Tony Smith’s monumental sculpture ‘Smoke’ will not disappear from LACMA; multimillion-dollar purchase finalized


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It’s hard to imagine the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s Ahmanson Pavilion without Tony Smith’s Smoke--a monumental, multifaceted sculpture that the space was redesigned to showcase. Now, museum visitors don’t have to.

The work, which has been on loan from the artist’s estate for more than two years, today belongs to the museum.


LACMA Director Michael Govan confirmed Friday that after several months of intense fundraising efforts, the museum has acquired the work for an undisclosed amount reported to exceed $3 million.“What I can say is that the sculpture is insured for over $5 million,” Govan said, “but the estate made a significant discount to us because they thought it was a good idea to keep it in Los Angeles.”

“There is no other major Tony Smith on this coast,” Govan added. He described this particular work, which was first built in 1967 and refabricated by the estate in 2005, as “a cornerstone in the transition of sculpture in the mid-1960s from a solid object you move around to something you can move within,” comparing Smith to artists like Dan Flavin and Robert Irwin in that respect.

Kiki Smith, one of Tony Smith’s daughters and a celebrated sculptor in her own right (who worked with her father to make the model for “Smoke”), says that she and her sister, Seton, are happy that the sculpture has found a good home. “It seems to function like a heart for the museum,” she says.

So why did the acquisition take so long? Govan chalks it up to the “collapse of the economy” in 2008, and a certain amount of inertia because the piece was already on display at LACMA. But word of a competing offer this year gave the museum a renewed sense of urgency. The museum director says that a relatively new trustee from Bel-Air, who prefers to remain anonymous, provided the full funding for acquisition.

Originally built out of plywood instead of metal for cost reasons, Smith’s sculpture appeared on the October 13, 1967, cover of Time magazine with the tag line “Sculptor Tony Smith: Art Outgrows the Museum.” In 2005, the 22-foot tall sculpture was re-created by the artist’s estate with the same dimensions—45 feet long by 33 feet wide—in painted aluminum. Renzo Piano redesigned the Ahmanson Pavilion in 2007 with the sculpture in mind, and it was installed there in multiple pieces.

Art critic Christopher Knight, writing in The Times in 2008, described it as a dynamic, “shape-shifting” sculpture that appears from one position to “rise on hind legs” and from another “to stretch out like a cat in sunshine.”


Or, as Govan said, sounding much like an art critic himself, “The play between the geometry or predictability of the system and the chaotic experience of the piece is incredible—that’s why it’s one of the most powerful sculptures of the 20th century.”

--Jori Finkel