Born in South Orange, New Jersey (an affluent suburb of New York City), Tony Smith had to interrupt his college education in the early 1930s to help with the family toolmaking business as the Great Depression worsened. From 1934 to 1936, he studied drawing and painting at the Art Students League, followed by a year at the American Bauhaus School in Chicago, where he learned about European modern architecture and design. In 1939 he began working for the renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright; Wright’s new plans for designing modular houses for mass production inspired Smith to head in that direction during the 1940s.
In New York during the 1950s, partly to offset his frustrations as an architect, Smith made abstract paintings of flat curved forms tightly grouped in a gridlike pattern. In 1956, at the age of forty-four, he started sculpting. But it was only in 1961, as he recuperated from a serious car crash, that he began to make small cardboard models of geometric sculptures. Smith used the cube, rhomboid, and tetrahedron as basic “building blocks,” which he arranged as modules in a linear configuration. From 1962 until his death in 1980, he developed this method, using large sheets of plywood. Smith passed these prototypes to industrial fabricators (such as Lippincott Company) to produce the final version in sheet metal painted black. After his death, his family decided to have the remaining models also fabricated.
With Amaryllis and similar works, Smith helped define the style of geometric abstraction known as minimalism, an intellectually rigorous, reductivist approach that revived the prewar tradition of geometric abstraction (which by then had become somewhat rote and decorative). Minimalism was to some extent also a natural reaction against the unconstrained gesturalism of abstract expressionism.
Although considered one of the principal theorists and practitioners of minimalist aesthetics, Smith achieved a vitality often lacking in the works of others. Amaryllis demonstrates his ability to combine basic modules into an asymmetrical linear arrangement that activates the space it inhabits. As a viewer walks around Amaryllis, different configurations emerge and disappear. From some vantage points, the sculpture’s blocky three-dimensionality can appear flattened or neutralized. The triangular end panel of the horizontal form can appear to glow in sunlight while the side disintegrates into darkness. The horizontal element can appear to merge with the diamond-shaped bottom of the vertical form. From another angle, the horizontal element almost disappears. The pristine black surface enhances these optical illusions.
Valerie Fletcher is Senior Curator at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, DC. Her research on groundbreaking aspects of international, globalized, and transnational art have resulted in numerous exhibitions and publications.