Had I not stumbled upon performance art in the early 1970s, it is very possible that I would have dedicated my artistic efforts to abstract painting after the particular example of my compatriot Richard Smith (born 1931). When I was a young British art student there were very few artists for whom I had more respect. His paintings are characterized by a visual intelligence, economy, and elegance that excited me as much forty years ago as they do now, and by a lusciousness of color and a willingness to question the whole basis of picture making. As he describes here, in the early 1960s he introduced literal three-dimensionality into his abstract pictures in a way that was entirely new, and which even now has never really been explored by anyone else.
Richard Smith is an artist whose sensibilities unite the traditions of English and American abstraction. This is hardly surprising given the transatlantic lifestyle that he has maintained since he first traveled to this country in 1959, but it is a fact that adds another strand of uniqueness to his art, and another that fascinates a fellow immigrant like myself.
Richard Smith’s latest show opens on Thursday evening, February 25 at Matt Flowers’ beautiful new space at 529 West 20th Street, and runs through April 3. I spoke to him at the gallery last week as the paintings were being delivered, and we enjoyed a fascinating conversation that spanned the whole of his career.
Richard, your pictures are entirely abstract, so when you start work on a picture, what do you bring to it? What have you been looking at? What have you been thinking about?
Well, a lot of it is self-referential – things I’ve done in the past. But if you’ve gone on painting as many years as I have (next year will be the fiftieth anniversary of my first one-man show in New York!) that’s a lot of painting, either to return to or to depart from. With these ones the scale is not a usual scale for me, and a lot of my paintings have been on canvases that were not rectangular. So these new ones are more regular in a certain way, and I think of them as having a simplicity or directness to them. They have an “outsider art” feel to them.
Do you say that because there’s not much else going on in the art world that you feel kinship with?
Oh, no. There’s plenty of stuff going on. It’s surprising how you value your contemporaries, and there are young painters that I admire. I just meant that these paintings felt quite personal to me and I was very content working on them.
I’m amazed that it’s fifty years since your first show here. Tell me how that came about.
About two years after I left [London’s] Royal College [of Art] I got a fellowship called the Harkness Fellowship, and I came over on that. Harold Cohen was on it at the same time. I got the fellowship in ’58, and then I came late in ’59, and I worked through ’60. (I delayed my trip to New York because Robyn Denny, Ralph Rumney and myself had a show at the ICA called “Place”, with freestanding paintings throughout the ICA’s building on Dover Street.)
It was a wonderful time to come to New York. I met a lot of people, and I was helped by lots of people. I had this classic New York loft on Howard Street: 100 feet by 25 feet, that I shared with another painter. Our rent was $50 a month, which we shared.
I met Henry Geldzahler on the street and he said, “Oh, I’ll come to your studio.” So he came up and I had a big group of paintings there, and he really reacted very well to them. He was on the phone straight away and he called Ivan Karp and Alan Solomon (who was then Director of the Jewish Museum) and Richard Bellamy, who was about to open the Green Gallery. They used to do these studio visits together, and they came over and I showed them the paintings and I remember it was a very jolly occasion. I had a phone call from Bellamy and he said, “I’d really like to show you. Can I meet you again?” So the show was in his first season in April ’61. I showed big rectangular paintings. The Tate has one of them now, called Panatella.
And what was it that attracted you to New York in the first place?
I was enamored of the paintings. And I was enamored of the idea of Manhattan. I did a painting whilst I was in college: there was a photograph of Manhattan – the whole island – taken from a plane, and I did a painting of it. I don’t know whether it still exists, but it was a rather terrible painting on masonite that one used to do.
And what happened after that first show?
Well I had that show, and then I went back to England because my visa ran out. I was there for two years, and then I got my visa to come back to Manhattan. We were back and forward a bit, but I had two or three shows at Green, and then Bellamy closed the gallery. Back in London, I couldn’t get anyone to show my work so I had a show in my loft over a long weekend, and Kasmin was interested (even before I had the show, actually) and so then I showed with Kasmin, and that was when I did those big three-dimensional paintings.
I remember being very impressed by the one called Piano, and a rather later one called Riverfall.
Yes. The Tate have both of them, I’m delighted to say. They’re a terrible responsibility, paintings.
Looking back at those paintings make me realize that although I always associate your work with the tradition of English abstraction, back then you were also rubbing shoulders with Pop art.
Oh, Yes. Whilst I was at college – and also after college – I shared an apartment with Peter Blake, and those three-dimensional paintings were quite explicitly Pop. My first show at Green, the paintings had titles like Chase Manhattan.
You went back to Britain towards the end of the sixties, didn’t you?
I won the grand prize in Sao Paolo in ’68. It was an award of $10,000, which was a lot of money, so we decided to go back to England to buy a house, and I had a wonderful time in that house. I was doing the biennales and whatever, and I had a good life in England. And then we came back here for a year – I had a touring exhibition and whatever, and we got back here and rented this wonderful loft on Lafayette Street, and I was totally enamored of the city again, so we ended up staying, and I’ve been here ever since really.
When you compare your work from the sixties to what you are doing now, what would you say are the constant threads in your work?
I think it’s color, really, that keeps me interested.
And what about the tension in the drawing? That’s something that I always associate with your work.
All of these paintings have stripes that go right through to the edge of the paint. I think that one of the reasons why I framed them, to stop them disappearing. (It’s a departure for me to frame a painting, but it seemed kind of possible with these paintings.)
They’re odd, these paintings. This one [Double Box] is familiar. It’s an area that I’ve visited before – the box – but this one [Under Attack] is much more scattered, and part of it looks like a Korean flag.
This [Empty Lot] is a strange painting – I had it underway, and I was going back home to Long Island from the city. I was looking out of the window of the train at the parking lots by the stations, and it had been snowing, and when a car moves these rectangular shapes inside the green semicircles look like the space a car leaves when it’s driven away.
Richard, you’ve lived between England and the U.S. for many years. Do you see your work as belonging to the British tradition or the American?
I don’t know whether I really did myself a favor by returning to New York and not waiting for my knighthood! But I’m happy with my choice. I don’t have regrets because I have a complete life here. But I’m still British. I’m still a British painter. It’s difficult to make a transition.