Tony Smith
Biography of American Abstract Sculptor, Minimalist Artist.

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Free Ride (1962) by Tony Smith
St Louis Art Museum.

See: Plastic Art.

Tony Smith (1912-80)


Training and Early Works
Career As a Sculptor
20th-Century Abstract Sculptors

The Fourth Sign (University of Hawaii)
By Tony Smith.
Fabricated in black-painted steel,
it depicts the fourth Zodiac sign:
Cancer (the crab).


One of the greatest abstract sculptors of the late 20th century, the American artist, architectural designer, painter and art theorist Tony Smith was a pioneering figure in Minimal art, being known in particular for his large geometric sculptures, many of which were sited out of doors. He also taught at several well-known schools of art and design, including Hunter College, Cooper Union, the Pratt Institute, and New York University. Smith excelled at architecture and painting, as well as sculpture, and developed strong personal relationships with avant-garde artists of the New York School, such as the painter Barnett Newman (1905-70) - noted also for his sculptural masterpiece Broken Obelisk (1963-9, MoMA) - Jackson Pollock (1912-56) and Mark Rothko (1903-70), all of whom had an impact on his art. His contribution to American art in general and abstract sculpture in particular ranks alongside that of American modernists David Smith (1906-1965), Donald Judd (1928-94), Sol LeWitt (1928-2007) and Carl Andre (b.1935). His most famous works include: The Snake Is Out (1962, Nasher Sculpture Center, Dallas); Die (1962, Whitney Museum, MOMA NY and elsewhere); Free Ride (1962, St Louis Art Museum); Gracehoper (1962-88, Louisville Waterfront Park, Kentucky); Source (1967, Cleveland Museum of Art); Smoke (1967, Los Angeles County Museum of Art); Light Up (1971, University of Pittsburgh), (1972, Detroit Institute of Arts) and The Fourth Sign (1974, University of Hawaii). In 1971 Smith won the Award of Merit Medal for sculpture from the American Academy of Arts, and the following year was elected a full member. Exhibitions of his minimalist sculpture have been staged in several of the best contemporary galleries in America, and his works are in many of the best art museums around the world.



Training and Early Works

Born Anthony Peter Smith in South Orange, New Jersey, he attended a Jesuit high school, after which he enrolled at Fordham University in New York City in 1930, then Georgetown University in Washington DC. from 1931 to 1932. Feeling unfulfilled at Georgetown, he returned to New Jersey and opened a book shop, and later worked at the family factory. In the evenings Smith took classes in painting at the Art Students League in Manhattan. In 1937, having set his sights on a career in architecture, he moved to Chicago to attend the New Bauhaus school, a short-lived design school founded by the brilliant Hungarian emigrant artist Laszlo Moholy-Nagy (1895-1946). But this proved no more successful: again he found himself disillusioned. In 1938, Smith took a job as a bricklayer and carpenter with Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959), one of the most famous American architects. Within two years he had risen all the way through the ranks to the position of site supervisor. Armed with two years practical knowledge of architectural design and building, Smith set up his own independent design firm in New York City - an operation he maintained into the 1960s, during which time he designed more than 20 private homes. Also, during the late 1940s, Smith developed close ties with progressive New York artists like Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman, and Mark Rothko.

While earning money from his architecture, Smith continued to paint, producing a number of geometric-style abstract paintings. From 1946, he supplemented his income further by taking up various teaching positions in New York, including Hunter College. Between 1953 and 1955, Smith moved briefly to Germany where he created the Louisenberg series of paintings. These works - colourful geometric grids consisting of rows of repetitive organic shapes - served as a two-dimensional step towards understanding sculptural forms, and heralded his growing interest in sculpture proper. Returning to New York, Smith began experimenting with sculpture with his students. His first few attempts involved wooden and cardboard maquettes, and were an extension of his architectural design pursuits.

Career As a Sculptor

The turning point came in 1961, when Smith abandoned his architectural practice and switched to making sculpture while convalescing from a serious car accident. He began by taping together handmade tetrahedral figures, allowing assistants to create full-size plywood shapes from the final models which were then covered with thick black paint. Sculptures like The Snake Is Out (1962) were created using this method, although their smooth, hard-edged surfaces made them look as though they were fabricated from sheet metal. In 1962 Smith designed his first real metal piece entitled Black Box (1962). In the same year he made Die (1962), a 6-feet steel cube that made him one of the most talked about abstract sculptors artists of the day.

In fact, Smith did not exhibit his sculpture in public until 1964, when he participated as a relatively unknown artist in the group art show "Black, White, and Gray" at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut. The show highlighted artists working in a new, monochrome, and unemotional aesthetic - a major departure from the idiom of Abstract Expressionism, which had dominated the art world since 1950. In 1966, Smith agreed to anchor the landmark 1966 art exhibition at the Jewish Museum in New York entitled "Primary Structures": a show that established the Minimalist movement pioneered by artists like Smith, Donald Judd, Carl Andre, Dan Flavin and the feminist Judy Chicago (born Judy Cohen). In October 1967, after these and other public successes with his massive, black-painted plywood and sheet-metal works, Smith was featured on the cover of Time magazine alongside his plywood sculpture Smoke (1967). After this he went on to receive awards and commissions from numerous prestigious institutions and museums across Europe and the United States. He died from a heart attack in 1980 at the age of 68.


In addition to those shows cited above, Smith participated in a Guggenheim International Exhibition, New York (1967); the Venice Biennale (1968); documenta 4, Kassel, Germany (1968); the Whitney Annual exhibition, New York (1966, 1970, and 1971); and the Whitney Biennial, New York (1973). A major retrospective, entitled: "Tony Smith: Architect, Painter, Sculptor", was organized at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1998, featuring his architecture and painting, as well as his sculpture. This was followed in 2002 by a major European retrospective, organized by the Institut Valencia d'Art Modern, Spain. In 2010 the Menil Collection, Houston, held a retrospective of Smith's drawings, designs and other works on paper in 2010.


Smith's sculpture is included in a large number of international public collections, including MOMA, New York; the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; National Gallery of Art, Washington DC; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; Menil Collection, Houston; Nasher Sculpture Center, Dallas; Cleveland Museum of Art; University of Pittsburgh; Detroit Institute of Arts; Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebaek, Denmark; and Kroller-Muller Museum, Otterloo, Netherlands.

20th-Century Abstract Sculptors

For more information about modernist and postmodernist abstract sculptors, see the following articles:

Ben Nicholson (1894-1982)
With Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth, one of the top abstract sculptors in Britain.

Alexander Calder (1898-1976)
American pioneer of kinetic sculpture.

Barbara Hepworth (1903-1975)
Pioneer of "negative space"; famous for her organic abstracts.

David Smith (1906-1965)
Best known for his abstract sculptures made from metals and junk materials.

Anthony Caro (1924-2013)
Highly influential abstract sculptor in post-war British art.

Mark Di Suvero (b.1933)
Leading exponent of public large scale iron/steel sculptures.

Richard Serra (b.1939)
American postmodernist artist, famous for his large-scale public works.


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