Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Ned Smyth, Circles and Squares

Ned Smyth, Reverence
through March 17

ARCHES DRAWING, 1974, cast concrete, 72 x 96 x 1 1/2"
and SHORT STREET, 1976, cast concrete, 17 x 48 x 4"
RENAISSANCE PLAN, 1973 installation, 112 Greene Street

Ned Smyth moved to New York in the early 1970s, when SoHo was a hotbed of primordial aesthetics. He got a job as chef at the restaurant-cum-cultural phenomenon, Food, where Gordon Matta-Clark presided over the city's most unconventional eatery, and the first in this burgeoning artist's community. While the art world's biggest Kahunas (Warhol, Rauschenberg, Johns, etc.) raged on at Max's Kansas City, it was the younger generation -- the artists that inherited the netherworld between Minimalism and everything that came after it -- that populated Food: Keith Sonnier, Tina Girouard (one of its principals), Donald Judd, Mary Heilmann and, of course, Smyth. This was SoHo before it had a name -- an electric scene that merged restless painters and sculptors with dancers, musicians, poets and chefs. A block away, the cavernous 112 Greene Street -- part laboratory, part exhibition space, part staging ground -- was the beginning of all things alternative in this nascent world of contemporary art. 

On view now at Salomon Contemporary, selected works from the incubator -- part three of the exhibition series American Responses, curated by Ned Smyth. Here, the artist exhibits selected works from his own archives dating from the early 1970s -- configuring a slice of history and rethinking those halcyon days some four decades later. Upcoming exhibitions in the series include Dickie Landry, Home, opening March 23rd and Tina Girouard, Home, opening April 20.

Last week Ned shared some thoughts over the phone about the people, events and history of primeval SoHo and more recent things. Below, a few moments from our talk:

Foreground (at Smyth's Shelter Island studio): ONE, 2004, Bronze, 144" H

NS:  The art I grew up with was either in a museum or a church -- it was always in a reverent space. I thought art was about reverence.

Smyth lived in and traveled Europe throughout his childhood while his father, the art historian Craig Hugh Smyth, researched the art and architecture of the Renaissance. Rebelling against the intellectualism and academia at home, the younger Smyth grew up playing soccer on the streets of Rome. Still, he entered Kenyon College a Psych major and left very much an artist.

During his graduate exhibition, Isamu Noguchi came to Kenyon to receive an honorary degree from the college. He liked Smyth's show, and engaged him in conversation.

NS: I didn't even know who Noguchi was. He asked what I was going to do. I said I'd either go to Yale or New York. He asked if I wanted to teach and I said "not really," and he said "Go to New York -- of you're good, you'll find out." 

Smyth drove a cab the first year and then, in a stroke of luck or something close to divine providence, he was picked up hitchhiking on Route 9W by Keith Sonnier and the legendary musician and founding member of the Philip Glass Ensemble, Dickie Landry.

NS: I said I was looking for work, and they said -- "why don't you get a job at Food?"


  NS: It's got a lot to do with luck, but sometimes you end up in the right place at the right time and you're just not prepared for it. I guess in some way I had my stuff together. I had my first show at 112 Greene Street in 1973 and started showing at Holly Solomon the following year.

112 Greene was gigantic, raw and spatially elastic, providing a wide berth for experimentation. Drawing on his exposure to European and Islamic art and architecture, Smyth's early works riffed on cathedral floor plans, archeological sites, temple placement and classical architecture. He learned to cast concrete while working construction in the Virgin Islands and with this knowledge he began casting cement units. The bars, bricks and curves he made functioned like building blocks, and Smyth assembled architectural tableaux and image fields that were elemental and evocative. Like complex temple schematics, the works were part drawing and part narrative, forged on minimalist tropes yet presaging the coming trends in post-minimalist architecture and design.

EASY STREET, 1974, cast concrete

NS: My minimalism was literal because it eluded to architecture -- it had a sense of narration. For me, formalism was a vehicle rather than an end.

Within a year of his first show at Holly Solomon he was exhibiting internationally. Into his minimalist arches, plinths and columns, Smyth eventually introduced the Jungian circle. Conceived as the holy water font that is so integral to Baptistry design, the artist's site-specific installations began to evolve into more cloistered, inclusive spaces. Smyth's environments became places of solitude and reverie, enclosed only by their own structured elegance. 

In the mid-70s, as the Pattern and Decoration movement began to take off in the U.S., Smyth's columnar shapes became more articulated, incorporating motifs from the Corinthian column. But Smyth morphed its classic leafy tops into palm trees and frond sprays. He introduced color through the use of mosaic.

NS: All my friends were painting -- I wanted to work with color, too, so I turned to mosaics.

UPPER ROOM, 1987, Esplanade, Battery Park City, New York

detail: Upper Room, 1987
UPPER ROOM, 1987, looking toward the Hudson River, Battery Park City
Around the same time, city planners and the architectural community began thinking about integrating sculpture into public and private spaces in urban areas. According to Smyth, before then public sculpture was often called "Plop Art," because it seemed to be "plopped" in front of a building without much forethought.

  The idea of bringing artists into the design phase of an architectural project was new,  and Smyth's vision was a perfect fit for the concept. He was at the forefront of a sort of urban paradigm shift -- one that embraced art in public places and helped to humanize the urban experience. By 1985, Smyth had dropped out of the gallery world to focus exclusively on the public commissions that were awarded him throughout the United States.

World Park: Orders and Perspectives, 1995, Philadelphia, PA

World Park, detail

Reverent Grove, 1978, Federal Building and US Courthouse Courtyard, Charlotte Amalie, Virgin Islands

After some forty years creating more than thirty cultural environments, in 2006 Smyth returned to the studio.

NS: I didn't realize until I moved into my Shelter Island studio that I had a rock collection. One day I dumped them out on the floor and realized I had been collecting rocks for 35 years.

In effect, Smyth has moved from the Renaissance through the Middle Ages and on to pre-history, where manipulated rocks and rock paintings were some of the first iterations of idolatry and spiritual representation. From the earliest monoliths to Easter Island, Stonehenge, and ancient rock configurations throughout Scotland, Australia, South America and all over the globe, cultures have sought to communicate their identity through interpretive means of natural phenomena. 

Placing rocks in formation, stacking them into pyramids, carving faces into them, painting and decorating them, polishing them or cutting them into dwellings, standing them up on end -- the transformation of something basic, like a rock, is one of the most elemental things about being human. We want to know ourselves through our own reflection. 

In this way, it's as if Smyth has gracefully dug underneath his own archeology, seeking to unearth his origins. 

One, 2004, bronze, 144" H

Follow Smyth's curatorial program, American Responses, continuing at Salomon Contemporary with Dickie Landry, Heart, opening March 23. As a part of the series, don't miss Landry's solo performance on March 26th at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.