Tony Smith at Mitchell-Innes & Nash

 Tony Smith, Untitled (Louisenberg)Tony Smith, Untitled (Louisenberg) (1953-1968), acrylic on canvas, 100″ x 140″; courteesy Mitchell-Innes & Nash

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Does it really take 10 good paintings to match one good sculpture? That’s apparently the opinion of Sidney Geist, who’s not only a critic but a sculptor; so he’s biased in the matter. In the case of the American artist Tony Smith (1912-1980), who was a sculptor as well as an architect and painter, Mr. Geist’s declaration is right on the money.

Smith’s Louisenberg paintings, named after a geographical site near Bayreuth and now the subject of an exhibition at Mitchell-Innes & Nash, live in the shadow of the sculptures, those implacable monoliths whose concentration of form links them to Minimalism and whose crankiness of spirit shows Minimalism the door.

A similar contrariness informs the Louisenberg paintings. Blocking off each canvas with a grid and using the circle as a basic compositional module, Smith created paintings that hew to the systematic and call it into question. Filled with shapes that can be likened to oversized peanuts or socks filled with tennis balls, the pictures posit a denatured, though not unplayful, biomorphism.

They’re smart and efficient pieces, yet ultimately lightweight and sometimes slapdash. To find Smith’s heart and soul, you have to turn to the sculptures. Having said that, whoever acquires the small 1953 canvas keyed to gray, yellow and blue should be congratulated–it’s a honey of a picture.

© 2003 Mario Naves

Originally published in the February 16, 2003 edition of The New York Observer.

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