A Throw of the Dice

John Haber
in New York City

Tony Smith and All That Is Solid

Someone coined the phrase "there's no getting around it" for times like this. A six-foot black cube named Die dares anyone to face it, to play with it, to run away from it, or to call it art. With a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art and around the city, there is no getting around Tony Smith's sculpture these days. I had literally a field day. Tony Smith's Luisenberg (estate of the artist, 1953–1968)

If Die takes nerve and a sense of play, so does reclaiming a city, landfill by landfill, block by block. New York artists have been doing it for decades, of course. They have turned abandoned factories and school houses into studios and the core of vibrant neighborhoods. In place of junkyards, people now have parks and their place in the sun. This summer and fall, sculpture exhibitions show the new urban parks to best advantage.

Along with gamesmanship, art also takes patience, desperation, and humility. Neighborhoods that artists have reclaimed soon give way to shops and housing that artists cannot afford. A die may sound like child's play, but museums and galleries make sculpture more of a risk every year. Can art sustain a sense of play and community? How can artists themselves survive? As Mallarmé put it, a throw of the dice never abolishes le hasard—chance, risk, and fate.

Stéphane Mallarmé wrote in near isolation at the end of the last century. As seen in his retrospective, Smith competed for massive commissions, for museums, campuses, private buildings, and public squares. Shows in New York's park system takes the sculpture garden out of the museum and back to the community. Together, they trace Modernism's trajectory—from rebellion, to institution, to local politics and postmodern disarray. They also show that modern sculpture never stopped playing around.


How does one exhibit Tony Smith? Can New York's Museum of Modern Art reconstruct a career in huge, black sculpture? I hate settling for models and drawings, but the ones at the Modern help. They emphasize that one is meant to walk around Smith's work casually. One comes to enjoy every shifting view if it were a fresh color on canvas. One can almost imagine the sculpture as an extension of one's body, just as it become for the artist's daughter, Kiki Smith.

The real thing spills over onto Bryant Park, the Seagram's building, and Grand Army Plaza, as if nothing could contain it. Still more works fill the Modern's sculpture garden, where they sit wonderfully together. I imagine them colliding with each other like toy cars. Seen from the galleries three floors above, they look like models themselves.

The show gets playful in another way, by insisting on all of Smith's interests, including painting and architecture. One sees how his sculpture grew from both. The architecture, much of which never took shape, has the homey idealism of Frank Lloyd Wright, a favorite of Smith's. It also casts aside Wright's hard nativism and claustrophobia.

Smith intended his buildings to perch mostly on stilts, like the modest sculpture in those summer parks. He never found a huge audience for it—or for the big abstract canvases, but the color ovals that fill them tightly necessarily leave lots of white space.

The show has a considerable drawback. Along with his work, does Smith's stature seem smaller and lighter now? I am afraid so. Moses still has a broad base and two horns, like Moses receiving the light of God, but it looks far grander in Princeton University's outdoor collection. Somehow, the museum's display also disturbs the human scale of his sculpture. If I cannot jump around it, I can no longer relate to it as intimately.

But I enjoyed playtime, especially on a cheap Friday evening at the Modern, after a full work week for most people. Thanks to the show, Smith looks contemporary again. To see what I mean by contemporary, better hit the streets.

Private lives and public spaces

A city may have untold stories, but they have this way of unfolding in public. Think of Edward Hopper interiors. However strange the goings-on, the painter takes his vantage point through a window and across the street.

It makes sense, then, that New York is looking after public art. It has polished Samuel F. B. Morse's statue of Seward in Madison Square and erected contemporary sculpture twenty feet away. It has re-gilded Augustus Saint-Gaudens's equestrian statue of General Sherman across from the Plaza Hotel. And it has also left room in Grand Army Plaza for Smith's Smoke. Its twisting, black geometry, like a huge cigarette stub made from Lego pieces, spirals as one walks around it.

Smoke looks forward to Minimalists such as Carl Andre, Ronald Bladen, Jene Highstein, or Dan Flavin, but it stays public art in the old-fashioned way. One can never be a part of it. It takes over a site rather than opening a space for each viewer to enter. One looks up to Smoke, just as to a traditional statue on its pedestal.

Like a statue, too, Smith's sculpture cries out for human terms. I can never describe it in feet or inches. Die is about this tall, I say, jumping to peek over its top, ah, for only that moment. It runs this wide, I add, as I stretch my arms as far as I can. One can see Smith's early training in architecture. Who really wants to know the width of a kitchen in feet rather than counter space?

Smith's career overlapped and influenced Minimalism, and I had long seem him as the missing link from Abstract Expressionism. Like David Smith a generation before, Tony Smith uses abstract, almost prefabricated shapes for something almost human. Like the Minimalists, he belongs to an era of smug museum institutions, cramped official readings of sculpture's history, museums turning into global empires of the imagination, and office parks, while giving people a chance.

After his citywide retrospective, I see him now as a link from Frank Lloyd Wright to Neo-Geo. He preserves a tradition of public art, from the Renaissance to Rodchenko, but with a playfulness very much at home in the 1990s. Maybe Modernism got a bad rap in the first place.

The great outdoors

The city's dedication to outdoor art extends to artist cooperatives and alternative spaces in all boroughs. They reflect what America has today—a mix of small-scale government grants and private support, so that an artist can reach a larger, private market.

One park lies right by the Brooklyn Bridge, down the street from the thriving artist loft area called Dumbo (for "Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass"). A walk over the bridge from Manhattan alone makes summer sculpture "Between the Bridges" held year after year or the fall festivities of "Art Under the Bridge" worth a visit. If not, one has Patsy's Pizza around the corner and Brooklyn Heights up by the subway.

In contrast, Socrates Sculpture Park has the most isolated setting for art I know. Perhaps a mile from the subway on the Queens waterfront, it makes a peaceful, or maybe desolate, stroll from Astoria, not far from where I used to live. With enough determination, one can get there directly from Manhattan, too, thanks to the urban fantasy of an overhead tram ride to Roosevelt Island. After that, one has a long walk up and into Queens.

Beneath the Brooklyn Bridge, artists make small statements, fitting their place among a dozen others, dwarfed by the sunlit skyline of lower Manhattan. They play with images of the factories behind them. They make deceptively hard seats for people to bathe in the sun. They create art that one can touch, turn, and climb over.

The park in Queens will put up with no such modesty. These artists fought for their land, and they fought hard. They reclaimed it from the junk heaps, they incorporated it, and they got it funding. They arrange community events and draw their public from nearby. They feature artists such as John Ahearn, with his politically correct sculpture of ghetto kids.

Sculpture is bound to look scrappy on that scuzzy, intermittent patch of grass. Indeed, it insists on it. Like Mark di Suvero, one of the sculpture park's founders and a great park artist himself, these artists like to toy with junk. Jene Highstein stands as another older contributor. Works often return to industrial materials, with a ramshackle, castoff kind of construction. It is as if art, nature, and the community had fought back against the factories and failed. Come to think of it, in the long run, perhaps they have.

The good fight

Shows here stay more earnest than in other city parks, but I hit upon an uncommonly nice day to fight the good fight. The East River looked soft and bright in the warm, late-summer sun, a low-key mix of people hung about, and a New Orleans revival band played along. Their stage looked at least as jury-rigged, in fact, as any sculpture. Families peered happily at the waterfront through Aris's Kaleidoscope, and one really did need signs telling kids not to climb on the art.

In the latest exhibition, called "All That Is Solid," one ambitious piece of performance art has a simple mission—to stay alive and to stay in motion. It truly deserves the line "work in progress." Ward Shelley's long Voyage Platform, built of linked, detachable segments, gives the performers a place to live for a few days. Without setting foot on the ground, they manage to slide the boards across, unhitch a rear segment, swing it around to the front, and hitch it back in place. In this way their mobile home slowly crosses the park, even in the rain.

The performance aims for an evolving, self-contained, but open environment. It demands time, strength, and will quite as much as ingenuity. I admire it, but it highlights the park's creepy way of never letting go. It hardly helps that video cameras monitor the project tightly from their own little platform. The camera's stilts parody the work of art.

Socrates Sculpture Park never will let go, starting with letting go of its past. If the park in Brooklyn lies beneath the soaring piers of the Brooklyn Bridge, this one confronts the abandoned hospitals on the northern tip of Roosevelt Island. It turns its back on the Iasmu Noguchi Garden Museum just down the street. The first time I checked it out, it smelled distinctly of urine—not the liquid I had in mind after Noguchi's fountain enclaves.

Socrates Sculpture Park has come a long way since my first visit, but it wants to keep its stern purpose. It is a garden that can never come to seed lest it spoil nature's pristine beauty. A few of the more garish works, in fact, clearly wanted not to compete for loveliness.

I preferred the most easygoing sculpture among the nearly fifty works—and not only out of nostalgia for formal beauty. I just wanted artists with a sense of humor, maybe even someone who did not discourage children from climbing. I liked that Alberto Cavalieri calls his tall work Watch Your Step. It may mount to the sky, but those clapboards and five-foot bent nails coming out mock the sculpture's own aspirations. He could have ripped a board off an adjacent building, blowing it up to the proportions of a standing hero. Like Claes Oldenburg, he relies not solely on the Pop Art image, but also on the traditional sculpture he mimics.

Picking up the scraps

Like Cavalieri, the best artists engage the park on its own terms. They adapt to a ratty, industrial setting, not quite in shouting distance from Manhattan's museums. Robert Hickman's Roosevelt Island Shuttle even constructs a pretend catapult aimed for the Upper East side. It has a lock on the mechanism, just in case one hoped for a quick entrance to middle-class housing and the art scene.

Other standouts include Bill and Mary Buchen's Sound Observatory, which also faces the water. It focuses the sounds of people and the earth, while offering anyone who wants to play a cool drum set. Wendy Klemperer's Fallen Horse at last allows Deborah Butterfield to get hers. And Elaine Lorenz's concrete maze, Gathering, takes Richard Serra's sheets, especially his Switch and Torqued Ellipses, down to earthly scale and acceptable pretensions. Leave other artists their monuments and memorials.

One can see Socrates Sculpture Park as a violent reaction against art for corporate front lawns, including Tony Smith's. It wants everything he could never attain—soft edges and diversity, a catapult beyond the art world. It excites me just to hear the title of its exhibition, a quote (unattributed!) from Karl Marx. Ironically, it only spotlights the price artists pay for escaping art institutions. Like college radio, it does not explode the divisions between the mainstream and the creative act. It only confirms them.

An alternative space today can crack the facade only for a moment, without destroying it. It even survives in contrast to the mainstream. Indeed, Modernism and Postmodernism hang on as concepts mostly in opposition to each other, the postmodern paradox.

Right now, I have nothing better to suggest. Both Tony Smith and city parks open views outside the museums and into the life of a city. They find an intersection between New York and the great outdoors. The intersection permits reinterpretations of older artists such as Smith, too. One sees at last the playful spirit in Modernism that the dogmas tend to hide. Guess who comes off less dogmatic anyhow, Smoke or the artist collectives? A proper postmodernist might have to ban smoking.

From Smith's career I always come back to the chance to toss the Die. And from Queens I shall remember a sculpture that sums up both halves of "industrial park." Alena Ort's Treasure Rock tightly straps a boulder, the kind one finds all over Central Park, with badly beaten, rusted steel bands. From the scraps of civilization, Ort may not have made the best work among many fine ones. But she has the perfect last name.

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Tony Smith's retrospective ran at The Museum of Modern Art through September 22, 1998. "All That Is Solid" was on view at Socrates Sculpture Park during the late summer and the fall.


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