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Richard Smith   |   Intersections        

Flowers Gallery, Kingsland Road, London. 16 November 2022 - 18 February 2023

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-strewn streets of New York. Copperfield (1970) feels industrial and heavy. Smith’s characteristic sloping brushstrokes (with use of shadows) and darkness of palette begins to focus our thoughts on the psychological climate of the time. ‘Welcome to Fear City’ was a survival guide handed to visitors in 1975 New York City. The three abutting panels (subliminally suggesting advertising hoardings) convey a feeling of solitude. The chiselled construction is permeated with rusty directional brush-marks (not quite systematically applied) and is stretched out with measured equilibrium; its density is difficult to read, as if melted into the walls of the city. I find myself looking underneath the work, wondering about the process of its construction and how Smith has created a feeling of dematerialisation through its reduction and semi-industrial presence. A kind of solemn portal.

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 1967-68: pyramids that were wall-hung, heavily influenced by RS. I went on to make more shaped paintings – triangles and diamonds – between 1969 and 1970”.

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-out paper inlays work through syncopation and acceleration of motion. The potency of the watercolour (the deep red sits behind the pink) sharpens our response to flight and pattern.

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 diamond-shaped painting builds that depth and substance through Smith’s instincts around surface implications. We can see the weight of pigment in the rhythmical swirling bands that lie beneath the successive grids of cobalt turquoise and cobalt blue, and feel the dynamic bump and jostle within the painting, rather than the static balance of Noland’s American counterparts.

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-over surface and the striking hard-edged opticality.

Richard Smith, Untitled (triptych), 1965, acrylic on shaped canvas (three parts), 177.8 x 139.7 x 40 cm -® Richard Smith Estate, courtesy of Flowers Gallery

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-popular brand of cigarette. Other cigarette paintings by RS in 1963 were Gift Wrap, PM Zoom, and Vista.

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-green shelf punctures the colour field (Turner’s sense of colour and history) then twists towards us, falling out of the space on the point of collapse. A change in rhythm further concentrates our attention through a slippery sense of gravity, just as Smith’s feeling for infinite space is investigated in Mobil Project Diptych (1980). In a subtle combination of pencil pastel, watercolour and acrylic, Smith keeps us locked into his spatial matrix; the implication here of speed and movement is brilliantly combined with the filtering of visible structures.

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 into three-dimensional structure or relief. But perhaps Smith’s structuring of the hidden internal shapes or forms is fundamental to the way we interpret his vision of popular culture that communicates visual and global experience.

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