Alex Vardaxoglou exhibits a group of works by pioneering British artist Richard Smith

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Alex Vardaxoglou exhibits a group of works by pioneering British artist Richard Smith
Richard Smith, About to Perform, 1982 © Richard Smith Foundation. Courtesy Alex Vardaxoglou, London.

LONDON.- Alex Vardaxoglou is presenting an online Presentation highlighting a group of works by pioneering British artist Richard Smith (1931-2016). The Presentation reflects Smith’s testing of the limits of painting through a number of distinct bodies of work; from the shaped canvases of the late 60s and 70s, through to the kite works, and the reversion back to flat canvas in the 80s.

In the late 50s, Smith travelled to America on the Harkness Fellowship and was inspired by his American colleagues and his time there. Yet his work took on a more restrained output, with less obvious emotional content. His imagery tended to be much more concrete, and always straddled a number of motifs; ‘Neither pop nor minimal, neither colour-field abstraction, nor literal three-dimensional object’1. He has always been Richard Smith – in between these parameters.

He became known in the 60s and 70s for his odd-shaped, wall-hanging canvases, which drew heavily on high-end advertising of the time. They are Pop inasmuch they draw source from ephemera of the world, but Smith’s interest was more luxury and less demotic. And as such, the imagery which results is less pictorial than his Pop colleagues; more painterly.

Mandarin, 1970, the largest painting in our Presentation, marries a few key elements of Smith’s output in the preceding decade. Made in the same year Smith represented Britain at the Venice Biennale, the quick, loose brushstrokes (reminiscent of his at the Royal College of Art) become big areas of deep blue. His forays into reimagining ‘traditional’ painting, for example a stretched canvas hanging on a wall, are exemplified in this intricately shaped canvas, with two protruding elements shooting out to the ground, supported by intricate wooden struts. It is one of the largest billboard-like paintings Smith made and challenges the rectangular format and flatness of conventional painting. He was insistent on emphasising his work as painting and not sculpture; ‘since I have always retained a wall, there is no question of a multifaceted sculptural object’2.

This type of painting led Smith to his Kite works which are concerned with qualities of painting itself as much as the space around them. In this Presentation, we show the notable Cartouche 1-4 from 1979, one of fifteen original paper pulp works, in replicating the same idea as the kite paintings. Smith’s aim with these was to reverse the relationship between the canvas and its support; strings were used in order for the work to suspend from the wall or ceiling.

In 1978, following a litany of museum exhibitions, Smith moved back to New York permanently and lived there for the rest of his life. His work again took on a new direction in the 80s, as he reverted to experimenting with ‘traditional’ flat canvas, not seen as much in his oeuvre since the early 60s. Our Presentation includes a number of works from this important period, including Centrefold, 1981, and About to Perform, 1982, which are typical of his flat-canvas works in the 80s; dispersed abstract shapes - in the shape of some of his shaped canvases – lay flat on painterly backgrounds, exploring tensions between different marks and colours. It seems at this point he was back to focusing on the medium and less the physical space around the work itself. This, still, was an exploration into the confines of painting; the all-encompassing preoccupation of his career, and a worthwhile discussion to be having now.

Smith is regarded as one of the most accomplished artists of his generation, if quietly. Defying easy art-historical categorisation, in the period we highlight Smith constantly tested the limits of painting whilst remaining very much a painter.

Born in Hertfordshire in 1931, Richard Smith was awarded the prestigious Harkness Fellowship in 1959 which facilitated his move to New York, where he had his first solo show at Green Gallery. While still in his thirties Smith had a 1966 retrospective at the Whitechapel Gallery and participated in some of the most important exhibitions of his time, such as Place at the ICA in 1959; Situation at RBA Galleries in 1960; and Painting and Sculpture of a Decade at Tate in 1964. After participating in Documenta IV, Kassel in 1968, Smith represented Britain at the 1970 Venice Biennale. A major retrospective, was held at Tate in 1975.

Smith's work is held in public collections including the Arts Council England; The British Museum, London; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the Museum of Modern Art, New York; Tate, London; Victoria and Albert Museum, London; Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; MIT, Boston; and Philadelphia Museum of Art.

1 Richard Smith. Seven Exhibitions 1961-1975. Exhibition Catalogue, Tate Gallery, 1975. p. 11.

2 Bryan Robertson, Richard Smith Paintings 1958-1966, exhibition catalogue, Whitechapel Art Gallery, London 1966, reproduced p.28

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