— Art in Common

Tony Smith, Tau, 1961–62

In 1967, Tony Smith was on the cover of Time, standing in the courtyard of the Corcoran Gallery amid his massive sculpture Smoke. “SCULPTOR TONY SMITH: Art Outgrows the Museum,” read the cover in its entirety. My next sentence is supposed to begin “In comparison…”, but really, the state of the American newsweekly is too grim to contemplate even without worrying about its coverage of contemporary art.

Like most of Smith’s sculptures, the hulking form you see as you exit the 6 train at 68th Street is painted a solid black, though years outside in the Manhattan air have rendered its finish a little less light-swallowing than before. (Some pigeons have had their way with it too.) Why black? Smith, the famous story goes, was driving down the New Jersey Turnpike late at night, on a new section of road without lights, and the overwhelming darkness seemed to cloak “a reality there which had not had any expression in art.” We like our art history this way. We do not like to be told that, in 1961, you could not yet log onto a Chinese auction site and outsource fabrication to the lowest bidder, and that a black finish makes it easier to hide the joints.

Despite appearances, Smith is actually a forebear of the minimalists, an ab-ex sculptor in minimal drag. He was tight with Pollock, he took over Rothko’s studio, he designed Newman’s gravestone, and in fact he produced some excellent paintings in the 1950s. He also worked as an architect for two decades (he designed Betty Parsons’s house!) before turning to scuplture full-time. But, far from the purifications of Judd and co., Smith’s work always has a humanistic charge under the black surface – most notably in Die, often but not currently on view in the MoMA sculpture garden, whose dimensions correspond to Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man. Tau may not be Smith’s greatest achievement, but it does at least have the virtue of remaining an enigma, a black hole. What you see is not yet what you see.

When Robert Storr mounted his posthumous Smith retrospective at MoMA in 1998, he and Tom Eccles of the Public Art Fund also organized a pendant exhibition around New York. Cigarette, another early black work, stood at the 5th Avenue entrance to Central Park; the lattice-shaped Smog hunkered down low in Bryant Park; and Light Up, a magisterial yellow piece from 1971, took a trip up from Pittsburgh to stand outside the Seagram Building. I’m sure Pittsburgh enjoys it, but gracious, do I wish it was ours.

Tau is outside the 68th Street-Hunter College stop on the 6 train, right on Lex.