September 30, 2012

Pollock and Smith: The Small and Casual

Tony Smith, Untitled, 1954; wood, 21 3/8 x 20 1/2 x 12 in.

Currently at Matthew Marks Gallery is a charming small show of five works by two friends––Tony Smith and Jackson Pollock––as a centennial celebration of their birth in 1912. The sculpture on view is a surprise, departures from what we think we know of these artists' work; they have a sense of play, of "why not try this?" The three Smith pieces were made before he even considered himself a sculptor; at the time he was working as an architect. This piece has an informal energy from its angled planes and ordinary materials.

Untitled, 1954 detail

It looks as though the wood was picked up from a scrap heap somewhere. I like seeing the pencil line indicating where to hammer the nails; places where nails have split the wood add poignance. 

Tony Smith, Untitled, ca. 1956; wire and canvas, 47 1/2 x 12 1/2 x 12 in. 

Who would have guessed that the artist later to make huge geometric steel sculptures (see the final photo) would create this whimsical tottering tower?

Untitled, 1956 detail

A detail looks like the wings of a butterfly.

Tony Smith, Untitled, 1956; concrete, 3 3/4 x 8 3/8 x 6 5/8 in. 

And if you think this looks like and egg carton....well, you're correct; Smith poured concrete into an egg carton to make this. This small sculpture, looking like a rough landscape with rows of round clay houses, and the Pollocks were made one weekend at Smith's house. It must have been fun, don't you think? working outside both of their usual areas of expertise (though Pollock had made other sculpture and three dimensional objects).

Jackson Pollock, Untitled, 1956; plaster, sand, gauze, and wire, 9 x 12 x 5 in. 

The Pollock sculptures have a look of things unearthed, or of debris from a construction site.

Jackson Pollock, Untitled, 1956; plaster, sand, gauze, and wire, 12 1/4 x 12 x 17 1/2 in. 

The rough sandy surfaces are richly juxtaposed to the refined whites of plaster; the bits of rust and wire add linear elements. These little sculptures are not great works, but I love imagining Smith inviting Pollock to play with sand casting in 1956, the last year of his life, during which he drank and did not paint. I remember that at the large Pollock retrospective at MoMA in 1998, his late works intimated a return to the figure, and this little piece, in this view, looks like a body reclining. 

Tony Smith, Source, 1967; steel, painted black, 132 x 354 x 408 in., 11 x 29.5 x 34 feet

Down the block from the modest small show, at another Matthew Marks Gallery location, was a monumental Smith sculpture, dramatic in the cavernous space, a piece more typical of his major works. My mood the day I saw these shows was sympathetic to the small and off-handed and cold to the large and fabricated; I enjoyed seeing those funky early Smiths, handmade, irregular. Although my own work is now very small, with some of it precise and some casual, I'm not generally averse to large work. I love Richard Serra's sculpture (I wrote about a recent show here); but I questioned the huge size of Frank Stella's Irregular Polygons here. I find the gigantic work of Anselm Kiefer oppressive and battering, but love Pollock's enveloping canvases. On the other hand, small work can sometimes be precious. There have been times when small works have been overlooked (I remember that in art school, lo these many years ago, my teacher Philip Pearlstein telling me to work at least as large as a "good sized Cézanne") but I don't believe it's the case now. Part of a work's meaning resides in its size, so large or small, the artist must convince us that it is "just right".

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