Tony Smith (born 1912) made more than 50 large-scale sculptures between 1960 and his death in 1980. Their distinct black finish and geometric forms represent one of the supreme achievements in American sculpture, and his unique vision has proven enormously influential on subsequent generations. A contemporary of the Abstract Expressionists, many of whom were his close friends, Smith studied architecture, then began painting in the 1930s before turning to architecture full-time in the 1940s to support his family. It was not until the late 1950s that he began to make sculpture, and he had his first one-person exhibition in 1966. That same year, Smith was included in Primary Structures, one of the most important exhibitions of the 1960s, at The Jewish Museum, New York.
Although Smith came to sculpture late in his life, the exhibited drawings show that early on he was building a conceptual base of forms inspired by the modular order and the unifying morality of the Modern architecture principle that form follows function, using the paper as a serial unit with which to build upon. Along with his interest in mathematics and friendship with the Abstract Expressionists, these sources inform the formal characteristics of the drawings: staccato linear hatching, irregular interconnecting forms, and often brilliant colors. These elements and the nonobjective modular structures of a number of the drawings in this exhibition forecast his later approach to sculpture, a truly unique path, that anticipates the systematic use of serial form by a generation of minimalist artists to come.
Smith was born in South Orange, New Jersey and studied architecture at the New Bauhaus school in Chicago led by László Moholy-Nagy. After working for Frank Lloyd Wright, Smith worked as an architectural designer. In 1945 he moved to New York where he became a close friend of Barnett Newman, who introduced him to his fellow New York School painters. Among his Abstract Expressionist friends and collaborators, in the time of transition from architecture to painting and drawing and, eventually, to monumental architectonic sculpture, were Jackson Pollock and Clyfford Still. Like Still, Smith was interested in the papiers dechirees of Jean Arp. He shared an interest with Pollock in the principles of organic geometric order, harmony, and structural patterns of natural forms propounded by 19th century bio-mathematician, D’ArcyThompson.
Organized by Bernice Rose, Chief Curator of The Menil Collection’s Drawing Institute and Study Center, this group of drawings provides a unique lens through which to view the Menil’s collection of Smith’s monumental outdoor sculptures that are integral to the campus and to the collecting history of the de Menil’s. John de Menil underwrote the fabrication of Smith’s first largescale sculpture The Elevens Are Up, 1963 (fabricated 1970) one of five outdoor works permanently installed on the Menil campus. In 2001, the estate gave Wall, 1964 (fabricated 2000) in honor of Dominque de Menil.