A contemporary of David Hockney, Joe Tilson and Peter Blake, Richard Smith distinguished himself in the early 1960s, during the years of British Pop, with semiabstract canvases and painted, space-invading wall-relief constructions attuned to the allure of color print advertisements, particularly for cigarettes. Smith, however, was bemused rather than beguiled by consumer culture, unlike American Pop artists. Over time, his work evolved dramatically as he engaged with issues of abstraction dear to Minimalists, Color Field painters and serial artists. A resident of New York City for the past 30 years, Smith continues to experiment with shallow pictorial space, punchy graphical arrangements and effulgent, persuasive chromatic relationships.
Double Box (36 by 76 inches) reprises his earlier images based on cigarette packs, and exemplifies the compositional and coloristic strategies among the 11 paintings and six works on paper here, all produced in the past two years. Forcefully if delicately extricating itself from a field of jangly, scissoring stripes in South Beach-inflected coral, teal and pungent raw sienna, a pair of red-striped box tops casts brilliant purple shadows. The central figure in Border (40 by 42 inches)is a wonky magenta quatrefoil emblazoned with brusque purple hatch marks laid down over a tight family of reds. The dense and funky beacon seems to vibrate amid sliding, eliding stripes of evergreen, ultramarine and pumpkin. Border II operates similarly. Five opaque red stripes arranged in rough circles are separated by slivers of a complex blue-green glaze and an opaque pastel purple-pink. The playful misalignment of components recalls Smith’s well-known Kites from the 1970s, the tilting, lilting, quixotic site-specific attempts to wed large-scale abstract painting and public architecture.
In theory at least, American Pop art banished the autobiographical and spontaneous touch. Smith, despite his many years in the U.S., repudiates that edict while continuing to address pop culture. As if to elucidate the point, his fluid, nondescript, arcing scribble—another mainstay of his work of the ’60s and ’70s—returns in Rrose, where it fills out a cartoony, five-petal silhouette at the juncture of four traversing streams of stripes. Tricorne, a crimson trefoil sporting greenish-blue bands set against a yellowish striped ground, blends coloristic exuberance and a cool, brick-by-brick compositional rationale that seems, to this Yankee, distinctly British.
Photo: Richard Smith: Surface I, 2009, acrylic on canvas, 40 by 42 inches; at Flowers