when painting was architecture, and sometimes kites...
richard smith, a whole year a half a day X, 1966
a few months ago i picked up a little catalog of the work of richard smith, called "richard smith: seven exhibitions 1961 - 1975". it was published by the tate gallery and seems to have been a re-installation of 7 of smith's key exhibitions - which seems a pretty interesting take on a survey show. i've been thinking a lot lately about smith's work, particularly two bodies, a series of shaped canvasses from the mid/late 1960's, and a series of canvasses attached to dowels circa 1975, that seem to be informed by asian textiles and kite forms.
i don't know that much about smith and his career (the book's texts are frustratingly vague, and i'm less inclined to do web research until i've digested the images a bit more...), but the ways in which he attempted to move painting into physical dimensionality (sculptural form) on one hand, as well as conversing with traditional craft languages (string, unstreched canvas, bamboo or dowels) on the other, puts his work of these periods into some really wonderful, odd, and traditionally "unsuitable" territory (and i'm wishing for once someone would write about the risks an artist like smith took in embracing such a craft aesthetic while clearly being immersed in hard edge abstraction, as i can't imagine similar painters being supportive of such a move).
in terms of my own interests i have a ton of respect for artists with this kind of restlessness, as much of the work feels more experimental rather than resolved - a very good thing in my own book, because it makes the work feel human rather than calculated.
as mentioned above, the earlier paintings use a hard edge abstract language, but the work also feels related to late british pop painting as well. the canvasses themselves contain actual physical shifts in the picture plane, with canvas stretched over low extrusions or small pieces of wood. in these works, smith explores stretched canvas over a variety of shaped structures, some individually simple, while others include many repeated forms with slight variations. his visual graphic language seems to dialogue with a number of british abstract artists at the time (robyn denny, paul huxley, etc.).
of course, there were other artists working with shaped/topographical canvas forms, but smith's work has a level of geometric simplicity and idiosyncrasy that gives the hard edge forms a feeling that they are rooted in the intuitive or the organic. certainly the images and their repetition are "designed", but the painted objects feel somehow connected to use - as if they were once ritual objects, whose truthful purposes have been lost, so that they have the freedom to be appreciated for their aesthetic invention, harmony, dissonance, etc.
with the 1975 works, smith leaves the traditional stretched canvas form behind, and begins to work with canvas over dowels that appear to be held together with string. these works begin to feel a bit like asian kites or african skin stretched shields, but the kite-like works also connect with richard tuttle's unstretched canvas and odd shaped paper pieces that hover between being a painting, sculpture, or object. unlike tuttle's penchant for small scale, smith's work - which does feel similarly quiet - is still conversing with large scale abstract painting, as a piece like grey slice (pictured above) is nearly 7 feet tall.
most of the writing in the catalog suggests that smith's earlier works which force the surface of the canvas off the flat plane, as well as his eventual leap into the larger kite works, are related to an interest in moving beyond the easel. the writers seem to view the leaps as a kind of formal concern to bring painting literally forward - i.e. off the stretcher bar frame. to my own idiosyncratic and somewhat illogical eye, it seems also as if smith's dissatisfaction with a flat canvas was less formal and more of a push towards the inclusion of the language of ritual and craft within an existing dialogue related to hard edge abstraction and british pop art (which i believe had already included more abstraction in its dialogue than here in america at the time).
by inserting a craft and/or ritual language into his work, smith seemed able to not only leave the flat picture plane of painting, but also the wall as a support structure. you can see this in 1966's freestanding "gazebo" made of 4 paintings, which resembles something like a tony smith sculpture, or an andrew geller beach house, more than anything to do with painting at the time. similarly mining his own spatial terrain, many of smith's later kite-like works were hung not from the wall, but from the ceiling. in these situations painting comes very close to becoming an extension of architecture. while some would dismiss these works as ornament, i believe they have the power, particularly through this language of in between-ness, to become sites for a variety of contemplations.
i remember having a conversation with a sculptor many years ago who commented in the usual sculptor vs. painter argument that a painting is simply a sculpture with a decorated surface. although certainly not exclusive to smith's work, what is interesting to me about his kite pieces - and in particular the ones hung from the ceiling - is that they really do hover between being a painting and a sculpture. i will admit that for me, there is nothing more tired than getting involved in the 'is it a painting or a sculpture' discussion; nor do i think that smith's work of this period was necessarily wholly invested in such drivel either, but i do love how much these works hover between a number of "acceptable" and "unacceptable" visual languages of the time.