Tony Smith, Amaryllis

Tony Smith, Amaryllis, 1965. Painted steel, 135 × 128 × 90 inches. Lent by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Anonymous Gift, 1986 (1986.432ab). Photo by Ben Aqua.

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Valerie Fletcher: Tony Smith grew up in the Depression and indeed in the mid 1930s, he left school to help his family with their tool-making business. In 1939, he went to work as an assistant to the great architect, Frank Lloyd Wright. At that time, Frank Lloyd Wright was working on a plan to create homes on a modular design that could be mass produced; and in this way, to make fine housing affordable to the masses of people who had very little money. Wright’s plan came to very little, but it inspired Smith to try some of those designs himself. While he too did not succeed in making a commercial success of this, it brought him to look at sculpture as a modular form.

In 1961, after a bad automobile accident, he needed time to recuperate; and during that time, he made small models of sculptures from cardboard. The sculpture, Amaryllis from 1965 is an enlarged version of one of those models. He would turn these over to an industrial fabricator and they would fabricate the sculptures for him out of sheet steel or sheet aluminum, which Smith always had painted a consistent matte black. While the sculptures themselves seemed to be of a consummate simplicity, they are surprisingly sophisticated.

When you walk around them, slowly in one direction and then walk fully around them again in the next direction, it’s surprising how the original form, the form you first saw, changes and morphs and disappears. What is a solid blocky form suddenly becomes flattened; and a silhouette, something that seemed very predominant seems to disappear. And especially the lighted forms, maybe the upper sections that catch the light, will catch it in such a way that the edge suddenly becomes very clear and important; whereas, the underneath shadow almost seems to disappear.

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Tony Smith, Amaryllis, 1965.

American, 1912-1980

Tony Smith studied drawing and painting at the Art Students League, followed by a year at the American Bauhaus School in Chicago, where he studied European modern architecture and design. In 1939 he began working for renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright, whose new plans for mass-produced, modular houses were an inspiration to Smith in 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. He started sculpting in 1956, but it was only in 1961 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, he developed this method using large sheets of plywood. Smith passed these prototypes to industrial fabricators, such as the Lippincott foundry in New Haven, Connecticut, to produce the final version in sheet metal painted a rich black. After his death, his family commissioned the fabrication of the remaining models.

With Amaryllis and similar works, Smith helped define minimalism. An intellectually rigorous, reductive approach, the style revived the prewar tradition of geometric abstraction. The movement responded to the unrestrained gesturalism of abstract expressionism forwarded by artists such as Jackson Pollock (1912–1956), Willem de Kooning (1904–1997), and Mark di Suvero (b. 1930).

Considered one of the principal theorists and practitioners of minimalist aesthetics, Smith achieved a unique vitality in his sculptures. Amaryllis demonstrates his ability to combine basic modules into an asymmetrical linear arrangement that activates the space it inhabits. As a viewer walks around the work, different configurations emerge and recede; the two stacked polyhedrons can appear flattened or neutralized, firmly grounded or imbalanced. Based on minimalist principles, Smith’s complex modules effectively combine elements from primitive and modern architecture, mathematics, and science. 

Tony Smith, Amaryllis, 1965. Photo by Ben Aqua.
Tony Smith, Amaryllis, 1965. Photo by Christina Murrey.

Location: Fine Arts Complex on Trinity Street

GPS: 30.286942,-97.731779