Sunday, February 19, 2017

Dragon Master: Tony Smith and the Unexpected.

There is more than one way to skin a cat. But before that there is the one and best way to do something, including skin a cat. The only way.

A few years ago I purchased a painting at auction that I hoped was by my old friend Leon Polk Smith. It was a medium large, grid based, black and white geometric painting the kind I was assigned as a freshman in art school signed simply Smith 70.

Smith's longtime partner Bob Jamieson soon enough threw water on my great find in the nicest possible way. Something about it being a little too busy and trying a little too hard for it too be Leon's. Inotherwords not nearly elegant enough.

I knew it was something though, and I was still convinced it was Leon's. An under bidder, great term, had, after all, tried to offer more for it to me after the auction. This was no freshman project.

Enter Richard Tuttle. My brief mentor, the young and reluctant guru of my youth who spoke in riddles and got inside my head in a way that pissed me off for decades. He had worked for Betty Parsons and was privy to her store house, her back room stacks of art magic by all the greats who had passed through her gallery on 57th Street in Manhattan. He had claimed one of those as his mentor, Ellsworth Kelly, Leon's successful rival for the crown of elegant hard edged abstraction, even though Leon in turn claimed that she liked him best.

So I was struck one day while trying to unlock the mystery of this painting I had bought, that of course there was another Smith. Could it be? And then I remembered a story I had read from Kiki Smith about Richard Tuttle hanging around her family's home when she was growing up. I imagined a young Tuttle sitting alone in the living room with maybe a big hairy family dog, being asked to hold something, or if he had seen Seton, or if he would like to stay for dinner. Anything to soak up the enigmatic genius of the prince of American monumental geometric sculpture, Tony Smith.

Sure enough, it was all right there. The code. The binary bonanza. The bisected squares whose resulting triangles turned black or white, and left or right, to tell their story.

This is the language of Tony Smith's giant sculpture of the late Sixties and early Seventies. Large black painted aluminum grid and bisected cube based sculptures dreamed together by turning this geometric element one way or the other to see which way it would go and what it would become. Together they moved like a flock of swallows and then suddenly and unexpectedly shifted and surprised you.

I had a friend whose family had a house in a shoreline Connecticut enclave where Smith, who was also architect, had built a home. Decades ago she drove me by the house. There was also a geometric sculpture, one of the cubes, outside. I knew I was supposed to be impressed. I was still young and not easily impressed and so I wasn't. Maybe one of the worst of many bad qualities.

But there was his cube. So strong. The ultimate riddle. Patient and wise. Inscrutable. Impenetrable. Infuriating.

And there I was today, parked in front of this painting. Almost lost in a trance, sometimes dozing, flickering on the edge of consciousness, and it happened, doors began slamming open and closed, dimensions shifted, transformation unfolded right before my eyes. Did I just see that? I shook my head. I googled Tony Smith images on my phone. Still in a daze I rifled through them. Sculptures of huge proportions changing before my eyes, with simple slight of hand, showing me one face, one being, and then another, like dragons doing a secret dance, only to disappear and still themselves in a pose to be invisible to passers by.

Addison Parks
Spring Hill

It is worth noting that this painting is probably by some other Smith, despite the similarities. Just a little kickstart for looking at a sculptor who does not get much love these days.

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