Tony Smith includes seven small sculptures in cast bronze, dating from 1960-74, unusually shown alongside four of Smith’s oil paintings from 1957-60. Smith is better known for his sculptures, which illustrate his ongoing exploration of the octahedron, tetrahedron and cube, from which he developed an architectonic geometric vocabulary best exemplified in his large outdoor works. Many of these pieces were first fabricated from plywood and covered with black car paint before being finally realised, on a larger scale, in black painted steel and installed in urban plazas. The sculptures presented at Timothy Taylor Gallery originate from the smaller, primary wooden maquettes, subsequently cast in bronze with a black patina.
Smith acknowledged the importance of scale in his sculptures by stating that he did not want to make the work any larger than he was, as he had no desire to create a ‘monument’ and he also did not want to make anything smaller, as he did not want an ‘object.’ The works in the exhibition definitely feel like ‘objects’, all being scaled smaller than the human body. Smith’s work is experienced differently at this size; it becomes more descriptive, with a sense of always being on the outside of the work looking in, as opposed to comprehending its form through physically engagement in real terms. Wall (1964) fares particularly badly at this scale. More commonly seen cutting through space as an imposing six metre long structure, its modest manifestation at Timothy Taylor doesn’t even reach one metre in length and lacks any kind of meaningful presence in the exhibition. Smith’s more formally complex works sustain themselves with greater success at this smaller scale. Cross (1960-62), Generation (1965) and Light Box (1961) still exemplify the harmonious minimal forms and simultaneity of positive and negative space that are seen in Smith’s larger works.
The multi-faceted modular configuration of Smog (1969-70) is one of the exhibition’s highlights. Its polyhedral composition is an exploration of pure form, providing a perfect balance between cold materiality and fluid, rhythmic structure. Smith declared that his mastery of complex geometric figures was as much related to forms in nature or science as to those in architecture or sculpture, and Smog’s network of interlocking tetrahedrons could be said to evoke nature’s modular patterning, evident in structures such as honeycomb or crystal. However, the suggestion on the exhibition press release that Smith’s sculptures have “figurative connotations” and that Smog “could be a chemical molecule or a multi-legged insect” is for me, a far too unsubtle projection of anthropomorphism and borders on the inane. Regardless of the diminutive nature of the sculptural works in the exhibition the gallery floor looks overcrowded; Smog feels unsatisfactorily cramped in an awkward corner of the room, becoming controlled by the gallery space and not, as it should be, the other way round.
Despite the rationality of Smith’s use of symmetry his work is full of pleasing contradictions. The Fourth Sign (1974) consists of nine straight sections, fused end to end to form a broken circle. Three horizontal sections rest on the gallery floor. Connecting these elements are two wide arches configured of three sections, the sculpture defining its own fluid sense of interior and exterior. The symmetry experienced from viewing The Fourth Sign from one position is only temporary and its configuration changes when viewed from different angles; the sculpture leans, twists and tilts in a series of formal transformations. Like other artists working in the 1960s using reductive geometric forms and industrial materials Smith is often linked to Minimalism, yet the sense of movement in his work differentiates it from the rigid straight lines and grids of, for example, Carl Andre, Donald Judd and Robert Morris, who each established a more fixed relationship with structure and space.
Smith’s peers included Jackson Pollock, Barnet Newman and Mark Rothko and his paintings, which largely predate his sculptural works, reveal a greater sense of his relationship with Abstract Expressionism. Historically Smith’s work sits at an interesting juncture that anticipates Minimalism but is not rooted in it.Tony Smith, Sculpture and Paintingdoes not fully offer a meaningful opportunity to articulate this relationship. The chosen paintings are distinct not only from the sculptures but also from each other. The organic compositions and upbeat colour palettes of Untitled (1956) and Untitled (1960) sit uncomfortably in the context of the more austere pieces in the show. The early 1960s was an active period for Smith’s work on canvas, and although he maintained that there was not always a direct connection between his painting and his sculptures, some of his paintings – although not the ones seen here – do evoke the same basic forms that he created in three dimensions. Seeing this selection of work as a whole reinforced a sense of division, rather than establishing a connection between his paintings and sculptures, and/or between Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism – rather a shame given Smith’s ongoing back-and-forth interest in the second and the third dimensions.
Timothy Taylor have essentially constructed an artificial environment in which to see Smith’s work. The sculptures are smaller cast versions of maquettes for significantly larger public works, the paintings are disconnected from the sculptures and add little to the exhibition. Smith was documented as saying his sculptures were more acceptable to him when located in an environment involving nature, as opposed to within the institutional confines of a gallery. It feels somewhat of a compromise, therefore, for Timothy Taylor to exhibit the first solo presentation of Smith’s work in the UK for ten years in such modest style. Smith’s work is invariably seen at its best when it is full scale, as only then can his great ability to control space and manipulate geometric forms be fairly judged. The consistent strengths of his work ensure that Tony Smith is an elegant show of many individually fine pieces and in general terms is well worth a visit. As a whole though the exhibition not a particularly dynamic representation of Smith’s work and fails to convey anything new.
Tony Smith, Timothy Taylor Gallery, 3 September – 4 October 2014