Tony Smith: Drawings, The Menil Collection, Houston, TX

Tony Smith, Untitled, 1954
Charcoal on paper
Courtesy of the Tony Smith Estate, New York
Photograph by Cathy Carver

December 17, 2010 – April 3, 2011

“Tony Smith: Drawings” is a selection of rarely exhibited and early drawings by American artist Tony Smith (1912-1980). The work, executed within a limited time-period in the 1950’s, precedes Smith’s emergence as one of the most important sculptors of the mid-twentieth-century, following his career as an architectural designer. Some 30 drawings will be selected from the Smith Estate as well as from private collections.

Although Smith came to sculpture late in his life, the exhibited drawings show that early on he was building a conceptual base of forms inspired by the modular order and the unifying morality of the Modern architecture principle that form follows function, using the paper as a serial unit with which to build upon. Along with his interest in mathematics and friendship with the Abstract Expressionists, these sources inform the formal characteristics of the drawings: staccato linear hatching, irregular interconnecting forms, and often brilliant colors. These elements and the nonobjective modular structures of a number of the drawings in this exhibition forecast his later approach to sculpture, a truly unique path, that anticipates the systematic use of serial form by a generation of minimalist artists to come.

Smith was born in South Orange, New Jersey and studied architecture at the New Bauhaus school in Chicago led by László Moholy-Nagy. After working for Frank Lloyd Wright, Smith worked as an architectural designer. In 1945 he moved to New York where he became a close friend of Barnett Newman, who introduced him to his fellow New York School painters. Among his Abstract Expressionist friends and collaborators, in the time of transition from architecture to painting and drawing and, eventually, to monumental architectonic sculpture, were Jackson Pollock and Clyfford Still. Like Still, Smith was interested in the papiers dechirees of Jean Arp. He shared an interest with Pollock in the principles of organic geometric order, harmony, and structural patterns of natural forms propounded by 19th century bio-mathematician, D’Arcy Thompson.

Organized by Bernice Rose, Chief Curator of The Menil Collection’s Drawing Institute and Study Center, this group of drawings provides a unique lens through which to view the Menil’s collection of Smith’s monumental outdoor sculptures that are integral to the campus and to the collecting history of the de Menil’s. John de Menil underwrote the fabrication of Smith’s first largescale sculpture The Elevens Are Up, 1963 (fabricated 1970) one of five outdoor works permanently installed on the Menil campus. In 2001, the estate gave Wall, 1964 (fabricated 2000) in honor of Dominque de Menil.