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Tony Smith is born in South Orange, New Jersey, on September 23, the second of seven children to a prosperous Irish Catholic family. His father, Peter Smith, owns and runs the family business, the A.P. Smith Manufacturing Company, which was founded by his own father in the 1800s.


At the age of 4, Smith is diagnosed with what is thought to be tuberculosis. This debilitating disease prohibits him from attending elementary school on a regular basis. In order to avoid spreading the ailment to his brothers and sisters, Smith is kept from having contact with his family. [1] Instead, he spends most of his younger years in a makeshift shelter in the backyard of his family home with a personal nurse. His only recollection of the time is that some­thing differentiated him from his family, but what specifically this was, he did not understand. [2]


A teenager still living in New Jersey, Smith commutes to St. Francis Xavier, a Jesuit high school in Manhattan. His father encourages this, despite the long and tiresome commute, made particularly difficult since Smith is still weak from his childhood illness. Smith's interest in art develops during these years although he does not recall a specific event that generates his attraction. He does not create anything at this time, but begins to notice the paintings his mother brings into the family home. His father also has an appreciation for art and exposes Smith to new artists such as George Luks and John Sloan. Despite Smith's devel­oping interest. his father discourages him from pursuing a career as an artist.


After graduating from Xavier in 1931, Smith continues his education at Fordham University for two semesters, followed by two years at Georgetown University. [3] Although very intelligent, Smith is not serious about his studies and returns home before completing his degree. Upon his return, he pursues his interest in art and literature. He takes a job, which would last for two years, managing a bookstore in South Orange, New Jersey. He is an avid reader of modern English literature, especially the works of James Joyce, Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot. Smith quits the bookstore and turns to the family business where he works for his father as a toolmaker, draftsman and purchaser.


He enters the Art Students League where he takes his first formal art classes all the while working at his family's factory during the day. At the Art Students League Smith takes night classes in drawing, painting and anatomy and stud­ies under George Grosz, Vaclav Vytacil and George Bridgeman. [4] His paintings are most influenced by the ideas of Vytacil, a teacher whom Smith would later credit as being one of the greatest artistic influences. Smith's style reflects this admiration, as Vytacil teaches Smith the notion that both positive and neg­ative space should be given equal importance on the canvas. This concept is reflected in many of his paintings from the 1930s and 1940s and later, in his sculpture.


Smith enrolls at the New Bauhaus in Chicago. He is interested in painting and drawing as well as design, and he feels that architecture is a practical way to combine these arts. At the Bauhaus, Smith studies photography, drafting, sculp­ture and metalwork. His experience in his father's business, where he became knowledgeable about American techniques in fabrication, becomes useful when he takes a class in metalworking taught by László Moholy-Nagy. Smith often corrects the professor during his lectures and as a result, Moholy-Nagy himself appoints Smith head of the metal workshop.


Smith leaves architecture school because of a creative disagreement with Moholy­-Nagy and returns home to New Jersey, unsure of what his next step will be. He has no job and almost no money. Additionally, his father refuses to fund his artistic pursuits. He describes himself as being in a "catatonic state," both con­fused and depressed, feeling completely lost. [5]

Later this year, he reacquaints himself with a photographer friend whom he had known from the Bauhaus, Laurence Cureno, who brings Smith to Frank Lloyd Wright's Ben Rebhuhn House in Great Neck, Long Island. Smith is able to explore the house intimately and he is astonished by Wright's architecture. The experience encourages Smith to pursue a job on a Wright project when he learns of an available position at a site in Ardmore, Pennsylvania. He initially serves as a carpenter's helper and later advances to bricklayer. This is one of the first jobs in which Smith actually builds something on site as opposed to merely executing designs in a classroom. He connects architecture, engineering and drafting and learns the trade by "trying it" on this project. [6]


Smith moves to New York City into an apartment in Greenwich Village. He lives near friends Fritz Bultman, Sydney McFadden and Gerome Kamrowsky and immerses himself in the New York art world by visiting various galleries and museums. It is through Bultman that Smith first meets Jackson Pollock and Tennessee Williams, two significant influences who later become friends.

In 1942, two years after working on the Wright project, Smith began one of his most complex architectural undertakings, a house for L.L. Brotherton. The Brotherton House uses a hexagonal grid as the form and proves to be an ambitious undertaking for the young architect. [7]


Smith meets Jane Lawrence, his future wife, through Bultman. After a five­-day courtship Smith proposes marriage, and nine months later they marry in Santa Monica, California, with Tennessee Williams acting as best man. The couple then moves to Hollywood in order for Jane to pursue her career as an opera singer. In the same year, Smith produces The Pattern of Organic Life in America, an unpublished philosophical account of his artistic ideals that will inform his later work. [8]


Smith returns to the East Coast to design and construct a studio for Bultman in Provincetown, Massachusetts. While working there he becomes familiar with many artists, including Frederick Kiesler, who introduces Smith to the many of the New York City art galleries including Peggy Guggenheim's pioneering Art of this Century Gallery. Smith also meets Buffie Johnson, who later introduces him to enduring friend and painter, Barnett Newman.

The Smiths settle in New York City once again and Tony Smith reconnects with Jackson Pollock. He also develops friendships with other Abstract Expressionists, in particular Mark Rothko and Clyfford Still. [9] Ironically, despite his ties with Pollock, Smith meets these artists through Jane, who is not personally involved in the art world and met Rothko by chance.


Smith teaches at New York University's School of Education from 1946–1950. In 1946, Rothko gives his Eighth Street studio to Smith who uses it as a class­room for his students at NYU. [10] He also teaches at Cooper Union and Pratt Institute of Art from 1951–1952. [11] Students remember his great admiration for Abstract Expressionist painting. One student, George Segal, recalls Smith bringing a Rothko to class to show how the artist uses color to project an "inside mood." [12] Smith emphasizes abstraction as a form unto itself and encour­ages his students to stress the two-dimensionality of painting when filling their canvases with color.


Smith leaves New York and moves to Heidelberg, Germany, to accompany Jane, whose career in opera is soaring abroad. Spending the next two years in Germany has both positive and negative effects on his career. By leaving New York in the 1950s he distances himself from the Abstract Expressionists when their careers are at their peak. Despite this separation, Smith takes advan­tage of his time abroad, traveling throughout Europe seeing both modern and classical art and architecture in Germany, Italy and France. [13] Unfortunately, this separation leads to isolation because Smith knows no one but his wife in Europe, and she is occupied with her own craft.

Smith returns to his original love of painting. He paints the Louisenberg Series, based on a grid with circular shapes contained within a pattern. His time abroad is to be one of his most artistically productive periods. Smith also becomes a father as he and Jane have their first daughter, Chiara, who is born in Nuremberg in 1954.


Upon returning from Europe, the Smiths live at his family home in South Orange where twin daughters Seton and Beatrice are born in July of 1955. He returns to teaching at Pratt and NYU, as well as a new appointment at Bennington College (1958–1961). He ceases all architectural work and turns toward sculp­ture, also teaching it in the classroom. He creates his first sculpture, Throne (1956). The sculpture is realized during a class lecture as he demonstrates to his students the advantages of the tetrahedral shape over right-angled structures. [14]


In 1962, Smith begins teaching at Hunter College in New York City where he remains until 1980. He teaches a variety of advanced studio classes including painting, photography and drawing.

Despite an automobile accident in 1961, which leaves him seriously impaired and in declining health, Smith produces his most celebrated works in the early 1960s. [15] He is extremely productive and creates a series of sculptures based on the favored tetrahedral module. Each piece is related to and evolves from a previous work. He prefers to work out his ideas using maquettes and small models, rather than through preliminary sketches. In 1961, Smith creates his first environmental piece, Cigarette, which invites the viewer to walk through, sit on and fully interact with it.

He creates his first steel sculpture, Black Box in 1962. This piece, perhaps one of Smith's most important works, derives from an index card file box that sits on the desk of his colleague, E.C. Goossen at Hunter College. Smith is fasci­nated with its form and sketches it scaled up to five times its actual size while removing the object's original detailing. Free Ride and Die, both made later that year, directly evolve from Black Box. [16]

During this period, Smith also creates Beardwig (1962) and Duck (1962), as well as Tau, conceived in 1962.  


Smith's sculptures become public for the first time in 1964, when curator Samuel Wagstaff becomes interested after seeing them through a friend, Ray Parker. Wagstaff selects Elevens Are Up (1963) for the exhibition Black, White and Grey at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut.

The exposure in Hartford leads to increasing interest in Smith's sculpture. In 1966, Free Ride is selected by the Jewish Museum in New York to be exhib­ited in its influential Primary Structures show. Later that year, Samuel Wagstaff curates Smith's first one-man show Tony Smith: Two Exhibitions of Sculpture, which is simultaneously on view at the Wadsworth Atheneum and the Philadelphia Institute of Contemporary Art. In the catalogue essay, Wagstaff states that Smith is one of the "best unknown artists in American art." [17] In 1966, Smith also receives the Longview Foundation Art Award and the National Council of the Arts Award. [18]


Smith is quickly becoming more well known as eight of his large-scale sculptures are chosen to be shown in the Sculpture in Environment exhibi­tion in Bryant Park in New York City in early 1967. Later that year, another notable sculpture, Maze (1967), is included in Schemata 7 at the Finch College Museum of Art. He also has his second one-man show at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. Additionally, his works are exhibited abroad in Germany, Switzerland, and France.

Smith continues to unveil his works to the public in 1967. His seminal piece, Smoke, is included in the exhibition Scale as Content: Ronald Bladen, Barnett Newman, Tony Smith, at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. [19] Smoke (1967), his largest sculpture to be realized in full scale, is produced in wood rather than metal due to the expense of the material. Smoke is a vari­ation of the 1964 sculpture Moondog. It is based on the elongated, stretched octahedral form which later evolves into Smog (1969), and finally Smug (1973). [20] Both Smith and Smoke are featured on the cover of the October 1967 Time magazine, leading to increased notoriety.

In 1969, Smith designs Haole Crater for the University of Hawaii in Honolulu where he briefly takes a teaching job during the summer. In 1970, four major museums in Smith's home state of New Jersey organize a one-man exhibi­tion, Seven Sculptures by Tony Smith. He is further recognized in 1971, receiving a fine arts medal from the American Institute of Architects. [21]

In the late 1960s, Smith works on four major projects that display the magnitude and maturation of his art. He designs Hubris (1969), a public site-specific work intended for the campus of the University of Hawaii. He also designs an immense indoor piece, Batcave, to be installed at Expo '70 in Osaka, Japan. At the same time, Smith is designing a public water garden and an enormous three-dimensional addition to a naturally­ occurring fissure in a mountain in California. [22] These four projects are based on the tetrahedral module that Smith used throughout his career, although they are completely distinct in their physical appearance. These variations of the module further exemplify the diversity of Tony Smith's sculptures.

Mountain Piece (1968), although unrealized, is commissioned by Samuel Wagstaff. This piece takes Smith's work to a completely new level. Known as one of his later "earthworks," the piece is comprised of a large-scale concave groove cut into a mountain.

Smith begins to experiment with color and medium in his sculpture. He creates the steel piece Light Up (1971), and paints the piece an intense shade of yellow. He goes to Italy to make For Dolores (1973–74) a work carved in marble, a medium that is new to him.

In the 1970s, Smith's notoriety continues to grow and his work is featured in a variety of group exhibitions in the United States and abroad. His work is included in the Whitney Museum of American Art's Annual Exhibition for three years running from 1971–1973 and the extensive survey 200 Years of American Sculpture (1976), also at the Whitney.


Among the last sculptures that Smith conceives in the final period of his life are One-Two-Three (1976), Throwback (1977) and an untitled sculpture based on a series of Five Cs (1980). One-Two-Three explores Smith's notion of mathematical continuance within sculpture, as each individual piece is derived from the previous one. Throwback is thought to be one of his most figurative works, as there is a strong sense of life and movement pulsating throughout its horizontal shape. [23] The untitled piece done in 1980 is made up of a single shape that resembles the letter "C" repeated five times and placed in five different positions

In 1978, Tony Smith: Models and Drawings, is featured at the Montclair State Museum in New Jersey. In 1979, Smith's later sculptures are exhibited at the Pace Gallery in New York City in an exhibition entitled Tony Smith: Ten Elements and Throwback.

Smith takes a brief leave from Hunter to teach at Princeton University from 1975–1978. He also receives a series of accolades in the 1970s, including the College Art Association Distinguished Teaching Art Award (1974), and becomes a member of The American Institute of Art and Letters (1979). [24] A year before his death, he returns to Hunter, where he finishes his teaching career.

A wooden mock-up of Tau is created and exhibited at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in the Twenty American Artists show in late 1980, a few months before Smith's death. In December of that year, Smith dies of a heart attack at the age of 68.


Smith's works are exhibited at Hunter College Art Gallery in the show Tony Smith Drawings.

On September 8, Tau is installed at Hunter College's West Plaza, located at 68th Street and Lexington Avenue in Manhattan. Tau is Smith's first public sculpture to be installed permanently in New York City.


1. Joan Pachner, "Chronology," in Tony Smith Architect, Painter, Sculptor, exh. cat. (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1998), 184.
2. Paul Cummings, Interview with Tony Smith, Orange, New Jersey, August 22, 1978. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institute, Washington, D.C. and New York: 34.
3. Pachner, 184.
4. Joan Pachner, "Paintings and Drawings," in Tony Smith, Architect, Painter, Sculptor, exh. cat. (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1998), 70.
5. Cummings, 23.
6. Cummings, 26.
7. John Keenen, "Architecture," in Tony Smith: Architect, Painter, Sculptor, exh. cat. (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1998), 38–39.
8. Pachner, 70.
9. Joan Pachner, "Tony Smith Paintings: The lnterwar Years," in Tony Smith Paintings: A Survey of Early Works from the 1930's and 1940's, exh. cat. (Chicago: Roben Henry Adams Fine Art, 2001), 11.
10. Sam Hunter, Tony Smith: Ten Elements and Throwback, exh. cat. (New York: The Pace Gallery, 1979), 3.
11. Pachner, "Chronology," 185.
12. Robert Storr, "A Man of Parts," in Tony Smith: Architect, Painter, Sculptor, exh. cat. (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1998), 14.
13. Storr, 21.
14. Storr, 25.
15. Storr, 32.
16. Pachner, ''Sculpture," in Tony Smith: Architect, Painter, Sculptor, exh. cat. (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1998), 128–129.
17. Storr, 32.
18. Pachner, "Chronology," 185.
19. Storr, 30.
20. Lucy Lippard, "Tony Smith: Talk About Sculpture," ArtNews 70 (1971): 48–49.
21. Pachner. "Chronology," 185.
22. Lucy Lippard, Tony Smith (New York: Harry N. Abrams and Stuttgan: Verlag Gerard Hatje, 1972), 22–23.
23. Pachner, "Sculpture," 133.
24. Pachner, "Chronology," 186–187.

This is an adapted version of the chronology by Rachael Grygorcewicz in Tracing Tony Smith's Tau, edited by William C. Agree and published on the occasion of the 2004 eponymous exhibition at Hunter College, New York. 

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