There is a 12,000-pound steel sculpture by Tony Smith sitting in the cavernous space operated by the Matthew Marks Gallery at 522 West 22nd Street. It is sleek, black and decked out with an art historical pedigree. But that’s not the Tony Smith that interested me.
The one I preferred is made out of coat hangers and canvas, sitting on a low pedestal near the window of Matthew Marks’ deli-sized outpost at 502 West 22nd, a few steps down the block.
The larger, heavier sculpture is called “Source” (1967), a title that references Gustave Courbet’s cave-and-river landscape from a century before, “The Source of the Loue”(1864). Smith, who was born a century ago in 1912, related the deep, horizontal thrust of his sculpture to the “great flood gushing from rock face” (as he is quoted in the gallery’s press release) of Courbet’s roughly painted canvas.
The coat hanger sculpture was made around 1956, at a time when Smith was branching from painting into sculpture after a twenty-year career as an architect. The sculpture’s delicate, dance-like form might be viewed as a maquette for a world’s fair pavilion or a monumental, light-filled tower — one that would feel quite at home in our own deconstructed, off-kilter century.
The wire and canvas piece is part of a show called Jackson Pollock & Tony Smith: Sculpture, An Exhibition on the Centennial of Their Births. There are two other Smiths and two Pollocks. All are untitled and were made between 1954 and ’56.
Sculpture by Pollock is a rare find; his output in three dimensions was extremely slim. Even Francis Valentine O’Connor, writing in Pollock’s catalogue raisonné (which he edited with Eugene Victor Thaw), notes that the artist’s sculptural efforts never resembled a coherent body of work.
If the novelty of seeing these works isn’t enough to send you to the gallery, their art historical significance surely will. As the press release states, the five pieces comprise
… the last two sculptures Pollock made and three of the earliest Tony Smith sculptures. The Pollocks and one Smith were made on the same weekend in July 1956, in the backyard of Smith’s home, only weeks before Pollock’s death in a car crash on August 11.
But history doesn’t account for the palpable sense of animation that virtually levitates these works off their pedestals. The one exception is an interesting but somewhat leaden piece of Smith’s, which was made by pressing concrete into an egg carton. While it remains much more beholden to gravity than the others, with scraps of the original egg carton still clinging to its coarsely textured surface, it exhibits a scruffy, inelegant integrity.
But the others are something else again. Smith’s wire-and-canvas sculpture and another that looks like knocked-together hunks of scrap wood convey a let’s-try-anything-once attitude that is all but absent in Smith’s later works. The precise geometry and unremitting, steel-hardened geometry of those sculptures, as exemplified by “Source,” are more like foregone conclusions — thesis/antithesis vehicles traveling along an ever-narrowing corridor.
The experimental virtuosity of Smith’s early sculptures, not to mention his painting and drawing, which remain under-known and under-appreciated, are of a piece with the headlong rush that marked the career of his close friend, Jackson Pollock.
It is tempting to try and imagine what the conversation could have been like between the two of them in Smith’s backyard, as Pollock’s demons were preparing to drag him down for good.
But looking at Pollock’s scalloped, encrusted, unassuming yet buoyant sculptures, with their implicit feel for materials and form — thin planes of plaster alternately sand-speckled and smeared like cake icing — it is easy to believe that, like Tony Smith, he could have gone on to an entirely different creative cycle. You could even convince yourself that it is one he was destined to fulfill.
The irony of Abstract Expressionism is that its two greatest practitioners, Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, were anything but the wild splatterers who seized the public imagination. Both were consummate draftsmen as well as thoughtful, thorough painters. While Pollock’s drawing is more rough-hewn than de Kooning’s, his work never stopped grappling with form, nor did it lose the graphic edge that we see in his most famous early painting, “The She-Wolf” of 1943.
The siren call of pure form led de Kooning to sculpture in the late 1960s, but Pollock dabbled in three dimensions throughout his life. I don’t think it is presumptive to look at the two works now on display as the stirrings of something entirely new and original.
Like his painting, they have roots in Picasso, Miró and Surrealism, but they are also uniquely American and forward-looking in their abject, unpolished candor. In their humble scale and materials they disdain the heroic pose and thus can even be viewed as prescient refutations of Pollock’s own influence.
Or they could be dismissed as hardened puddles of disappointment and frustration, experimental one-offs, or goofs like de Kooning’s hand painted outhouse seat (1954). But that’s not how they read. The compactness of their formal investigations displays a seriousness of purpose that leads from one idea to another. They emanate a sense of rightness, an exhalation of satisfaction and relief.
And yet there are only two of them. Whatever Pollock’s failings as a person, these two small works, riddled as they are with questions about their intent, testify that he could never be written off as an artist. An early death closes one book, but opens many others.
Jackson Pollock & Tony Smith: Sculpture, An Exhibition on the Centennial of their Births continues at the Matthew Marks Gallery (502 West 22nd Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through October 27.
Tony Smith: Source continues at the Matthew Marks Gallery (522 West 22nd Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through October 27.