Tony Smith (sculptor)

Tony Smith
Born Anthony Peter Smith
(1912-09-23)September 23, 1912
South Orange, New Jersey
Died December 26, 1980(1980-12-26) (aged 68)
Nationality American
Known for Sculpture, Visual arts

Tony Smith (September 23, 1912 December 26, 1980) was an American sculptor, visual artist, architectural designer, and a noted theorist on art. He is often cited as a pioneering figure in American Minimalist sculpture.


Anthony Peter Smith, "Tony," was born in South Orange, New Jersey to a waterworks manufacturing family started by his grandfather and namesake, A. P. Smith. Tony contracted tuberculosis as a youth and his family constructed a one-room prefabricated house in the backyard, in an effort to protect his fragile immune system. He was attended to by a nurse to maintain his health and tutors to keep up with his schoolwork. The medicine he was given came in little boxes which he used to form cardboard constructions and when he could, he visited the waterworks factory to marvel at the machines and fabrication processes. After the TB cleared up, Tony attended Francis Xavier Academy, a Jesuit high school in New York City. In the spring of 1931 he attended Fordham University and then in September of that year enrolled at Georgetown University. He was disillusioned and felt no direction at Georgetown so he returned to New Jersey by in the winter of 1932. Around this time he opened a bookstore in Newark, New Jersey and from 1934-36 worked at the family factory and attended evening courses at the Art Students League of New York, where he studied anatomy with George Bridgeman, drawing and watercolor with George Grosz and painting with Vaclav Vytlacil. In 1937, he moved to Chicago intending to study architecture at the New Bauhaus, where he readily absorbed the interdisciplinary curriculum but ultimately again found himself disillusioned. The following year, Smith began working for Frank Lloyd Wright's Ardmore Project near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where he began as a carpenter helper and bricklayer, and eventually was named Clerk-of-the-Works, a position that inspired the young designer to discover his own unique artistic sensibilities.


While with Wright, Smith worked with other apprentices on the Armstrong house in Ogden Dunes, Indiana, before deciding to strike out on his own in 1940. Despite his lack of formal architectural training or a license, he was commissioned to design and build several homes including studios for Theodoros Stamos, Betty Parsons and a sprawling compound for Fred Olsen. Despite these successes, the architect/client relationship frustrated Smith enough that he gravitated toward his artwork. Smith continued to paint in abstract geometric composition and found himself teaching a basic design course at Hunter College. One class assignment consisted of forming maquettes out of cigarette box cardboard, he then asked his students to increase the scale of their designs by 5 times with regular cardboard which startled students and teacher alike as powerful objects began to take shape. In 1956, while sitting in a colleague's office, he was drawn to the form of a simple file cabinet. He phoned a local fabricator and commissioned a box 2' x 3' x 2' in size. Although the welders assumed he was crazed, they treated the project with the utmost workmanship and the result was a stunning form to Smith. He had discovered a sculpting process that he continued to hone.

In 1958, he made Die, a 6’ steel cube that established his reputation as one of the most influential and important artists of his time. The Elevens Are Up (1963) follows formally on Die. Inspired by the two muscles on the back of the neck which are accentuated when the head falls forward, the sculpture consists of two black steel masses installed face to face, four feet apart. Fabricated in steel and weighing over 12,000 pounds, the later Source (1967) is a monumental sculpture which Smith first exhibited at documenta IV in Kassel, Germany in the summer of 1968.[1] After exhibiting massive, black-painted plywood and sheet-metal works at several sites across the United States and internationally, Smith was featured on the October 13, 1967 cover of Time with his plywood structure Smoke (1967)[2] enveloping the atrium of the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington.[3]

Allied with the minimalist school, Tony Smith worked with simple geometrical modules combined on a three-dimensional grid, creating drama through simplicity and scale. During the 1940s and 1950s Smith became close friends with Barnett Newman, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Clyfford Still, and his sculpture shows their abstract influence. One of Smith’s final architectural projects was an unrealized plan for a church that was to have stained-glass panels designed in collaboration with his friend Pollock.[4]

Smith was also a teacher in various institutions including New York University, Cooper Union, Pratt Institute, Bennington College, and Hunter College, where he mentored artists such as Pat Lipsky. He was a leading sculptor in the 1960s and 1970s, typically associated with the Minimal art movement. Smith was asked to anchor the seminal 1966 show at the Jewish Museum in New York entitled Primary Structures.

Smith was asked to teach a sculpture course at the University of Hawaii in Manoa during the summer of 1969. He designed two unrealized works, Haole Crater(a recessed garden) and Hubris but eventually created The Fourth Sign that was sited on the campus. His Hawaii experience also generated fodder for his "For..." series whose initials are friends and artists he met during his time in Manoa.


Smith's first exhibitions were in 1964, and he had his first one-person exhibition in 1966. That same year, he was included in Primary Structures, one of the most important exhibitions of the 1960s, at the Jewish Museum, New York.[5] Smith's museum debut as a sculptor of large-scale, geometric sculpture was at the Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut, and the Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia (1966), followed by a nationwide traveling exhibition that began at the Andrew Dickson White House, Cornell University in Ithaca, New York (1968), and a New Jersey–based traveling show organized by the Newark Museum and New Jersey State Council on the Arts (1970).[6] A major retrospective, "Tony Smith: Architect, Painter, Sculptor," was held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1998, including his architecture, painting, and sculpture. A European retrospective followed in 2002, arranged by the Institut Valencià d'Art Modern, Spain and the Menil Collection, Houston, organized a retrospective of Smith’s works on paper in 2010.[7] Smith was also included in a Guggenheim International Exhibition, New York (1967); the Venice Biennale (1968); documenta 4, Kassel, Germany (1968); Whitney Annual, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (1966, 1970, and 1971); and Whitney Biennial, New York (1973).[8]

September 23, 2012, marked the one hundredth anniversary of Smith’s birth. Institutions around the world celebrated his centennial with special events, including a daylong symposium at the National Gallery of Art, a panel discussion at the Seattle Art Museum, an outdoor sculpture installation at Bryant Park in New York, and the exhibition "Kiki Smith, Seton Smith, Tony Smith: A Family of Artists", which opened at the Kunsthalle Bielefeld, Germany, that day.[9]


Smith's work is included in most leading international public collections, including the Museum of Modern Art, New York; Menil Collection, Houston; Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebæk, Denmark; and the Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, the Netherlands.[10] In 2003, the National Gallery of Art in Washington acquired one of four casts of Smith's first steel sculpture, Die, created in 1962 and fabricated in 1968, from Paula Cooper Gallery[11] Smith's Smoke (1967) today fills the 60-foot high atrium leading into the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s Ahmanson Building; the museum purchased the work in 2010 for an undisclosed amount reported to exceed $3 million.[12]

Private life

Smith met his wife, opera singer, Jane Lawrence, in New York in 1943. They were married in Santa Monica with Tennessee Williams as his best man. He was the father of artists Chiara "Kiki" Smith, Seton Smith, and the underground actress Beatrice (Bebe) Smith (Seton's twin), who died in 1988. At the time of his death, he and his family resided in South Orange, New Jersey.

In 1961, Smith was injured in a car accident and subsequently developed polycythemia, a blood condition which produces a large number of red blood cells. His health was always in question and deteriorated until he succumbed to a heart attack at age 68.

The Estate of Tony Smith is represented by the Matthew Marks Gallery in New York.

See also


  1. Tuchman, Phyllis. "Tony Smith, Master Sculptor." Portfolio. Summer 1980.
  2. Tony Smith Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York.
  3. Carol Vogel (February 1, 2008), Monumental Gesture at Renovated Museum New York Times.
  4. Cembalest, Robin. "Jackson's Other Actions: Pollock's Sculptures Resurface." Artnews. 13 September 2012.
  5. "Master of Monumentalists." Time. 13 October 1967, pp. Cover & 80-86.
  6. Tony Smith Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York.
  7. Tony Smith. Timothy Taylor Gallery. September 3 - October 4, 2013, London.
  8. Tony Smith Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York.
  9. Tony Smith: Source, September 7 - October 27, 2012 Matthew Marks Gallery, New York.
  10. Tony Smith Matthew Marks Gallery, New York/Los Angeles.
  11. Vogel, Carol. "Inside Art" New York Times'. 2 May 2003'.
  12. Finkel, Jori, "Tony Smith's monumental sculpture 'Smoke' will not disappear from LACMA." New York Times. 18 June 2010.

Further reading

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