The artist Thomas Houseago discusses Tony Smith's sculpture installed at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA)
Anthony Peter Smith was born in South Orange, New Jersey in 1912. Confined to an additional building beside his home as a child afflicted with tuberculosis, he had ample opportunity to develop his imagination and creativity. As a young kid, Smith knew that he wanted to pursue architecture with an interest in sculpture.
He went on to study at Georgetown University, the Art Student League in New York City, and the New Bauhaus in Chicago and then to work for Frank Lloyd Wright in 1938 and 1939. Tony Smith then spent the next twenty years of his life as an architect with his own practice in New York City as well as a teacher of architecture and design at several universities and colleges.
Dissatisfied with the impermanence that his building designs had, he began to develop his long held interest of sculpture. In 1960, while he taught full time, Tony toyed with the construction of sculpture from cardboard and wood. However, his creative juices would not begin to charge through him until he was struck by an advertising sign for the Industrial Welding Company in Newark, New Jersey in 1962 that read, "You specify it, we fabricate it."
This prompted Smith to write down the dimensions of a friend's index card file that he really liked and he phoned them in to Industrial Welding, who produced his first sculpture called, "The Black Box." This idea is what has earned Tony Smith the title Father of Minimal Art. What he was doing was taking the art process completely out of the hands of the artist. He depended on the manufacturer to follow a specific set of rules that he carefully designed. The instructions are the piece of art.
Over the next few years, Industrial Welding produced a dozen pieces for Smith following either his blue prints and models or instructions he gave over the telephone. Once created, the work would be delivered to his home and kept in his backyard gallery. Smith always gave his work ambiguous names such as "Die," which was a six-foot steel cube painted in black car undercoat paint. The size of his sculptures was intentionally large to make sure that the audience's attention would be captured.
He would also place the sculpture close to the ground, absent of a base or plinth that made his art a "presence" rather than a sculpture. Tony liked to display his work in his backyard gallery rather than inside indoor galleries and museums. However, once he did begin to show his work indoors in museums such as the Jewish Museum in New York City at the Primary Structures show in 1965, he gained an incredible amount of recognition and critical praise.
Tony Smith continued to display his work in museums in 1966 and received the Longview Art Award and the National Council for the Arts Award. The following year he received the honor of appearing on the cover of "Time Magazine" with his new monstrous 22 foot high by 50 foot long piece called, "Smoke." By 1968, Smith was frequently participating in national and international group and solo exhibitions. That year he also received the Guggenheim award.
The size of his sculpture continued to grow and aspire to occupy external environments. Tony Smith began to move his sculptures back outside. However, this transition back to the outdoors, did not keep Tony Smith from designing a large-scaled indoor sculpture for the Museum of Modern Art in New York City titled "81 more." In 1971, Tony Smith was awarded the Fine Arts Medal of American Institute of Architects for his influence in architecture.
As the 1970's drew on, Tony Smith's health unfortunately declined and eventually left him victim to a heart attack in 1980. However, before his death, he managed to have a last show in 1979 with his two final pieces called "10 Elements" and "Throw back."
At the time of his death, Tony Smith was a Professor Emeritus of Art at Hunter College, in New York and held many honors and was represented in museums, collections, and public places throughout the world.
Page author: L.C.