Gallery Going, by DAVID COHEN          
      A version of this article first appeared in the
New York Sun, June 17, 2004


"Tony Smith" at Matthew Marks Gallery (523 W. 24th Street, between tenth and Eleventh Avenues, 212-243-0200).

"Anish Kapoor" at Barbara Gladstone Gallery (515 W. 24th Street, between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues, 212-206-9300).


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Tony Smith Black Box 1962
steel, oil finished, 22-1/2 x 33 x 25 inches
Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery
Anish Kapoor Whiteout 2004
fiberglass and paint, 74 x 55-1/2 x 55-1/2 inches
Courtesy Barbara Gladstone Gallery


You might think that art can't get much more minimal than a monochrome box. Yet as it happens, contrasting examples of this form - one black, one white, are currently showing on the same street. The contrast between Tony Smith's, at Matthew Marks, and Anish Kapoor's, at Barbara Gladstone, demonstrates that, precisely at its most reductive, art challenges us to think about intentionality and to reckon with the subtleties of personal experience.

Tony Smith is identified with 1960s Miminal Art, but he was actually born in 1912, the same year as his close friend Jackson Pollock. Until his 40s, he was an architect - he had worked for Frank Lloyd Wright and had his own practice - and only turned to sculpture when illness prevented him from overseeing building work.

At Matthew Marks are three important early pieces from 1962, 1963, and 1964 - the year of his public debut, at the Wadsworth Atheneum's "Black, White and Grey" exhibition in Hartford, Conn. Smith was also included in the seminal exhibition, "Primary Structures," at the Jewish Museum in 1966, where artists like Sol le Witt and Carl Andre were introduced. His writings and ideas were a crucial influence on artists like Robert Smithson, the pioneer of earthworks.

Yet however streamlined, austere, and uncompromising his art can appear, Smith was not really a minimalist. His art had nothing to do with reduction as an end in itself, either as a Dada gesture or an epistemological game. Invariably, forms and themes were suggested by experience - if not observation - of the real world. They would often have names that proved the point: "Cigarette" (1961) for instance, would, but for its name, appear a geometrically precisionist essay in form.

The three pieces at Marks are expressively or suggestively titled: "Wall," "The Elevens Are Up," and "Black Box." There is a story that when this last piece, from 1962, was placed in the artist's yard, one of his daughters (maybe Kiki, the well-known sculptor) asked who was buried there. Made from oiled steel of rough, almost porous-looking surface, it still exudes an ominous sense of finality, even in the polite surroundings of a Chelsea gallery.

Tony Smith The Elevens Are Up 1963
steel, painted black, 2 units, 96 x 24 x 96 inches; overall, 96 x 96 x 96 inches
Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery

"The Elevens Are Up" (1963) takes its title from a pair of muscles that swell on the back of the neck in reaction to alcohol (Smith struggled with alcoholism). Consisting of a pair of parallel, black-painted eight-foot square steel walls set four feet apart, the piece invites the viewer to walk through. But it denies him or her the possibility of peering over the top while doing so.

In both these cases, biographical information allows for expressive interpretation that mitigates the forbidding, alienating blankness that otherwise characterizes the work. Would these sculptures, of their own accord, invite empathy, or does the artist's legend - knowledge of his character and aspirations - induce generous readings of what would, left to their own devices, remain mute, insenstive objects?

Once you know something, it is hard to unlearn it. But it seems to me that Smith's work - even, or perhaps especially, at its most pared-down and hard-edged - has an expressive resonance that stands it apart from the cool, aloof geometric abstraction of his younger contemporaries. The extremity of his abstraction doesn't prevent his being an expressionist.

Anish Kapoor Carousel 2004
polished stainless steel, fiberglass, and paint, 94 x 115 x 115 inches
Courtesy Barbara Gladstone Gallery

Indian-born British sculptor Anish Kapoor, who has enjoyed considerable international attention since he emerged in the 1980s, is riding high in America at the moment with recent prestigious public commissions: for the Millenium Park in Chicago, and here in New York for a prospective memorial to British victims of 9/11.

His show at Barbara Gladstone is as sleek as Smith's is severe, yet both are as problematic in their relation to minimalism: the precursor with his expressionism, the recent follower with his penchant for illusion A commonality binding the two artists is that they each brought a religious perspective to a notoriously materialist idiom.

Smith was a devout Catholic, which makes his aesthetic puritanism ironic. Mr. Kapoor, of mixed Hindu-Jewish ancestry, has often stressed spirituality in the titling and explanations of his work. His art is concerned with dualities of absence and presence, the physical and the transcendent, . His sculptural forms tend toward the simplified, streamlined, and essential, but with aesthetic results that violate minimalism's prim terms of engagement.

A great lover of the void and its enigmas, Mr. Kapoor uses illusion to destabilize boundaries and induce a kind of low-octane sublime, tilting consciousness into the gray zone between the grounded and the oceanic.

"Whiteout" (2004) is a six-foot-high white painted fiberglass box whose exposed faces are slightly indented. Caught at certain angles, the subtle modulation on the seemingly sheer surfaces appear to be the play of light rather than an actual, physical depression. The black "Vortex" (2004), constructed in wood, lacquer, and fiberglass, is an eardrum-like form, rather like the horn of an old record-player. It sucks the eye into an inner recess: You know it is merely sunk a few inches into a wall, but your eye unlearns this fact to take you to a deeper, metaphysical space.

The most ambitious piece in the show is "Carousel" (2004), a giant stainless steel spool, almost eight feet high, with an open middle exposing a white painted fiberglass interior. You know exactly what the shape is that you are looking at, yet the eye is tricked into sumptuous loss of bearings.

While Mr. Kapoor has remained faithful to a defined set of formal and spiritual concerns, it is hard not to be struck by the contrast in texture between his earlier work and the direction suggested by this new show. Previously, he liked to push a duality of the earthy and the ethereal - through, for instance, a radical collision of brilliant blue pigment and rock formations.

The earthy, for sure, has been jettisoned in favor of a high industrial finesse. The exquisite yet aloof biomorphic stainless steel floorpieces that make up the rest of this exhibition take their lead from his monumental public commissions in terms of depersonalization. All this work, in its seamlessness utterly belies any trace of their maker's hand.



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