Tony Smith is among the handful of America’s great sculptors, although instead of sculpture he preferred the word “presence” to describe the objects he made. “Smoke” shows why. The extraordinary, monumental work was designed and shown briefly in 1967, but it has been refabricated for the first time since then in the wonderfully reconfigured atrium of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s Ahmanson Building.
There it also provides unbeatable historical precedent for Richard Serra’s sculpture “Band,” made almost 40 years later. (Smith died at 68 in 1980.) The colossal 2006 “Band,” built from 10 enormous, velvety-brown, torqued steel plates, occupies a ground-floor gallery of the new Broad Contemporary Art Museum, a short walk along LACMA’s covered concourse. Between the two works, which go on view as LACMA’s expanded campus opens to the public today, a transformation in contemporary sculpture unfolds.
“Smoke” is 45 feet long, 33 feet wide and 22 feet tall. Like an industrial-strength Lego toy, an asymmetrical network is built from 43 identical polyhedrons, fitted end to end. Each facet is formed with a triangular face, and all the aluminum panels are painted black.
Smith was a successful architect in New York but studied painting and sculpture as a young man. His eccentric forms derive from nature’s geometry -- molecular structures, clustered bubbles, hexagonal honeycombs and so on.
The triangular facets absorb and reflect light, ranging from deepest ebony to nearly white, like some magic dark crystal. As a visitor walks around and through the sculpture, these facets’ uniform shape, when multiplied and abutted in a polyhedron, causes the profile of each to shift continuously. Multiply that 43 times, all at once. The overall form quickly loses cohesion.
The faceted form of “Smoke,” as its name suggests, seems to be spreading before your eyes, moving in multiple directions to fill available space. The sculpture almost seems to stir in response to your movements, like some shape-shifting organic life form within the atrium’s contained, stable architectural environment.
From one position it seems poised to topple over, from another it’s impassive. Here it seems to rise on hind legs, there to stretch out like a cat in sunshine. The accumulation of linear forms, all resolutely straight, can appear to curve in space. What your mind discovers and then knows about the sculpture continuously slips away, disappearing before your disbelieving eyes.
Monumental sculpture is not supposed to appear transient and ephemeral. “Smoke” does. Like a pyramid in the heat-shimmering desert the huge object is emphatically there, yet it’s hard to pin down quite where there is.
The achievement of Smith’s best work was to introduce something powerful and unexpected to the history of Western sculpture. Mass and space assume dynamic equivalence.
An old rule of thumb had been that sculpture is about shaping mass, while painting is about creating space. That changed with Modern art. Artists as different as Picasso, Tatlin, Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, Brancusi and many others challenged the rule that mass is sculpture’s primary instrument.
Picasso, for instance, took the spatial discoveries first made in Cubist paintings and extrapolated them into sculptural objects. As an architect, Smith was used to elaborating space in plans, elevations and other types of drawings. Like Picasso, he used what he learned in two dimensions to vivify three. The dynamic equivalence he sought between mass and space may be why he preferred the word presence, rather than sculpture.
In one respect, however, “Smoke” is resolutely old-fashioned. The sculptural object has a distinct inside and outside. To erect it within the Ahmanson’s atrium, LACMA hired a spelunker to climb inside the hollow polyhedrons and bolt them together at the joints.
That’s where Serra’s “Band” gets off the wagon. Space in a Serra sculpture is continuous. Exploiting one of the great innovations of Minimalist art, no separation exists between the sculpture’s inside and its outside.
Among the prolific sculptor’s finest works from a career spanning four decades, “Band” is constructed from massive plates of two-inch-thick steel. Like a Brobdingnagian ribbon standing on edge, the object looms nearly 13 feet tall and unfurls over more than 70 feet. It bends, leans and twists in a rhythmic sequence of horizontal, snaking undulations across the floor, enveloping space and then casting it out.
Where the flat sheets of steel begin and end is plain to see, but the shape of the sculptural space is more ambiguous. It radiates, like a force field. As you enter its sphere of influence, it pulls you in.
Some of the curved volumes are womb-like and comforting, others are explosive and thrilling. You find your unsuspecting body leaning this way and that in relation to them. The building’s architecture recedes from consciousness, as it never does with “Smoke.” You virtually slide in, through and around the sculpture, as space itself vivifies and becomes dynamic.
Serra’s 2006 “Sequence,” a second massive sculpture on loan to BCAM@LACMA, is more dramatic. Traversing its intertwined loops is akin to going on Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. The dramatically charged spaces toss you around like a rowboat in a stormy sea.
But I prefer “Band,” with its subtle range of magisterial calibrations. The title has some obvious descriptive implications, such as a thin, flat strip or ribbon or, as a verb, to tie together. But wavelengths and frequencies seem equally apt, given the sculpture’s invisible but inescapable spatial power.
LACMA owns the work, acquired with funds provided by Eli and Edythe Broad, and the museum hopes to acquire “Smoke.” (The Smith is on long-term loan from the artist’s family.) Given the perfection of the pairing let’s hope that dream comes true.