Cary Smith: Your Eyes They Turn Me Curated by Richard Klein October 19, 2014, to April 5, 2015
The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum
Cary Smith: Your Eyes They Turn Me
Over the course of the past twenty-five years, the painter Cary Smith has engaged in a restless, but controlled, pursuit of abstraction. Smith’s work has been consistently categorized by a particular poetic logic, rigorous craft, and a beautiful, but not gratuitous, color sense. Working in the wake of the freedom presented by the collapse of Modernism’s rigid dogmas, the artist’s work vacillates between geometric and biomorphic abstraction and is witness to a range of subtle (and often surprising) influences, including the aesthetics of eighteenth and nineteenth century New England and the visual vocabulary found in Mid-Century art and design. Your Eyes They Turn Me focuses on work completed since 2008, including Smith’s Splats, radiating works that utilize a splash-like motif, and Wonder Wheels,1 optically active, geometric grids that exhibit a music-like tonality. The title Your Eyes They Turn Me (appropriated from a song by Radiohead), suggests optical attraction, desire, and movement—all things that a viewer encounters in the artist’s work. Smith came of age in the art world of the 1980s, a time of explosive diversity, particularly in painting. The rise of Neo-Expressionism during this period was offset by a group of artists whose work was brought together under the term Neo-Geo— shorthand for Neo-Geometric Conceptualism—a trend that rejected the tenets of classic, non-objective Modernism by infusing abstraction with subject matter. Smith was superficially attached to this non-movement, which included artists as diverse at Peter Halley, Philip Taaffe, and Ross Bleckner, but his connection to Neo-Geo was tenuous at best, as his interests were solidly grounded in pure abstraction. As reductive as many of Smith’s paintings are, however, they haven’t followed the classic Modernist evolutionary arc that moves over time from complexity to simplicity (for example, the reductive evolution found in the work of Agnes Martin and Ad Reinhardt); rather they have moved forward in unpredictable ways, consistently exhibiting a great sense of curiosity and experimentation. Smith’s process is not governed by an overarching conceptual doctrine, but rather by intuition—specifically intuition guided by acute visual instinct. “I make my art with a divining rod,” the artist has stated. “When it starts to move, that’s where I want to go.”2 Smith’s enterprise is clearly built on a foundation laid by Modernism, but he consistently corrupts Modernism’s purity through a decisively instinctive and idiosyncratic approach. Smith’s work is, however, grounded in one major facet of Modernist painting, that which was labeled, specifically on the West Coast, “abstract classicism.”3 This descriptive applied to a group of artists working in California in the late 1950s and 1960s, including Karl Benjamin, Lorser Feitelson, Frederick Hammersley, Helen Lundeberg, and John McLaughlin. The work of these artists was categorized by a suppression of brushwork, flatness, hard-edged color, and a smooth, taut picture plane, all attributes also found in the work that the painter Ellsworth Kelly was simultaneously developing in New York. Smith’s painting shares an important aspect that preoccupied Kelly: an obsession with pure visual phenomena, particularly color. In fact, Smith’s approach to composition has been primarily based on the need to develop a flexible framework on which to hang color: a modular “architecture” in which color can be manipulated to what are ultimately emotional ends. As varied as Smith’s paintings are, they all share a very specific emotional temperature that balances between the intellectual and the visceral. The consequence of this state is that those viewers who are conceptually oriented often perceive Smith’s paintings as being “warm,” while the intuitive observer often feels that they are “cold.” It is in this space between the Dionysian and the Apollonian, however, that Smith’s work finds its strength.
Ovals #21 (red-black), 2014
As varied as the compositional devices used by Smith are, there is one characteristic that is equivocal: a belief in the “objecthood” of a painting. This is manifest in a consistent acknowledgment of the painting’s edge, including the inclusion of a “frame” surrounding and integral to the composition. Modernist critic Clement Greenberg argued sixty years ago that forms should not bleed off the canvas’s edge, and Smith has taken that position to an extreme, containing his paintings within a carefully circumscribed arena. Even paintings such as his Wonder Wheels, which do not use a framing device, acknowledge the painting’s edge by their field of squares abruptly touching the corners of the canvas. Smith wants to make objects that are spatial, but the space he renders is extremely shallow, being based primarily on the interaction of color. There is often a subtle Op art-like dance of the forms in Smith’s works, where shapes advance and recede, leaving optical ghosts and after images. Smith’s paintings, even those that utilize a gray palette, revel in color. The artist’s color sense is anything but formulaic, with color choices being meticulously worked out and specific forms often being repainted a slightly different shade weeks or months after initial completion. Smith speaks of color “wanting to be fresh” and this desire, which borders on the obsessive, has resulted in a heightened palette that is mildly psychedelic, but at the same time strangely sober. Smith, when he looks at one of his paintings, does not want to see paint, but rather a believable and real color experience, something that he describes as happening “in the air.” The phenomenon for which Smith is striving is independent of the pigment that generates it: the color somehow changes in the trip between the canvas and the eye, becoming more pure and alive. Here, Smith is treading
Cary Smith working in his studio, 2013
Babel (black), 2008
in metaphysical territory, grappling with the philosophical issues raised by color, including the nature of both physical reality and the mind. “There is a perfect sweet spot of brightness and saturation of color that seems to my eye to reflect reality accurately,” Smith has stated. “Just a very slight shift can bring a feeling of being real into focus.”3 This striving for a high, perfect clarity has a utopian undercurrent, ultimately laying bare an optimism that is rare in much contemporary painting. As mentioned earlier, Smith’s approach to composition is complex and has not evolved in a simple, linear progression. The six series of paintings that are included in this exhibition (Wonder Wheels, Splats, Grey Blocks, Ovals, Meandering Lines & Symbols, and Straight Lines) have been developed more or less simultaneously, but as varied as each of these series of works is, they all point to the same place, with their visual natures being strongly interrelated. The Wonder Wheels have the deepest history, however, with their geometry relating to the gridded paintings that Smith first became known for in the late 1980s. The composition of these early paintings was informed by the painted, Colonial-era game boards that the artist and his wife Nina collected, but
Blue Wonder Wheel # 14, 2013
their aesthetics run deeper, speaking the visual language of the artist’s New England roots. The composition of the recent Wonder Wheels is based upon a square, monochrome ground with sixteen square “figures” spaced exactly twice their size apart from one another. Each square is strongly related to its neighbors, yet is far enough apart to be independent. The architectural historian Vincent Scully, writing about the aesthetics of early New England in his book American Architecture and Urbanism, stated: “Here, the middle class directed its energies towards the creation of a kind of classicism in its own image, seeking out reasonable, balanced, closed, and ordered forms… In the plan of New Haven, Connecticut, the regular grid system which was to become the dominant American scheme appeared very early… New Haven’s grid is of a special and distinguished kind. It is a purely Vitruvian figure, a perfect square…divided by open streets into nine smaller squares, with the central one reserved as common land, in New Haven called the ‘Green’…each house stood free on its own plot of ground, defining the central open space as ships moored around it, not as a wall. The urban structure was widely spread but shaped by taut cubes, exact and self-contained, each a small grid in the large.”4 Scully’s text could be read as a description of Smith’s Wonder Wheels, right down to their ordered, classical nature. It is perhaps no coincidence that Smith’s father was an Episcopal minister, and the green at the center of the classic New England town always has its church, anchoring and defining its character.
Amos Doolittle, Map of New Haven, Connecticut, 1824 From Dean B. Lyman’s An Atlas of Old New Haven or “The Nine Squares” (New Haven: Charles W. Scranton & Co., 1929).
The democratic ordering of the Wonder Wheels stands in stark contrast with the freewheeling and rather eccentric compositions of Smith’s Splat series. Where in the Wonder Wheels the figure/ground relationship is clearly delineated with no ambiguity, the central, radiating “splat” forms play a classic, figure/ground dance, calling into question positive and negative space, inside and outside. As organic as the Splats are, they are always anchored by a geometric appendage, playing its own figure/ground game, which reads as a weighted, stabilizing base to the radiating form. It should be noted that the crisp edges in all of Smith’s paintings are hand rendered, not masked out prior to the application of paint, and this fact adds to their idiosyncratic nature. As with Smith’s approach to color, the forms of the Splats are repeatedly analyzed and subtly refined during the painting process, which is accomplished on his studio wall with small sable brushes. The Splats are certainly Smith’s most figurative works, relating to the Surrealist side of Modernism, particularly biomorphic abstraction as developed by artists such as Jean Arp. But Smith’s Splats are not primarily based in the legacy of Surrealism, but rather the larger enterprise of Modernism that not only informed painting, but also MidCentury graphics, furniture, and ceramic design. For instance, compare Smith’s Splats to Charles and Ray Eames’s iconic LAR armchair (c. 1951). 5 The two share a combination of the freely biomorphic with the rigorously geometric, as well as the use of color integral to form. Similarly, the forms in Smith’s Meandering Lines & Symbols series relate strongly to the semi-abstract design elements used in Modernist ceramics, exemplified by works by designers such as Eva Zeisel and Rörstrand. This is not to say
Pointed Splat #6 (yellow-pink with color blocks), 2013
that Smith is making work based on these precedents, but rather he is fully versant in the language used by Modernism and has come to similar conclusions given the confines of this language. Other contemporary artists, such as Jim Isermann and Jorge Pardo, mine this territory, and the free use of its vocabulary is one of the definitions of the Post-Modern aesthetic. Included in this exhibition are eighteen of the artist’s small-scale works on paper, including drawn versions of Splats, Straight Lines, Ovals, and Gray Blocks. Smith’s drawings are often preparatory to his paintings, giving the artist the advantage of refining the shape and placement of forms on the picture plane prior to committing them to canvas. Carefully rendered with pencil on Smythson writing paper or hot press watercolor paper, these works substitute precision mark making for the exactitude of color that the artist brings to his paintings. Where Smith’s obsessive craftsmanship often drops into the background behind the color in his paintings, the artist’s flawless technique makes the experience first and foremost one of precision in the drawings; the careful, gradated application of graphite speaks of a patience that is almost painful. Smith’s craftsmanship, however, is not about obsession, but about care and devotion to a process where ideally both the medium and the means are transcended.
In 1963, the art historian and curator William Rubin described Ellsworth Kelly’s painting as exhibiting “a peculiarly American combination of the hedonistic and the puritanical,”6 an observation that one could rightly apply to Smith’s work. At the heart of Smith’s practice is an exuberant form of control, a state of direct emotional participation and knowledge that is disassociated from any specific instance, yet speaks clearly of real experience. “I don’t want the viewer to understand my paintings,” Smith has stated, “but I want them to make sense.”7 Richard Klein, exhibitions director
Charles and Ray Eames, LAR Armchair, c. 1951 Courtesy of George Champion Modern Shop, Woodbury, CT
Cary Smith was born in 1955 in Puerto Rico; he lives in Farmington, Connecticut, and works in Collinsville, Connecticut. 1
Smith usually gravitates to neutral, descriptive titles for his work. In the case of Splat it was a word that one of the artist’s students used to describe an early work in the series. Smith was originally considering Ferris as a title for the Wonder Wheel series, but his daughter Emily, recalling a trip to Coney Island, suggested “Wonder Wheel,” the name of the iconic Ferris wheel that has been situated there since 1920. The title was clinched by a fortuitous coincidence: the Coney Island Wonder Wheel has 24 cars with 16 of them sliding inward and outward as the wheel rotates. Smith’s paintings utilize 16 squares.
Quote from the author’s interview with the artist on July 18, 2014.
The term “abstract classicist” was coined by critic Jules Langsner for the exhibition Four Abstract Classicists that he organized in 1959 at the Los Angeles County Museum.
Vincent Scully, American Architecture and Urbanism (New York; Frederick A. Praeger, 1969), pp. 29–30.
Made of pigmented fiberglass, the LAR armchair was one of the first pieces of furniture in which color was integral to the material, not applied afterwards.
William Rubin, “Ellsworth Kelly at the Betty Parsons Gallery,” Art News, vol. 62, no. 7 (November 1963), pp. 33–34.
Email, January 21, 2014.
Works in the Exhibition All dimensions h x w x d in inches Paintings Babel (black), 2008 Oil on linen 40 x 33 Grey Blocks #17, 2012 Oil on linen 31 x 31 Grey Blocks #23, 2012 Oil on linen 50 x 50 Blue Wonder Wheel #14, 2013 Oil on linen 50 x 50 Pointed Splat #2 (pink-yellow with color blocks), 2013 Oil on linen 50 x 50 Pointed Splat #6 (yellow-pink with color blocks),Â 2013 Oil on Linen 50 x 50 Blue Wonder Wheel #10, 2014 Oil on linen 50 x 50 Grey Blocks #24, 2014 Oil on linen 36 x 36
Splat #17 (black), 2014 Oil on linen 12 x 12 Splat #17 (yellow-pale blue with color blocks), 2014 Oil on linen 31 x 31 Straight Lines #2 (bright green), 2014 Oil on linen 30 x 24 Straight Lines #5 (red-blue), 2014 Oil on linen 55 x 44 Straight Lines #7 (dark blue), 2014 Oil on linen 55 x 44 Straight Lines #9 (red-blue), 2014 Oil on linen 44 x 55 White Wonder Wheel #2, 2014 Oil on linen 30 x 24 Yellow Wonder Wheel #1, 2014 Oil on linen 50 x 50 Yellow Wonder Wheel #5, 2014 Oil on linen 36 x 36 Works on Paper
Ovals #16 (red-blue), 2014 Oil on linen 55 x 44
Below the Surface (black), 2009 Gouache on Fabriano 12 x 12
Ovals #21 (red-black), 2014 Oil on linen 50 x 50
Splat #20 (pale blue), 2011 Colored pencil on Arches hot press 12 x 12
Pointed Splat #5 (red-yellow with color blocks), 2014 Oil on linen 60 x 60
Splat #23 (linear), 2011 Graphite on pink Smythson writing paper 4 7/8 x 4 1/4
Splat #13 (black), 2014 Oil on linen 12 x 12
Splat #23 (red), 2011 Colored pencil on Arches hot press 9x9
Splat #14 (black), 2014 Oil on linen 12 x 12
Ovals #21, 2012 Graphite on pink Smythson writing paper 3 1/2 x 3 1/2 Collection of Nina Smith
Splat #15 (black), 2014 Oil on linen 12 x 12 Splat #16 (black), 2014 Oil on linen 12 x 12 Splat #16 (yellow-pale blue with color blocks), 2014 Oil on linen 60 x 60
Ovals #27, 2013 Graphite on pink Smythson writing paper 5x4 Pointed Splat #6 (linear), 2013 Graphite on pink Smythson writing paper 5 3/4 x 4 1/4 Splat #14 (dark green), 2013 Colored pencil on Arches hot press 5x5
Splat #15 (dark blue), 2013 Colored pencil on Arches hot press 4 1/2 x 4 1/2 Splat #17 (red), 2013 Colored pencil on Arches hot press 9x9 Splat #21 (dark green), 2013 Colored pencil on Arches hot press 9x9 Splat #31, 2013 Graphite on pink Smythson writing paper 4 x 3 1/8 Splat #33, 2013 Graphite on pink Smythson writing paper 4 7/8 x 4 1/4 Straight Lines #3, 2013 Graphite on pink Smythson writing paper 3 3/4 x 3 Collection of Alex Klein Grey Blocks #23, 2014 Colored pencil on Arches hot press 10 3/8 x 10 3/8 Grey Blocks #24, 2014 Colored pencil on Arches hot press 6 5/16 x 6 5/16 Grey Blocks #26, 2014 Colored pencil on Arches hot press 10 3/8 x 10 3/8 HUD, 2014 Graphite on pink Smythson writing paper 3 1/2 x 3 1/8 Straight Lines #9, 2014 Graphite on pink Smythson writing paper 3x3¾ The exhibition includes a case containing ephemera from the artist’s studio. It features painted canvas swatches and drawn diagrams that document color choices and notes on their mixing, and notational drawings that record the character of the graphite in specific pencils utilized by the artist. All works courtesy of the artist
This exhibition is dedicated to Hudson of Feature Inc., 1950–2014 Those of us who were honored enough to receive Hudson’s emails that began with “hello feature creatures” were part of a family where positivity, generosity, and fearlessness were just understood. We all tried to live up to the tone he set, just by being who he was. We learned not to be too needy, and to be kind and compassionate. We learned to try as hard as we could to make our best work, but to remain light-hearted at the same time. As much as he was a gallery owner with an unflinching eye for the idiosyncratic and the authentic, he was really a teacher: one who didn’t try to teach, but just did, by being an intensely admirable human being. I can still hear his quiet voice that carried so much power. I loved him, and will always miss him. Cary Smith, 2014
The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum
The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum advances creative thinking by connecting today’s artists with individuals and communities in unexpected and stimulating ways.
Board of Trustees Eric G. Diefenbach, Chairman; Linda M. Dugan, Vice-Chairman; William Burback, Treasurer/Secretary; Diana Bowes; Chris Doyle; Annabelle K. Garrett; Georganne Aldrich Heller, Honorary Trustee; Michael Joo; Neil Marcus; Kathleen O’Grady; Lori L. Ordover; Martin Sosnoff, Trustee Emeritus; John Tremaine
Larry Aldrich (1906–2001), Founder
This exhibition has been generously supported, in part, by Cynthia and Stuart Smith.
Major support for Museum operations has been provided by members of The Aldrich Board of Trustees, and the Anna-Maria and Stephen Kellen Foundation.
Straight Lines #9, (red-blue), 2014
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Published on Oct 10, 2014