Richard Smith at Flowers New York
February 26, 2010—April 3, 2010
529 West 20th Street. between 10th and 11th avenues
New York City, 212 439 1700
The London art gallery Flowers has opened a branch in Chelsea, and their inaugural show appropriately features a British transplant: Richard Smith, who has lived in New York since 1978. Born in 1931 in Herfordshire England, Smith’s artistic career was established in the 1960s as part of the British movement of pop artists along with Richard Hamilton and Peter Blake. Smith is perhaps best known for the synthesis of two seemingly antithetical movements: Pop Art and Abstract Expressionism.
It may be difficult, at several decades’ distance, to appreciate what an achievement that was. But it is important to remember that at the time it seemed an impossible and perhaps unholy alliance. Indeed, an art collector who had been a close friend of Clement Greenberg’s once remarked to me that in the 1960s the tension between the two movements felt like the “battle between good and evil.” Yet Richard Smith makes it feel completely natural, if not inevitable. His new group of paintings and drawings, on view here, directly recall the innovations of his work four decades ago. More restrained and reserved than his earlier works, they nevertheless preserve the energy and playfulness that has always been a signature of his art.
All of the paintings in this group are made up of brightly colored, layered stripes. Smith transforms the brushstroke into a visual unit, a building block for constructing paintings. This gives them a very graphic, optical effect not always easy or pleasant to look at. The stripes are built up at diagonal angles, giving a “mad for plaid” effect which recalls grids, lattices, beach blankets. But they are not the cold, hard edged stripes of, say, early Stella; rather, Smith has allowed the traces of the masking to remain. The bleeding edges and the drag marks give the works a slight looseness which offsets the rigidity and intensity of the stripes. In the best painting in the group, Surface III, Smith has placed a cluster of shorter lines against a vivid ground of contrasting orange and blue stripes all at the same opposing angle to the background lattice. Breaking up the rigidity and the intensity of the stripes are short, dark curved brushstrokes, which play both with and against the angles formed by the plaid ground.
The rectangle, which was an important, essential theme for Smith in the sixties, is evoked in the diptych Double Box. This new work seems to refer to a 1963 piece called Gift Wrap, in which two large rectangular forms, resembling cigarette packs (Smith was using a lot of imagery of packaging at the time), jut out from the canvas at oblique angles. In the new paintings, the size is much smaller, and the work is flat, with dimension and depth given by the painting itself, rather than made literal by sculptural form. Intensity and depth are achieved simply with color, tone, and shape.
Smith has said that these recent works are to be thought of as “Outsider” art, which presumably means that they are to be taken at face value, as naïve or simplistic. But faced with so venerable an artist as Richard Smith, it is the wish to be read as an outsider which seems naïve. Not only do these works seem to make direct reference to Smith’s prior achievements, but in terms of their visual effect they have a naturalness and a deceptive simplicity which are the result of decades of work and mastery.