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Tony Smith

American Painter, Sculptor, and Architect

Tony Smith Photo
Movements and Styles: Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism

Born: September 23, 1912 - South Orange, New Jersey

Died: December 26, 1980 - New York City

"I had always been impressed by systems of order. I always felt that instead [of] reducing a subject they lent to it an air of mystery."

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Summary of Tony Smith

A prolific sculptor and painter, Tony Smith contributed much to the birth of Minimalism in the 1960s. Yet he was an anomalous figure, always occupying a slightly peripheral position in relation to the movements with which he was associated, and only exhibiting as an artist from his fifties onwards. Friendly with the Abstract Expressionists in 1940s-50s New York, his work bears no traces of the febrile spontaneity of Jackson Pollock's, for example. Indeed, at that time, Smith was primarily an architect, in the modernist tradition of Mies van der Rohe and Frank Lloyd Wright, while his painting had more in common with the measured, systematic compositions of European Concrete Art. When he turned to monolithic, system-based sculpture in the early 1960s, he took up a slightly awkward position within the burgeoning Minimalist collective. Older than its leading figures, Smith worked to some extent by intuition, without the earnest philosophical scruples associated with that scene. Underlying all his work, nonetheless, is an interest in the forms of repetition and multiplication of the visual and physical world. At its best, his paintings and constructions embody a mesmeric, cosmic process of growth.

Key Ideas

Trained at the New Bauhaus in Chicago in the 1930s, Tony Smith's work fused the traditions of European modernism with developments in post-Second World War North-American art. Significantly, it was during a stay in Germany in the early 1950s that he created his first important painted works, using a system of visual repetition akin to the principles of Concrete Art, yet based on an intuitive creative process reflecting his Abstract Expressionist connections. These influences combined in his sculptural works of the 1960s onwards, important precursors to the Minimalist movement of the following decade.
Like the creative pioneers of the Bauhaus, Smith was not constrained by medium-boundaries. However, he moved in the opposite direction to many of the luminaries associated with that school, turning from architecture to art rather than vice versa to realize his creative principles. The fullest expression of his aesthetic is arguably his sculptures: which he called his "presences", monumental constructions which combined the sheer physical presence of architecture with the conceptual resonance of abstract painting.
From the time of his earliest architectural constructions onwards, Smith was enthused by the processes of repetition and multiplication that underpinned the construction of natural and man-made forms. An afficianado of the Scottish biologist D'Arcy Thompson, many of Smith's striking biomorphic works are homages to the processes of tessellation, repetition, and fractalization that Thompson had defined in his seminal text On Growth and Form (1917): principles which, for Smith, applied equally to the natural and human universes.
Tony Smith Photo

Born in 1912 and raised in South Orange, New Jersey, Anthony Peter Smith used to say that his initials stood for "architect, painter, sculptor". The second of seven children, his father was a mechanical engineer for the family waterworks factory, his mother a homemaker. In 1915, the family visited the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. Smith later recalled his interest in the neo-classical Palace of Fine Arts, built by the Arts and Crafts-era architect Bernard Maybeck to house the Exposition's artworks, as well as a visit to the ruined dwellings of the ancient Puebloan civilization in New Mexico on the way home.

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