The curatorial and editorial project for systems, non-
Richard Smith | Intersections
Flowers Gallery, Kingsland Road, London. 16 November 2022 -
A review by Laurence Noga
©Copyright Patrick Morrissey and Clive Hancock All rights reserved.
Richard Smith Kingsland Road, downstairs gallery, 2022
Construction, concept and colour continuously interact here, with a dazzling and highly experimental attitude towards both painting and sculpture, in ‘Intersections’, Flowers Gallery’s survey exhibition of Richard Smith’s work from 1965 to 2009. This show demonstrates Smith’s remarkable consistency and his preoccupation with the American art and culture of the 1960s and 1970s, but just as critically, it allows us to key into current contemporary relationships within an expanded field of painting and constructed approaches.
Smith never allows those relationships to feel at all separate. He builds a cool set of propositions, always offering something for consideration. The curation throughout each space further accentuates his sense of innovation and focuses our attention between the subtly orchestrated signs of pop culture (commodity, packaging and advertising) and the restrained sense of grandeur that he is able to articulate through modulated colour, often integrated with falling or toppling movement.
Richard Smith, Copperfield, 1970, acrylic on shaped canvas, 222.5 x 303 cm ® Richard Smith Estate, courtesy of Flowers Gallery
On finding himself back in New York in the early 1960s, Smith locked into kindred
spirits such as Mark Rothko and Ellsworth Kelly. But the sense of tension in his
work comes from a much greater spectrum of variables. In deciphering Smith’s rhetorical
allusions of shape, I am immediately reminded of the stacked or shaped billboards
in Times Square, showing brands such as Winston Cigarettes, Gordon’s Gin or Pantella
Cigars. But this is interwoven with the gritty random noises of the city, perhaps
echoing the difficulties of street life in the garbage-
The painter Trevor Sutton recalled recently in one of our conversations about Smith
“I first came across Richard, then always known as Dick Smith, in Studio International
in the early 60s. I started to get very interested in his work as a student at Hornsey
College of Art from 1967 onwards. I wrote an essay whilst at Hornsey about Smith’s
Cash Register paintings of 1965. I was making 3D paintings in 1967-
A set of ultramarine blue parachute straps, 45mm wide, draws our attention to the systematic grid of New York in A Dark Present (1972). The hidden, ambient structure of the work allows a shift in our perception from gloom to radiance. A kind of cumulus seems to be occurring (a dense flat cloud form) which hovers behind the threaded shape of the harness straps. Carefully constructed with mathematical precision (possibly considering his training in the RAF) we feel the moment just before we jump out of the doors of a plane. Weathers pass in front of us, as if we are being invited to gauge or contemplate the nature of air conditions or weather systems.
Richard Smith, A Dark Present (1972), acrylic on shaped canvas with canvas strips, 150 x 240 cm ® Richard Smith Estate, courtesy of Flowers Gallery
Smith’s studio was located in the village of East Tytherton near Chippenham in the
1970s. But perhaps his understanding of flight comes from observing the scale and
obsession with kites in America (such as the Kite Fliers’ Association) with their
use of scale, structure and choreographed flight. As you enter the gallery from the
street, Smith’s watercolours and pastels on paper delicately focus our attention
on mechanisms and optical effects. The spatial manipulation in Abstract Design (1971)
brings intimacy and control in equal measure. The saturated cut-
Richard Smith, Abstract Design, 1971, watercolour and pastel on paper, 32 x 55 cm (c) Richard Smith Estate, courtesy of Flowers Gallery
Weather and movement in space is further developed in one of Smith’s stunningly constructed ‘Kite’ works (Parterre, 1974). One imagines Smith scanning the sky, taking pleasure in the world overhead. The scale and proportion of the work calls to mind the austerity of the 1950s when kites were often commercial items, either made from RAF surplus stock or rescue dinghies. With its colour palette of dusty violet grey and emerald green, the work keeps secret its technical and formal approaches. The loose rectangles of canvas give a sense of pulleys and ropes, and although carefully assembled, they feel casually placed. The first canvas is hung squarely with the green straps painted equally in an incomplete rhombus. The following is set on its axis, slightly toppling to the right, the last canvas pulled back a bit, conjuring up a sense of flight, but at the same time something feels ditched or lost.
Richard Smith, Parterre, 1974, acrylic on canvas with aluminium, 264.2 x 264.2 cm, ®Richard Smith Estate, courtesy of Flowers Gallery.
Tuning in to this kind of source material throughout his career, as in Stepping Out
(2001) makes me think of Kenneth Noland’s paintings, such as Following Sea (1974)
with its experimentation with handmade paper and its fluidity of motion. The handling
of the curation here makes us feel aware of the connections across time, and this
Richard Smith, Stepping Out, 2001, oil on linen, 117 x 259 cm (c) Richard Smith Estate, courtesy of Flowers Gallery
Moving upstairs in the gallery, Smith lures us into his work through the magnification
of structure. The power and beauty of geometric form in Untitled Triptych (1965)
is offset by the knowledge that Smith playfully sourced the construction from everyday
cigarette packets, manipulating, twisting, or reversing the packets to orchestrate
the physical composition. You imagine rows of cigarette packets (with fantastic colour
combinations) in Smith’s studio or slightly crumpled in his back pocket. Inextricably
linked to an urban living environment, the work’s segmentation and feeling for mass
media is cleverly combined with the architectonic production. Smith has constructed
this work with sonorous implications; it thrusts towards the viewer through its luminous
painterly decisions and rationality. The colour relationships are wonderfully handled
between the pastel all-
Richard Smith, Untitled (triptych), 1965, acrylic on shaped canvas (three parts),
177.8 x 139.7 x 40 cm -
Trevor Sutton recalls: One of my favourite RS paintings is Staggerly, from 1963, in the National Museum of Wales collection in Cardiff. It was inspired by packets of Lucky Strike cigarettes. I still find this painting so fresh, open, optimistic, full of joy. There is a song, Stagger Lee, by Lloyd Price, from 1958, which I think was the source of the title.
I made a tribute painting to Smith’s ‘cigarette paintings’ in the early 1980s, entitled
‘Passing Cloud’ – a once-
A Whole Year and Half a Day VIII, made in 1966, was part of a progressive series. Here Smith emphasises a more sculptural twist. The work is an extreme example of the integration of the surrounding space into the work. Scrutinising the confines of the shape, it calls to mind a hybridity between Anthony Caro’s metal assemblages such as Midday (1970) but also directs our thoughts towards the zip paintings of Barnett Newman. As you pull around the side of the work, its dynamic colour pitch and twisted nature feel both animated and severed, all at the same moment. With its calculated chromatic structure of deep red and electric turquoise (on aluminium) the light registers its metaphysical presence.
Richard Smith, A Whole Year and Half a Day VIII, 1966, acrylic on canvas with aluminum, 152.4 x 152.4 x 30 cm ® Richard Smith Estate, courtesy of Flowers Gallery
A feeling for a more reductive approach also exists in Untitled (1971). What strikes
me here is that the colour pitch is highly strategic. The citrus lime-
Richard Smith, Untitled, 1971, acrylic on stretched canvas structure. 79.5 x 178 x 27.5 cm, (c) Richard Smith Estate, courtesy of Flowers Gallery
Maryland, painted in 1972, feels effortlessly put together, even as we recognise its structural complexity. We slowly become aware of the physical associations of the colour and the medium. The parachute straps are stained deep yellow and placed in a simple cross, allowing them to pull away from the painting visually. The work’s assembly, both the stretcher and the overall construction, builds in my mind both a rational (premeditated) and an intuitive understanding of the effects of vibration and light. You notice the different structural implications and levels. The gestural impasto brush marks call to mind the movement of flashing billboards at night, or automated text creeping around the edge of a skyscraper in midtown. But the title’s specificity makes this work feel quieter, perhaps more rustic in character. Smith brings together internal and external forces, building a living structure both temporally and spatially.
Richard Smith, Maryland, 1972, acrylic on canvas, 215 x 200 x 37 cm (c) Richard Smith Estate, courtesy of Flowers Gallery
This exhibition highlights Richard Smith’s instinctive understanding of flatness
Trevor Sutton: “I first met Richard Smith in 2003 in New York and was able to tell him what an important influence he’d been for me. He didn’t pay homage to the everyday; instead, he celebrated it.”
Downstairs gallery, 2022