If only everything were so black and white. The Tony Smith show at Matthew Marks was essentially all black, while the Anish Kapoor show next door at Barbara Gladstone, which was entitled “Whiteout”, was whiter than a teenage divas’ wedding cake. Both shows included heavyweight works by two sculptors mainly preoccupied with the matrimony of the material to the immaterial.
Although the artists are generations apart (Smith died in 1980 at age 68 and Kapoor is now 50) and one show is historical while the other is contemporary, both artists share a deep and common interest in phenomenological experience, metaphysics, negative presence, stark materiality, and a timeless formal classicism. Both, at times, couple a strong sense of foreboding with some light and underhanded wit. Unlike most minimal sculptors, Smith and Kapoor practice engagement rather than indifference. For better or for worse, both sculptors’ works always feel fabricated and traffic in mysticism.
The Smith show at Marks included three large and important early sculptures, as well as a medium sized painting which hung above the reception area. Smith’s exceptional “Black Box” was the centerpiece and one of Smith’s first works cast in steel — most of the artist’s sculptures remained in painted plywood mock-up form until recently. “Black Box”, along with “Die” which was not included, was to Smith something like what “Onement” was to Barnett Newman — minimal but revelatory watershed events that redirected the course of modern art. It has been widely commented that “Black Box”, which was initially inspired by an office filing cabinet, looks more than a little like a tombstone — or “monument” in mortuary parlance.
Also, included were “The Elevens Are Up” and “Wall”. The title of the former is an indicator of Smith’s black barstool humor. The term “Elevens” refers to two tendons in the neck that are frequently visible in haggard old alcoholics. It also describes the parallel relationship of the twin black masses in Smith’s sculpture. Those same two modules were placed end-on-end to create “Wall”. All of the works in this exhibition, including the untitled painting from ’62-63, were masterpieces of physical displacement and positive/negative exchange.
When the sophisticates in Woody Allen’s Manhattan were talking about the wonders of “negative capability” they probably had Smith or some other laughingstock stereotype of minimalism in mind. Long pigeonholed as a marginal figure in postwar sculpture, Smith’s stature has advanced from being a bridge figure between Ab-Ex and Minimalism to something more of a seminal figure-larger in some respects than either movement. At some point in recent history, Tony Smith surpassed David Smith as the 20th century sculptor of greatest relevance. Smith’s striking octahedral lunar lander “Moondog”, which was installed at Paula Cooper some years ago, was one of the more celebrated sculptural events of the 90’s. One might attribute renewed interest in both Tony Smith and Ronald Bladen to some wake effect surrounding the spectacular success of Richard Serra, the Dauphin of Chelsea. In any case, Smith is clearly the early master of the black object in his own right. Smith, who suffered from tuberculosis as a child and was sequestered in a sanitized backyard shanty with nothing more than a iron stove for company once remarked “If one spends a long time in a room with only one object, that object becomes a little god.” The weight of this experience is contained in everything Smith ever made.
The Kapoor show next door was equally engaging, and although whiter, it was in no way lighter. About half dozen chrome finished stainless steel sculptures peppered the floor space. These pieces, with titles like “Implant” and “Pregnant Square”, were lightly satirical and somewhat reminiscent of Charles Long’s sculptural spoofs from about a decade ago. The more phenomenological pieces remained the real crowd-pleasers, albeit contemplative ones. Pieces like “Vortex”, with its ear canal like void, and “Whiteout”, with its depthless parabolic inflections, were both objects of endless visual and haptic delight. Kapoor’s grandly metallic mirrored “Carousel”, the show’s most ambitious piece, looked like an old-school space-station and would probably be at home in the Rose Planetarium as much as MoMA or some other turnstile museum. No one could argue against the economy of these pieces. Like Mark Rothko or Robert Irwin before him, Kapoor consistently achieves the most maximum effect possible through the most minimal of means
Kapoor first gained attention in the 80’s for making dense, discrete forms that were supersaturated with brightly hued powdered pigments. The forms seemed to be symbolic and their color verged on a purity that seemed uncharacteristic of the era. Kapoor’s popularity seemed to grow as he pieces became more interactive. His ruminations on the Void have become destination events. Their sheer theatricality is often a target, and many have likened the works to the kind of impossible props, such as the infamous floating water spigot, one associates with a Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Museum.
I, for one, am willing to take Kapoor’s spiritual aspirations at face value. I find both Smith and Kapoor’s spiritual vacuity-emptiness with a capital E-endlessly more appealing than the general vacuousness one might associate with the Chelsea experience. Kapoor’s art is concerned with “issues that lie below the material, with the fact that materials are there to make something else possible…the non-physical things, the intellectual things, the possibilities that are available through the material.” What could be more difficult or praiseworthy than trying to arrive at the immaterial by way of the material? This is the paradox that lies within both Tony Smith and Anish Kapoor.
Michael Brennan is a New York painter who writes on art.