” (1979)
- Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (page 3-5)
- Ibid, (page 6)
- Ibid, (page 12)
- N. Katherine Hayles & Todd Gannon, “Mood Swings: The Aesthetics of Ambient Emergence”
- Jeffrey Kipsnis, “Toward a New Architecture” (Architectural Design 1993)
- Gilles Deleuze, “Plato and the Simulacrum” (page 46-48)
- Ibid (page 51)
- Michael Fried, “Art and Objecthood”, (page 127)
- Ibid, (page 129)
- Wes Jones, “Big Forking Dilemma”, Harvard Design Magazine 32, (2010)
- 15 Dutch Architecture is defined by Wes Jones as a movement initiated by Rem Koolhaas, utilizing a high amount of “clever rationale” to justify form.