The Pattern of Organic Life in America
While living in Hollywood, California, from 1943 to 1945, Tony Smith created an ambitious manuscript of more than 300 pages related to his quest for evidence of cosmic order, harmony, and a rhythm underlying American culture—“the pattern of organic life in America.”
This open-ended, at times stream-of-consciousness reflection combines word and image to explore questions about humanity and the spiritual as Smith sought to formulate a universal myth for modern man. The manuscript draws on a range of sources, including the architectural theories of Frank Lloyd Wright and the writings of James Joyce, as well as the American transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau. Smith’s commentary on these figures is interwoven with references to the philosophies of Friedrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud, and Lao Tzu, among others.
The Pattern of Organic Life in America can be seen today as a foundational document for Smith’s later artistic and intellectual development. The manuscript has extensive passages devoted to “generation,” a concept that remained central to his practice. He assigned the concept various interpretations, from the spiritual to the biological. And while the word has no exclusive corollary in Smith’s work, it emerged as a core concept of modular growth, like biological cells, that would culminate in his large-scale sculptures, such as the 1965 work titled Generation.
Smith initially paired his symbol for “generation” with the image of the spiral cross based on a Roman Catholic cross. In Smith’s version, however, the four arms of the cross are separated from each other, transformed into a kind of pinwheel pattern leaving a void at its center. While the plan recalls Mies van der Rohe’s design for the Brick Country House (1923), Smith’s spinning form was inspired by the principles of organic growth influenced by studying the Scottish mathematician and biologist D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson’s book On Growth and Form (1917).
Consistent with Smith’s interests in how modular pieces form naturally into a complete composition, the manuscript was left without a fixed order. Instead, individual parts are divided into sections loosely associated with broad concepts: “America,” “Ideology,” “Chapel,” “House,” “Necessities,” “Pattern,” “Land,” and “Soul.”
Tony Smith’s Pattern of Organic Life in America fuses an intuitive approach to making art with ideas drawn from spirituality, science, and mythmaking. He created an entirely new abstract visual vocabulary. This synthesis dovetailed with that of many artists emerging at the same moment when Smith moved from California back to New York City after the end of World War II. Although primarily working as an architect at the time, his ideas became vital to the conversations on abstraction occupying the burgeoning New York scene. In retrospect, while this document is the foundation of Smith’s own artistic development, it also reveals the broad intellectual scope of his creative pursuits and experiments in advance of those same preoccupations that would come to define early Abstract Expressionism.