At the crossroads of architecture, painting, and sculpture, one encounters the awe-inspiring steel monoliths of Tony Smith (1912–1980). Tony Smith: Wall, New Piece, One-Two-Three showcases the evolution of the artist’s sculptural practice throughout the 1960s and 1970s.
Tony Smith’s career began as an architect, collaborating with Frank Lloyd Wright in the late 1930s. Transitioning to sculpture in the late 1950s and early 1960s, he drew inspiration from natural phenomena for his dynamic geometric abstractions. Exploring crystalline structures like octahedrons and tetrahedrons, Smith’s sculptures embraced chance and chaos, forging a new language of abstraction amidst the rise of Minimalism.
Engaged with architecture, science, mathematics, and philosophy, Smith’s works provoke fresh modes of understanding and experiencing the environment. Referred to as “presences,” his sculptures exude undeniable power and charisma. Pace Gallery has maintained a longstanding relationship with Smith and began representing the Tony Smith Estate in 2017.
Within the pristine, white-cube confines of Pace Gallery in Chelsea, Smith’s monumental steel sculptures reach skyward and sprawl horizontally, resembling crystalline structures emerging boldly from the gallery’s floor. Stepping into this space, viewers are counterintuitively transported to a natural environment—an ethereal grotto or the surface of a distant planet—surrounded by majestic stalagmites, immersed in the presence of nature’s forces. Smith’s dynamic geometric abstractions, painted in light-absorbing black patina, transform the gallery’s white walls into mesmerizing negative space silhouettes.
The velvety black paint intensifies the sculptures’ matte surfaces, extracting their three-dimensionality and seemingly flattening them—a study in the disorienting effects of shape and perspective. Through subtle manipulation of geometric forms, Smith beckons viewers to contemplate the transformative potential of these shapes, depending on the observer’s vantage point.
Tony Smith: Wall, New Piece, One-Two-Three showcases three of the artist’s tremendous black-coated steel sculptures: Wall (1964), New Piece (1966), and One-Two-Three (1976). Occupying multidimensional planes, these sculptures offer diverse perspectives, emphasizing the interplay between sculpture, the human form, and the surrounding environment.
Each of the three sculptures featured in Pace presents the viewer with a distinct proposition. Wall, a towering rectangular composition standing at an impressive eight feet tall and 18 feet wide, exudes a commanding and almost confrontational presence. Through this piece, Smith explores the concepts of internal spaces and boundaries, as well as external fluidity. Despite its boldness, Wall remains an accessible artwork that unveils its experiential potential through physical interaction.
New Piece embarks on a different spatial exploration. Its dynamic diagonal ascent embodies an energetic motion, offering an intriguing investigation into the disorienting effects of form and perspective. This visual provocation points towards a novel paradigm of perceiving and inhabiting space. Describing New Piece, Smith once remarked, “This piece is based not upon rectangular prisms nor on tetrahedral lattices but upon modular units made up of components of the rhomboidal dodecahedron. There is a connection with the tetrahedral structures, however, in that the rhomboidal surfaces of this figure are the same as the sections of the others.”
One-Two-Three comprises three distinct modular units engaged in a thought-provoking dialogue with one another. Observers are encouraged to approach the artwork from various angles to unravel the enactments of fragmentation and wholeness embedded within its constituent shapes. Trapezoidal formations give way to individual triangles, while groups of triangles seamlessly merge into parallelograms.
Smith’s formidable spatial explorations instill a profound sense of awe and reverence in the viewer, infusing the surrounding space with an almost liturgical gravitas. It feels as if one stands in the presence of celestial black holes that fold space, enigmatic oracles, and ethereal portals to distant astral realms.
Through his investigation of geometric forms, Smith’s sculptures offer a transcendent experience that resonates with the timeless principles of sacred geometry, bridging art and spirituality.
All Photography courtesy Pace Gallery
At PACE, 508/510 W 25th Street, New York
July 14 August 18, 2023
About the writer: Eva Zanardi is a freelance writer, independent curator, and owner of Visitor Center, a contemporary art gallery located in Newburgh, NY. Her writing has been featured in various publications including White-Hot Magazine, Widewalls, and Art & Object Magazine, among other international print and online media. Prior to relocating to Upstate NY, Eva founded and directed GR Gallery, which was known for its cutting-edge contemporary art exhibitions in New York City. Additionally, she serves as the President and Senior Advisor of EZartconsultingnyc, a private art consultancy that specializes in modern and contemporary art, with a particular focus on Op Art, Kinetic Art, Concrete Art, Spatialism, and Programmed Art.