In the autumn of 1959 Richard Smith (1931–2016) made his inaugural trip to America, sailing by liner from Southampton to New York, where he soon sought out Ellsworth Kelly, whose hard-edge abstract canvases he had seen in London Was praised in the American Embassy. Funded by a Harkness Fellowship award, Smith lived in the US for 21 months, during which he met several other artists, including Frank Stella (he became a lifelong friend), Robert Indiana, and Kenneth Noland, to whom he was introduced by critic Clement Greenberg. went. , Smith set up a studio in New York City. There he created the paintings that constituted his first solo show at the city’s Green Gallery in April 1961, a show facilitated after a recommendation from Metropolitan Museum of Art curator Henry Geldzahler.
Smith was the first British artist of his generation to spend continuous time in America. On his return to London in late 1961, Smith, 30, appeared dressed in American jeans and a button-down shirt – as David Alan Mellor, emeritus professor of art history at the University of Sussex, writes in this first, much anticipated on the artist Monograph – “as the embodiment of self-conscious modernity, in a capital city waking up from the post-imperial crisis of Suez”.
Mellor’s book consists of four essays, each considering Smith from a different perspective. Artist Alex Massouras contributed two essays, and there is a coda by Martin Harrison, the book’s editor. The first and most important text is given by Chris Stephens, a former senior curator at the Tate and now director of the Holborn Museum in Bath, who states in a detailed analysis of Smith’s career that by 1962, the year of the artist’s solo show at the ICA, London , he had become an art world figure.
Smith’s fascination with American popular culture developed while studying painting at the Royal College of Art (1954–57). Both cerebral and sensual, it was equally driven by a semiotic analysis informed by texts such as Marshall McLuhan’s 1951 Critique of Advertising Techniques. mechanical bride, and from a fan’s passion for movies, fashion and music. Smith’s work of the 1960s is notable for its assimilation of the graphic iconography of American consumerism within the language of pictorial abstraction inspired by Rothko and Sam Francis.
In New York he was fascinated by its cosmopolitan spectacle of billboards and neon signs and the wide-screen Cinemascope, which he described as “a new experience of pictorial space”. His abstract motifs derived from magazine advertisements, billboards and cinema screens, “which never present objects in actual size: you can drown in a glass of beer, live in a half-detached cigarette pack.”
Such observations resulted in experimentation with shaped canvases and included three-dimensional structures that jutted out from the wall. The lush colors of Smith’s pigments, backlit by the white of the canvas, are those of film and advertising photography, and his titles are those of brand-names, such as Panatela And revlon, or see the type of packaging; For example, flip top And gift wrap,
Smith lived in America throughout the 1960s, receiving continued acclaim internationally with successes at the 1966 Venice Biennale and the following year’s Biennale de São Paulo, where he was awarded the Grand Prix. But as the Vietnam War escalated, so did he and his American wife, Betsy Sherman, disillusionment with America, and in 1968 they moved with their infant son to rural Wiltshire, where Smith set up a studio.
There, the emotional tenor of his works changed. In contrast to the dazzling palette of American paintings, it generally became more restrained and monochromatic, its outdoor context more stark. The exploration of scale continued, with very large works composed of two or more canvases. And, given the theatrical architectonics of Smith’s work, it is interesting to read in this book of his early ambition to study theater design, and of his lifelong interest in the modernist stage designs of Edward Gordon Craig and Adolphe Appiah.
Another development came in the early 1970s, which came to be known as kite paintings; Canvases held in place not on traditional wooden frames, but on structures made of aluminum rods, and with string ties that appear as internal elements of the work. Made in geometric or irregular shapes, they were mounted directly on the wall or hung from the ceiling. Here, as Masouras writes, Smith’s interest in movement “became truly dynamic, endlessly rearranged by shadows, air currents and the vagaries of gravity”. Often the kites commissioned for airports and malls became larger in size and complexity, more vividly expressive in pattern and colour.
Upon a long return to New York, Smith resumed easel painting around 1993, his equal division of the picture plane reminiscent of the formal symmetry of his earlier American works. Again combining dynamic compositional structures, both graphic and pictorial, and richly layered colour, these are among the most convincing and engaging paintings of this important artist’s career. This handsome, well-illustrated volume forms an important marker in Smith’s recent critical rehabilitation, which will doubtless be consolidated by adequate retrospectives.
• Richard Smith: Artifacts 1954-2013, by Chris Stephens, David Alan Mellor, Alex Masouras, and Martin Harrison. Published by The Estate of Francis Bacon Publishing, 272pp, 250 color illustrations, £60 (hb)