Matrix: On the Art of Tom Burr, Torkwase Dyson,
and Tony Smith
Thursday, April 14, 2022
Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art
The Wadsworth Atheneum’s decisive role in the development of Tony Smith’s artistic career serves as the historical context for a conversation with artists Tom Burr and Torkwase Dyson who, in separate bodies of work, have referenced Smith’s art and modernist ideologies.
From the realms of science, to social and material environments, and even to popular cinema, the term matrix brings to mind dynamic contexts where interconnected elements (such as mineral crystals or organic cells) proliferate and flourish among themselves and within larger enveloping systems. In contemporary art, this concept of the matrix metaphorically and literally describes the creative practice of many artists and curators who depend on vast, transdisciplinary networks of interlocutors—fabricators, gallerists, audiences, and institutions—each playing complementary roles to bring work into reality.
It’s no surprise, then, that an exhibition program founded in 1975 at the Wadsworth Atheneum to support experimental modes of artistic creation—in dialogue with a curator and in the context of a museum collection—was, in fact, named MATRIX. Established by then-director James Elliott, MATRIX acquired its name, fittingly, from Tony Smith, whose own roving practice transcended mediums yet ultimately thrived due to his committed, long-term relationships with curators, artists, institutions, and fabricators, and whose complex artworks are based on interrelated configurations of modules—in short, a matrix.
The Wadsworth Atheneum played a pivotal role in Smith’s life. The group exhibition Black, White and Grey, which included work by Agnes Martin, Robert Morris, Frank Stella, and Anne Truitt, among others, opened on January 9, 1964. It was curated by Samuel Wagstaff, who was the museum’s Curator of Paintings and Sculpture from 1961 to 1968. It featured one work by Smith—a pair of wall-like constructions, each eight feet square by two feet deep—titled The Elevens Are Up (1963).
Black, White and Grey was the first museum exhibition in the United States to present work by artists who would later be associated with Minimalism, Tony Smith among them. At age 51, Black, White and Grey was the artist’s first exhibition.
Wagstaff and the Wadsworth Atheneum then became instrumental in the advancement of Smith’s artistic career. In late 1966, Wagstaff organized the first solo exhibition by the artist with concurrent presentations in different cities—the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford and the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia—titled Tony Smith: Two Exhibitions of Sculpture. Following its close, the Wadsworth acquired Amaryllis (1965), one of the works included in the exhibition and the very first work by Smith to ever enter a museum collection. By fall of 1967, Smith was pictured with his sculpture Smoke (1967) on the cover of TIME magazine as part of an article about the zeitgeist of large-scale sculpture being presented at the time in both museums and in public space.
Against this rich historical context, and with matrix serving as an underlying concept for considering the field of contemporary art today, this program will engage curator, scholar, and TSF executive director James Voorhies in conversation with artists Tom Burr and Torkwase Dyson. Together, they will discuss what it means to make art and exhibitions, reflecting upon not only the interconnective nature among different bodies of work but also the sustaining power of networks themselves, which bring speculative, theoretical, or otherwise unrealized projects into the public realm.
Matrix: On the Art of Tom Burr, Torkwase Dyson, and Tony Smith will inaugurate a new series of nomadic programs called “In Dialogue,” presented by the Tony Smith Foundation, which is committed to placing the legacy of the artist in context and in conversation with the contemporary arts. Matrix is co-organized with Patricia Hickson, Emily Hall Tremaine Curator of Contemporary Art, Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art.
For almost three decades, Tom Burr’s sculpture, writing, collage, and photography have focused on access, site-specificity, the confluence of public and private environments, as well as the constructed persona. Appropriating the formal vocabulary of minimalism, Burr charges these seemingly neutral shapes and materials with innumerable connotations and references often associated with the emancipation of subcultures or details from his own biography.
Torkwase Dyson describes herself as a painter working across multiple mediums to explore the continuity between ecology, infrastructure, and architecture. Examining environmental racism as well as the history and future of black spatial liberation strategies, Dyson’s abstract works grapple with the ways in which space is perceived and negotiated, particularly by black and brown bodies.