Interview with Jane Smith, widow of Tony Smith, March 10, 1998, New York, NY, with Matthew Garrison
GARRISON: So, Jane Smith, how did you meet Tony Smith, and when?
SMITH: I met Tony Smith through Fritz Bultman either the best and worst day of the year, which was New Year’s day 1943 at Fritz Bultman’s home in New York. He had told me about Tony the year before and at that time, Tony was not coming to New York. So, he just thought this and he wanted to introduce us at a New Year’s party. I had a cantilevered black hexagonal hat and apparently he went home from the party and
JS: And actually, the interesting thing is, years later, he designed a house for my father based on the hexagon. So, that’s a very interesting full circle.
MG: Right, right. And the hexagon became a theme.
JS: Well, it was his theme.
MG: Within a structure.
JS: Yes, it was a hexagon was always his theme. Otherwise he wouldn’t have picked up on this cantilevered hat. But it was interesting, that personal development.
JS: So, that is how and when.
MG: And at that time, was he in Chicago? Was that where he was [unclear]?
JS: No, [unclear] in the Bauhaus. That was before.
MG: Oh, okay.
JS: Where he met Fritz.
MG: Oh, he met Fritz there?
MG: At the Bauhaus?
JS: Yes. And than you ask how did I meet Fritz. Fritz was at a pension in Munich. For a funeral, for whom I don’t know. And Mies Hofmann, Hans Hofmann’s wife, ran this pension and a college ex-beau of mine had a photo of me on his bureau who also was staying at pension and my friend told Fritz when you go to New York look her up and Fritz did, and that’s how I met Fritz. And he told me that -Tony came over-.he wanted to introduce me to Tony -. and he thought he was the man for me. .. and-but that he wasn’t coming to New York that year. So, he came the following year and we had fun.
MG: Okay. And then was it in Wisconsin that he was coming from?
JS: Well, that was before my time.
MG: Oh, okay.
JS: That was 1943 — it was later.
MG: And that was 1939.
JS: Yes. This is 1943.
MG: So, where was it? Was he coming from South Orange? I’m just trying to —
JS: Well, I don’t know where he was living-. I think he was living on Carmine Street. But I forget.
MG: Yeah, yeah. And then: within the family, did he talk about — was art a subject within the family?
JS: Well, we were all living together. The children and I were employed making tretrahedrons or metrohedrons.
JS: The children at a very early age were all involved.
MG: Helping with the models and everything?
JS: Definitely. Literally taking part. And one very major time, when he did work for the Ithaca Fair — and the year I don’t remember — he did something called Bat Cave. And he used a container ““ what I don’t know- paper or whatever it was.
JS: Yes, cardboard and paint. And from this models could be made. And with the model that he won it for, involved many [unclear] I don’t remember. But a couple of forms he was using to make this Bat Cave. I was head of a labor force for him – young people.
MG: In Osaka?
JS: No. At our home, at South Orange, New Jersey, of these high school kids. [unclear] I had a sweatshop going ““ let’s put it that way. They were all making millions of these modules. They were the perfect ones to do it, with those small hands. But it was quite an operation. So the children were very much aware. We asked one of the children we wanted involved in the college to make a model of several of his works. And without any knowledge of geometry or anything. Labor. So they were always involved
MG: Okay. Yeah. And the Bat Cave became a huge environmental piece that you said enter, right?
JS: Oh, yes. It was remarkable. I didn’t see it in Japan but I saw it when that show came back to Los Angeles, where it was supposed to start, but didn’t. And that was a very important show.
MG: Yeah. Because there were a few pieces that were on that scale.
MG: Another one, I recall, is “˜Hubris.’
MG: Where was that? At the University of Hawaii.
MG: Which was the pyramid form that people could enter.
MG: And so, do you feel that this involvement with the art led your children into the arts, also?
JS: What can I say?
JS: Two are artists.
MG: Right, right. So, it was inevitable, perhaps.
JS: Well, I would say that Kiki — that she was making her work. People asked, “Aren’t you amazed?” No! She started at a very early age, and she never had to stop at all. I took her across the country — I mean, you can [unclear] for my father’s funeral, and we came back and she said-on the plane,,, said, “Let’s go to a hardware store.”
JS: And so, what do we do? -.. all the way across the country, coming back, she was making this. And she had always been doing something interesting -.
MG: Okay. Yeah. So, it was just part of her.
JS: Yes, it was. It was part of her. If I digress, you stop me.
MG: Yes, yes. And then also at this time — we’re back in about 1943 or so —
MG: Tony Smith —
JS: He was an architect who was a designer
MG: Right. Had he begun making his sculptures?
MG: He was still very much an architect, right?
MG: And when did the sculpture start?
JS: Well, he came to Germany. I was doing my work in Germany. And he came there. And he knew no one. And I was working. And so, he couldn’t speak to anyone and he didn’t know anyone. again. And therefore he started painting again. And I never knew him as a painter. And he also – he had built a house in Connecticut that was a very exciting project. And he would get a letter over there — “Tony, we love our house, but can we block in under the what do you call it that it sits on?.”
MG: The foundation?
JS: Yes. Sticks or something
MG: Oh, okay.
JS: We would love just to block it in because we need that space below etc., and he finally-. He didn’t even answer it and they did it. But he became very disenchanted with what he called the [unclear]. So, in that interim, it was very important to him. He was [unclear]- architecture, and going back into things. I mean, going back into painting. And he said it was one of the most productive periods of his life. And writing. And then there was performance-.to his country, which was very valuable to him. And so, it was a very productive year.
JS: And then he came back and got a job as a draftsman at the [unclear].. Institute, which he hated And then teaching came about and he taught at Pratt and he taught at Cooper Union and NYU and Hunter was later. And then he would start taking light objects. He had all tin cans at one time. Cartons at one point. Anything that — it was like a module, you know? And he would take them all to class. And then they would start making things. And he’d make something out of them– what is the word for — acoustical tiles – sort of for the [unclear] thing. He made something. He came home after class one night and looked at it. We were in the basement -.. And he said, “That would make a piece of sculpture.” And he wanted to get that made into —
MG: And he didn’t realize that it was sculpture during the –
JS: Well, he recognized the — He wanted to sort of make them a metal substance – It didn’t happen at that time. But it pulled him in to thinking three dimensionally in relation to his own work.
MG: And this was a private endeavor at first, he didn’t even foresee it being exhibited.
JS: Oh, entirely.
MG: It was his own.
JS: And then it started growing. And then the black box came out of it Then he started building things in our backyard.
MG: In South Orange?
JS: Yes. And then Sam Wagstaff came up-. He had heard about this going on from a lecture by Ray Parker-. in Brooklyn-
MG: Who was also at Hunter?
JS: Yes. And Tony — he came out to our house. And then, Sam Wagstaff got very interested. He got very interested in what Ray Parker was talking about the night before, and he came out to see what was going on. So, he found out there was plenty going on.. And then, Barnett Newman, was very instrumental in bringing people out . And this was in our backyard [unclear]. [Unclear]-forced him out into the rain.
MG: Yeah. And that was in 1964? Black, White Gray show?
JS: Grey Black and White show, yes. in Hartford — yes. But there was
something at The Jewish museum. I think Kynaston McShine had to do with it. And let me see. That’s the first museum where he submitted something.
MG: “Primary Structures”.
JS: Exactly. And then Sam Wagstaff got very interested and did the show in Hartford.
MG: Right. The solo show?
JS: Well, first he did the Grey Black and White.
MG: Right — in 1964.
JS: Yes. And then lead to his first solo show. [Tape Off/On]
MG: His career as an architect —
MG: It seems like it must have had an influence on the kind of work he went into.
JS: You mean his sculpture?
JS: Well, it happened- [unclear] a base.
MG: Yeah. And also, Tony Smith, his colleagues, was quite were important in that they were Mark Rothko and Motherwll and Jackson Pollock.
MG: How did he find himself within that circle?
JS: Well, it worked very well because he was an architectural designer — he wasn’t a competing artist — and they would ask him to hang their shows Which he hung- many of them. And the relationship was very gratifying- to be involved, because he believed in their work. He firmly believed that this was what this period was about.
JS: And, as I say, there wasn’t any competing factor, so he had a wonderful relationship with them.
MG: It must have been very mutual because he was so well-bred and —
JS: Yes, he was.
MG: And very poetic in some sense.
JS: Yes, yes.
MG: And the artists he was involved with also —
JS: Were also. They really were.
JS: A very interesting moment.
JS: And the art world was very small back then.
MG: And you also must have known these artists.
MG: What was the atmosphere in —
JS: I met Mark Rothko years before Tony did, through someone-through my work. What were you asking?
MG: Oh. Just what was your impression of the art world at this time? You said that it was very small.
JS: Yes, it was.
MG: But was there a kind of camaraderie among the artists?
JS: Oh, my, yes. There were cliques and sometimes those cliques changed. But Tony, in his neutral position, crossed some of these clique borders.
MG: And when did people start to see him as an artist in and of himself?
JS: You mean as a sculptor?
MG: As a sculptor.
JS: Well, only after what I told you just before.
MG: With the early shows
MG: And how did that change his perception of his work? When it was no longer a private endeavor?
MG: Well, it became —
JS: [unclear] the backyard.
JS: He [unclear].
JS: Now, what did you ask?
MG: when he was able to leave behind architecture —
MG: Did his attitude towards the sculpture change at all, in that he was more prolific–?
JS: Yes. He would get naturally involved until it was the main thing he was doing. And he did it — maybe one architectural renovation that time — of an artist. But he was no longer — I mean, no longer an architect. And so, one thing led to another. And, of course, that show that that was in Hartford, -.it did go to Philadelphia, and then it went to Bryant Park, which was unprecedented to look out into Bryant Park and see five or seven — I don’t remember — of these — what are they?
MG: Right. I just saw some photographs of that. And it was spectacular.
MG: The 8 sculptures.
JS: I know that Ad Reinhardt – — you know, people walking through that area — “what is this?”
MG: Yes. But there’s something that engages people with the scale of the work.
MG: And that people in a park could-
JS: relate to it.
MG: Right. It physically —
JS: Oh, yes.
MG: It physically creates a kind of dialogue while moving through the work.
JS: Oh, definitely. And I think it was an unprecedented event. Which was a very important moment.
MG: And what were some of the issues at this time that he was concerned with, and were discussed within these cliques that you mentioned before?
JS: Well, I mean, I thought that you were going to say for him or the sculpture?
MG: In both.
JS: Which one first?
MG: Okay. Let’s take on the issues of the time, and then we’ll talk about this issue, which would be when he and Pollock and Rothko were hanging out — what would be something that might come up in a conversation? I guess it could be anything.
JS: Anything. The range was big. Nobody is doing very well trying to make a living. No one was widely excepted publicly. Nobody. Which is good, in a way.
MG: Right, yeah. And within his own work —
JS: Well, when he became —
MG: a sculptor
JS: That’s what I mean.
MG: Within his sculpture, what were his concerns?
JS: In relation to what?
MG: Well, within — in Bryant Park, for example, he presented these structures that were there and not there, simultaneously.
MG: And they related to them — to the figure. And the figure and the body in that — you had —
JS: You could relate to it.
MG: Right, right. And I guess another part of his work, of course, is his creative process, which he discussed with the module.
MG: Is there a project that he was especially proud of? Would it be Bat Cave or Bryant Park?
JS: There were some projects that never materialized felt were important. The Roosevelt Memorial. But he didn’t like competitions. Very rarely did he engage in them. But there were many disappointments.
Well, another thing that I -. some of the work here has color within it.
JS: Color — yes. It’s very cute.
MG: Yes. And that surprised me. Because I saw in the letter from Christopher Wilmarth to him —
MG: That was for the Hirshl and Adler show — that there is a yellow piece in Pittsburgh.
MG: But I always imagined or envisioned his work in its black form.
JS: Well, I think he was quoted as saying but I’m not quoting him verbatim, -you can color my sculptures ““ any color you want ““ provided it’s black- Something like that.
JS: -.but often he made-. for instance, Light-Up — he did that because the building it would be in front of was black.
JS: That’s why he did that. He did an orange one with a big cantilevered thing in Cleveland because it was black. Otherwise, his things were to be dark.
MG: Right, right. And then in the Museum of Modern Art he had an installation in the lobby.
JS: Yes. It was black.
MG: Was that black? I thought it was a burnt red. The pyramid.
JS: Yes it was. Forgive me. This is very serious to him because he went to Mexico to see the Pyramid of the Moon, and to get the exact red he wanted. And it was just like a dried blood red. It was incredibly dark.
JS: You see, I’ve seen that mock-up in black, on a smaller scale next door.
JS: So, I think of it in that color.
JS: But that was a very serious color for him.
MG: And did that shock the scene, for people who were accustomed to his work?
JS: I’m not sure. That never occurred to me. It was a very subtle color. Had that been a yellow, that might have been a different response. But that was a very important color to him.
MG: Yes. And how did he — he’s as much a great artist as a great educator.
MG: And you mentioned he taught at Cooper Union and NYU and Pratt.
MG: And how did he find himself at Hunter, eventually?
JS: Well, when you said that I was thinking. Of course he taught at Bennington He taught at Princeton, and I know when it came up about Gene’s talking to him about going to Hunter, he was very, very to make Gene understand “YES.” You know, Tony was very elliptic, I might say. And he was very much for that. Now, Tony — Tony was teaching at Bennington, and he had an automobile accident. He was in a car. He was not driving, and he was thrown out on the highway, quite a serious moment. and he stopped driving. He had a concussion. And I don’t know — also, when he came back to Bennington, he didn’t like their attitude, shall I say, about his catching up on his days missing. And I think he in every way phased out from Bennington. And Gene was, by that time at Hunter maybe Paul-I don’t know.
MG: I’m sorry?
JS: Gene was there.
MG: Yes, right.
JS: And [unclear].
JS: So, it might have evolved from — the curtain was down on Bennington.
JS: That might have come out of that. And Gene convinced to come to Hunter-.
MG: Yes. And being closer to home.
JS: That’s it, too.
MG: And having had that accident.
MG: That must have been much more inviting.
JS: Oh, yes.
MG: And what were his impressions of the department and the people who were there?
JS: At that time?
MG: He was there with Eugene [unclear] and Robert Motherwell.
JS: Now, Motherwell was there before, of course, Tony-and Fritz Bultman-
JS: I don’t know – how much was Motherwell there when Gene took over. You see, I’m not aware of –there when Tony was there.
JS: You can check that out.
MG: Yes. And what was his impression of the department?
JS: Well, I really don’t know. Because you’d have to tell me the people who were in it at that time.
MG: Okay. Well, Ray Parker?
JS: Of course. He liked him very much.
MG: And Hunter had no studios at that point.
JS: That’s right. That’s right.
MG: And how did they accommodate the artists?
JS: Well, -. I know how I got involved — it was very interesting to me. As paintings were getting bigger, students couldn’t bring them in for critiques, and therefore — I don’t know when it started, but in my connection, I would drive him to these various studios throughout the area, and outside the immediate areas, and then he would critique them. Nobody could bring anything in like that.
MG: Right, right. And you were then sitting in on these critiques.
JS: Yes, I would be. And just by chance because I was involved in [unclear].
JS: But it was also very interesting to me to be present. But at Hunter, I would not be present. There would be no occasion-.. And I thought- watching how he handled it was very interesting to me. Because he was very generous to each and every one, whether he liked their work or not. And he never made that clear. And he was very open and he would not try to brainwash them as to what they should do. He looked at their work to try to get an idea of what he felt was from them, themselves.
JS: And many artists and other teachers, told me many times that through Tony they found themselves. That they were lost, they were doing this and that. But through being with Tony — they found that their own-.. I think that’s the [unclear].
MG: Right. So, he was —
JS: He was a great teacher.
MG: A great teacher, and a kind of leader who did not stress people. He [unclear] them.
JS: Yes. He drew out. That’s all he cared about. He cared. He took it very seriously.
MG: Right, yeah.
JS: And he labored over grades and any comments he would make, again and again-.all night-. to make sure. So, he took it very seriously.
MG: Right. Because I know that some of the students I talked to have very fond memories. And the image they gave me was of somebody who was very casual.
JS: And at the same time cared.
MG: Yes. Cared very much.
JS: Oh, yeah.
MG: And really informed and well-read.
MG: And would bring in knowledge that was outside of the art scene.
JS: Absolutely. He would start something and digress-. quite a lot-. and get back to the point, and it would have enlightened the whole thing by the time he got back-.to the beginning-.
MG: And what did he think of his students?
JS: He liked all of them.
MG: He liked them all?
JS: I mean, I really think he did.
MG: Yeah. And was he supportive of them?
JS: Oh, yes. Definitely.
MG: Because just from the Christopher Wilmarth show, which was — he was an apprentice.
JS: Yes, he was.
MG: It seems like there was a really nice —
JS: Absolutely. Absolutely.
MG: And I read about how — and this is before Hunter — about how he took some students out to the New Jersey Turnpike and —
JS: He did. Oh, yes.
MG: There was a real involvement then with them.
MG: Even not necessarily within a structure or the confines of the institution.
JS: Exactly. And he would sometimes-.take students out. He enjoyed teaching very much, and for him it was very rewarding.
JS: It fed him, too. Now, Mark didn’t like to teach. Mark Rothko. Every artist has their own -..whatever.
JS: Tony was very engaging.
MG: So, he must have learned something in the process of teaching.
JS: Definitely. He valued it.
MG: And what do you think he brought — he took from the teaching that nourished his work in some sense?
JS: Well, I’m sure it triggered a lot of things. I’m sure he realized that something he was just making arbitrarily was a piece of sculpture. I’m sure that it fed him a lot, in his own work.
MG: And did the students ever work for him — the building of this [unclear] the plywood structures and that kind of —
JS: Oh, a lot. I mean, the number of artists who were involved in the Bryant Park-.many artists-..
MG: Well, I think that’s it. [Tape Off/On] And what was Tony’s educational background?
JS: Well, he would come to New York. Commute daily from New Jersey. And he went to [Tape Off/On] Tony was educated by the Jesuits. He wanted to-. He considered becoming a priest. And he tells the story of driving up to this place -.the convent -where the Jesuits were and got in front of it, and all he heard was, “So and so is on the sixty-yard-line,” and all these football moves. He turned right around [unclear] and gave that up. But he had a very firm education, and he read his Greek plays in Greek. He was taught to think as a Jesuit. Tony could think. They are very tough educators. And he had a classical background.
MG: Right. And I think this comes through in his sculptures.
JS: Yes, it does.
MG: Because it’s not —
JS: He was aware of the great artists and architects in history.
MG: And by using these complex geometrical forms, they would allowed for more complicated structures.
JS: Oh, yes.
MG: Which could, in a classical sense —
JS: He knew about all of them.
MG: Right. [unclear]. I mean, it was a kind of geometry related to a real tradition.
JS: [unclear] and [unclear]. So, he had all of that in his life.
MG: Yeah. I heard a humorous story by Jeannne Bultman, where he would be — and it’s a wonderful image — where he would stay with Jeanne and Fritz -.
JS: In Provincetown.
MG: In Provincetown. And would spend a long time in the tub, smoking cigars.
MG: [laughs] They were actually somewhat surprised. What it does is it expresses a really kind of wonderful humor.
JS: Yes. And also a great degree of relaxation and speculation. I think it’s marvelous to sit in a warm tub [unclear] -and dream.
MG: And was this something that you perceived yourself?
MG: But just sort of this kind of ability to relax and to think.
JS: Well, yes. As he said ” My sculptures are the edge dreams”. And that’s the truth-.
JS: He’d wake up, and there it would be.
MG: Aha. And you mentioned that he had a bookstore.
JS: He, at one time, when he was very young, had a bookstore in Newark. And I think -.I was told-. about a thousand books. He didn’t sell one of them. And he spent his whole time reading.
MG: And what kind of books were they?
JS: Everything. I mean, I don’t know what he specialized in.
MG: And how long did he have that?
JS: I have no idea -.but it was a disaster financially-
But a passion otherwise. [laughs]
JS: Oh, yes.
MG: And also, you had mentioned that there was a studio visit where he —
JS: Yes-. [unclear]came out to take a photograph of Tony [unclear]. And he said, “Tony, where is your studio?” And Tony pointed to the television table-. And said, “there, right there”. Well, that’s very confusing. But when he [unclear]-.maquettes-.
JS: It was true. And then he also said, “Tony, you look like a banker.”
JS: “You’ve got to look like an artist.” So, when he left-..later-. we came to New York and went to an Army Navy store, and picked up some denim clothes, and we took them home and washed them in time, so he would look like an artist. He came back and he [unclear] was very satisfied. [Tape Off/On]
MG: And also I understand that Tony could recite James Joyce.
JS: He could. He totally understood Joyce because of their Catholic background, and different things alluded to. He understood the work. He couldn’t get enough of it-.Finnegan’s Wake and – no actor I know of recordings of actors -read Joyce, I think, -as well as Tony did–because it came from something [he was-.very familiar. And he would start reading it, and then he would look up and keep going, you know? He would go on and on. And he would get to the end of “˜Finnegan’s Wake’ and he would start [unclear]- as it does- [unclear].
MG: The beginning.
JS: But it was very natural to him, and he really did it- [unclear].
End of Interview