A polymath with interests as diverse as mathematical biology and modernist architecture, Tony Smith worked as a mechanical draftsman for his family’s municipal waterworks company while studying at the Art Students League in New York City. He trained as an architect in the 1930s and worked for Frank Lloyd Wright, whose use of mass-produced, modular homes inspired Smith to open his own architecture firm a few years later. After moving to New York City, Smith became close friends with Jackson Pollock and the Abstract Expressionist painters, subsequently designing a home for painter Theodoros Stamos and exhibition spaces for a number of New York art galleries. He embarked on an ambitious series of abstract paintings during a two-year sojourn to Europe in the mid-1950s, bringing his skills as a draftsman to the linear geometry of his compositions. Ten years later, at age fifty, he began working in the medium for which he is best known: large-scale steel sculpture.
The larger-than-life scale and immersive quality of Smith’s sculpture is undoubtedly influenced by his work as an architect. Indeed, Amaryllis began as an attempt to realize his vision of a “cave of light,” an open sculptural volume that would nevertheless immerse and envelop the viewer. He worked with large sheets of plywood, combining multifaceted geometric elements like the cube and rhomboid arranged in linear configurations, which were subsequently executed in steel by industrial fabricators. As curator Robert Storr observes, the sculpture “is based on compound articulations of two triangulated modules, the tetrahedron and the octahedron.”
Though the reductive form and monochrome black surface of Amaryllis call to mind the aesthetic of Minimalist art, Smith’s use of complex geometry contrasts with the simple mathematical progressions and elementary forms of Minimalist artists Sol LeWitt and Robert Morris. The twisting angles of Amaryllis create a complicated, multivalent mass that changes dramatically as one moves around the work—shifting from flattened to dimensional, or from balanced to asymmetrical.
Location: Fine Arts Complex on Trinity Street