Tony Smith was something of a Renaissance man. Best known for his steel sculptures (he preferred the word “presences”), the New Jersey-born artist also dabbled in architecture, painting, and art criticism. Today, he is remembered most for Die (1962), a six-foot black steel cube that weighed in at 500 pounds. Its title doubles as a reference to its shape (it looks like a die) and a command evoked by its cold, imposing nature (“Die!”). In that way, it’s typical of Smith’s sculptures, which are often made out of black industrial materials and could easily flatten viewers if knocked over.
Three major sculptures by Smith are currently on view at Matthew Marks Gallery. In honor of the show, we turn back to 1971, when Smith was interviewed by art critic Lucy R. Lippard. Smith discusses puns, hamburger rolls, and why sculptures should be colorless. —Alex Greenberger
“Tony Smith: Talk About Sculpture”
By Lucy R. Lippard
Interview about concepts and projects with this architect-sculptor who works at the scale of the table-top or mountain-side, and who exhibits new pieces this month at Knoedler, New York
Since around 1960, Tony Smith has produced a continually fluid and self-generating network of sculpture based on the concept of a continuous three-dimensional space-lattice and on a standard tetrahedral (and octahedral) module, the possibilities of which he feels he has barely explored. In the last two years he has worked on a number of commissioned sculptures much larger than anything he has done before, and, simultaneously, on smaller pieces suggested by parts and offshoots of the major products. The interrelationships between all of these and the process by which each new piece arises from one or another of the old, or from an entirely new situation or site, are enriched by the complexity of Smith’s background as an architect and painter, his knowledge of a sophisticated geometry related to crystallographic structure, and a generally acute and probing mind.
The large works that have occupied him since 1969 are, in brief: Hubris, commissioned for the University of Hawaii at Manoa, one of Smith’s most open and regular pieces to date, which consists of a two-section, 9-by-9 grid in black concrete, one half thin slabs at ground level, the other half the same grid raised to 3 feet 3 inches by a four-sided pyramidal module; Batcave, a complex environmental interior designed to “mold space and light” rather than material form, at the Osaka World’s Fair, a new version of which will be shown soon at the Los Angeles County Museum; a gigantic triangular sculpture inserted into a Californian mountainside; a labyrinthine water garden for a delta; Smog, a huge new horizontal piece made from the dismantled components of Smoke (which was made for the Corcoran’s “Scale as Content” show, 1967); Haole Center, a sunken square “pavement” within a square stone sculpture, with a metal ladder leading down below the earth’s surface; two related monumental sculptures on platforms (Arch and Dial); and a flat 81-block grid proposed for downtown Minneapolis. All of these last works and Hubris, which deal with open and closed situations and sections or extensions of each others’ forms, are structurally related to one another and stem from Maze (shown at Finch College in 1967), Singer (in the Museum of Modern Art’s “Art of the Real” show, 1968), and Lunar Ammo Dump (projected for the University of Illinois’ Chicago camps).
The smaller sculptures from this period, now being exhibited at Knoedler (to April 24) were all conceived int the same three-month period in the summer of 1969 and relate particularly to Hubris, Haole Crater, Arch and Dial, as well as to earlier works shown in Hartford and Philadelphia in 1966. Made from the same module and consequently of the same general scale, they form what Smith calls an open labyrinth, though they are not seen as a fixed group and were not made in any particularly sequence (unlike the 1968 series, Wandering Rocks, conceived as a definite unity). The nine pieces at Knoedler’s began as very small marbles, gifts for friends whose initials provide the titles. Last fall they were transformed into full scale plywood mock-ups and shown at the Newark, Montclair and Princeton University museums; for the current show they have been constructed in bronze with a special black patina. The following text was taken from a taped conversation with the artist at his home in New Jersey on Jan. 18, 1971.
Tony Smith: I think the volume of my work has much to do with a response to contemporary life generally; I don’t think it relates much to the art scene, although certain things just happen and may seem somewhat alike. I have always admired very simple, very authoritative, very enduring things. I feel that’s what the new pieces are about. It isn’t that I have anything against the ephemeral, it’s just that I find there is very little, not in contemporary art but in contemporary life, that we think of as continuous, in terms of substantial, sort of 19th-century values, though the fact that we live in a period of great change probably affects my work too. All times have had some sense of this. I find the art world very oppressive; it’s hard to be passive in it. It seems to me that in the 1950s, everything I knew about was within a very narrow compass, where today I can’t understand a lot of it.
Lucy Lippard: Seeing the new steel pieces in the factory this afternoon, dominating that big, rough, industrial space, they looked like they were going to be there forever.
T.S.: I think a curious transformation takes place in making things of very solid materials. For instance, when I did the piece For J.C., I merely thought of it as somewhat tricky, in the sense that there is a vertical-horizontal square, and then there is another square on a diagonal, then the four triangles are also a square, so they come to the same point. There are all these kinds of things that could happen in that piece, so I thought of it as very Cubist. I did it for someone whom I think of as a Cubist and I thought it had a kind of humorous quality; at the same time, when you see it in bronze, it takes on a more somber quality and looks monumental.
L.L.: Because of the traditional connotations of bronze?
T.S.: No. After all, the original maquette was more to the scale of a Cubist collage, and the association of paper…I don’t think it’s a question of bronze but of making it 80 inches high, which is the height of an ordinary door, and allowing these planes to expand and take on more substance because of their size. I think that the character of the piece has been transformed considerably, and I like this to take place.
L.L.: I wonder what exactly are the visual components of, or maybe criteria for, a totally abstract sculpture. Are visual puns associative and therefore less abstract?
T.S.: I think a certain element of unexpectedness, something done with great economy which nevertheless has an element of surprise…it has something to do with the unexpected without being frivolous or trite. There is certainly an element of surprise in my work, but it’s not calculated. I suppose the best way to put it would be that in working with the maquettes I think, well, that’s sort of interesting; I wouldn’t know how to seek it out because I can’t visualize in advance. I would never have been able to visualize Amaryllis . In fact, sometimes I find it hard to reproduce these things, even though I should be fairly familiar with them. When I try to put them together I can’t remember how certain things go, or the direction of certain planes confuses me. Sometimes when that quality comes out, I like it, I keep it. As a matter of fact, when I first did Willy  I thought of it as quite horrible. I was just playing around with some pieces, sort of liked the way some of the parts went together, but I don’t think that I would make a practice of that because for one thing, it would bore me.
L.L.: How did Smoke turn into Smog?
T.S.: It was just shipped back here from the Corcoran and it was put over near the back fence. I thought the man on the other side of the fence might be getting tired of it there, so I decided to have it taken to the dump and burned. Then that night, I was actually asleep and was awakened for a few minutes; I thought maybe I could do something else with Smoke before I threw it away. I thought I could put it on one level, instead of the double-storied original, but I felt the angle of the pieces coming to the ground would be so acute that it would lose any quality, you know, where the sloping pieces hit the ground; it would be so low it would lose quality and any sense of value. Then I decided to put those little triangular prisms on, in order to raise it from the ground and create a sense of space. Then, just for symmetry, I felt I needed to put the same caps at the intersection. The hardest problem was to arrange the 45 pieces so as not to make a completely symmetrical impression in plan. No matter how I did it, the patterns repeated. Then I figured out a way of doing it on a piece of paper about 2 by 3 inches, and I gave it to the boys and told them to put the pieces in that order, but the little piece opf paper blew away. I tried to repeat it and couldn’t remember it, so I went through the same process again. I don’t think it was as good as the first version, but it was the best I could do. But I was pleased with it. Even though I didn’t put the piece together very well, and a lot of parts are roughly joined, I feel it still has continuity. I guess the ground gives it that sense of cohesion. I must say I’ve had all kinds of ideas about this piece that I never had about others. Even though Smoke was intended to accommodate a lot of people, I didn’t feel that the people were essential to the piece, whereas here, when I see people looking at it, or when the boys were putting it together and were having lunch out there, the image complemented by people is very strong. I think of it as something for a park or a place for street people. Even if people aren’t active in it, there is a sense of creating diagonals. They may take something away from it, and they also soften it, but it is also as though an entirely new three-dimensional form passes through it and gives it a sense of fluidity. In that way it relates to Water Garden more than anything else.
When I did Hubris I really didn’t think people would go in among those pyramids. I don’t know whether you have ever seen any pictures of the mountains in Honolulu, but they have very sharp crests and sharp curves. I had thought of Hubris as very hostile and I found out the students didn’t think that way at all; they go barefoot and thought of running through it, racing, which seems to me quite a feat—to go from one of those things to another with no place to settle your feet. At any rate, it’s very hard for me to get into Smog, so to a large extent I see it from the outside. That’s the way I like to think of it.