Max E. Katz
Try, as a test, to ignore the meaning of the objects surrounding you. Do not regard the chair on the other side of the room as a somewhat uncomfortable place to sit. See it only as form: a series of connected planes enclosing a certain volume of space. Like the stereoscopic illusions produced by careful focus and unfocus of the eyes, the experience will last only as long as the attention of the beholder. Stop trying, and the carefully articulated structure disappears back into mere chairdom.
Tony Smith hoped that his sculptures would sustain this kind of experience. Most of the nine pieces on display were also rendered in the familiar monumental scale, but presented in smaller form (the size of a small child or large dog) the proposition behind his sculpture is clear. Reduce the options down to black-patined bronze polyhedras connected at either 45 or 90 degree angles, and (so was hoped) the objects would assume total immediacy. They would be exactly what they were. Wall is a plane, of a certain length, height and thickness. Asteriskos is a series of planes intersecting at three axes. Generation is three irregular pentagon faces connected together.
As a child, Smith contracted tuberculosis and was quarantined in a small shed. A black stove stood in the center: Smith studied it for hours. “Look at an object long enough,” Smith would say, “and it becomes a kind of god.” This is a thingly and an immanent divinity: the stove is a God because it can be taken for solely what it is. In our everyday life, the anecdote suggests, nothing exists like this. Put wood in the stove, wait, grow frustrated by how long the stove takes to heat the shed. Smith’s sculptures try to escape all such complications and directly achieve the simplicity of objecthood. You are meant to see the two overlapping, twisting strands of Source with the same simple attention that Smith paid to that stove.
Smith’s contemporaries worked differently: they constructed their sculptures out of divergent parts, and meant the parts to attain unity in tension. Anthony Caro’s sculptures demand the viewer to move back and forth between the individual girders, t-bars, nuts and planes, and in this motion, realize the whole. The mind discovers relations, the relations win attention, and attention yields to conviction. Smith’s pieces do not feel constructed; they seem simply to have appeared. There are no differentiable parts, no intricate relations. At their most complex, as in Smog, Smith will tessellate a simple module-form. The pieces do not develop with conscious experience, nor do they mean to. They are sculpture as mantra: don’t think, be.
Smith managed to drive on the New Jersey Turnpike before the road had been opened to the public. His retelling became a kind of origin mythology: “It was a dark night and there were no lights or shoulder markers, lines, railings or anything at all except the dark pavement moving through the landscape of the flats, rimmed by hills in the distance, but punctuated by stacks, towers, fumes and colored lights. This drive was a revealing experience. The road and much of the landscape was artificial, and yet it couldn’t be called a work of art. On the other hand, it did something for me that art has never done.”
G.K. Chesterton tells the story of an Englishman who sails off, gets lost in the fog, and comes across unfamiliar shores. But the new land is, in fact, England. To Smith, driving on the turnpike revealed the possibility of a kind of an object, of an experience, artificial and yet not art. Smith felt this to be something radically new, and wanted his work to capture the same immediacy. Form, complexity, ambiguity, mediation, tension, all the trappings of “art” seemed an obstacle. It is more than a coincidence that, at the same moment, the New Left also sought to escape history through immediacy. The past was to be shed like a dead skin.
There is another name for what Smith experienced on the New Jersey Turnpike: culture. Smith rediscovered the present. He hoped his works could, somehow, escape the everyday, instead, they take their place, as they must, alongside the IKEA bookshelf, the pornographic mpeg, the country song, the New Yorker profile, the taco, the rows of deodorant in the pharmacy. There are pleasures in all of these, and there are pleasures in Smith’s sculptures, from the dull luster of the patina to the intersections of the polyhedra.
Though it remains opaque, art can achieve something more. Caro seeks to make sculpture of abiding quality, work that is both absolutely necessary (how else could they be put together) and wholly free (no rules could predict or dictate their form). The works have no shamanic ambitions for immediacy or objecthood. They do not break out of culture, rather, they raise consciousness of it. To recognize the formal density of a Caro sculpture means recognizing the radically impoverished form of the world. These sculptures cannot redeem the world. They are the world, begging for redemption.