Monday, March 18, 2013

From the Archives: Reviving Tony Smith's "Presences"

In this post, archivist Anne Kumer shares some park history. This post also appears on NYC Circa, a history blog about New York City, its buildings, and public spaces. 

In the early 1960s American artist Tony Smith constructed a number of sculptures from tetrahedral and octahedral shapes -- he called them "presences." In 1966 he was included in a critically acclaimed exhibit of minimalist and "reductive art" at the Jewish Museum called Primary Structures. Just one year later, several of Smith's sculptures were exhibited in Bryant Park as part of the first temporary display of contemporary art in a city park. Thankfully the tradition continues.

The Parks Commissioner at the time was Thomas Hoving. In March of 1967, just after the Smith exhibit was installed in the park, Hoving left that post to become the Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He oversaw a huge renovation and expansion project of the museum, and then wrote about it. But, during his 14 months as Parks Commissioner, he brazenly went about the city, collecting donations to make changes to the city's parks and igniting an interest in public art.

Tony Smith (wearing hat) and workers during the installation. Image: New York City Parks Photo Archive

Installation of Tony Smith's "The Snake is Out" Image: New York City Parks Photo Archive

Tony Smith with "Willy," "Amaryllis," "The Snake is Out," and "Spitball" (L to R). Image: Tony Smith Estate

Nineteen years later, in 1998, another of Smith's pieces, "Smug" (1969-1970) was exhibited in Bryant Park, this time on the fountain terrace. (I think this image may have been scanned backwards -- from this angle on the terrace you should see 40th Street, not 42nd with the Grace building. It's a beautiful shot of the sculpture though).

"Smug" on the Fountain Terrace. Image: Tony Smith Estate

Smith's work is incredibly recognizable and all over the place, but apparently not fully inventoried. There is, however, an ongoing effort by the International Network for the Conservation of Contemporary Art -- North America (INCCA) to compile a complete inventory of Smith's sculptures. The Tony Smith Sculpture Project South Orange has a good partial list along with a lot of supplementary information about the artist, his life, and work.

I saw one recently at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC called "Moondog" (1964). It was inspired in part by composer and street performer Louis Harding. Harding was also known as Moondog and the "Viking of Sixth," for his chosen location (usually) at Sixth Avenue and 53rd Street.

Smith's "Moondog" at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC
Here is the muse "Moondog" in his Viking garb. He was pretty amazing, and no doubt, one of the city's more interesting "presences."

In conjunction with the Tony Smith Centennial Celebration this year, Smith's works "One-Two-Three" (1976) are on view in Bryant Park from March 13 - April 10, on the upper terrace. Come check it out!

Read about previous public art exhibits in the park:
Kenneth Snelson (1967)
Mel Chin (1984)
George Rickey (1986)
Alexander Calder (1993)
Kate Gilmore (2010)
Sheryl Oring (2003, 2011)

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