American architect, sculptor and painter. He was bedridden with tuberculosis as a child and lived isolated in a small house on his family’s property. He was tutored privately until he went to high school and attended college briefly from 1931 to 1932, before returning to work for his family waterworks business. At night he attended the Art Students’ League, studying under George Bridgeman (1864–1943), George Grosz and Václav Vytlačil (d 1984).
Smith decided to study architecture and in 1937 moved to Chicago, where he enrolled in the New Bauhaus; his teachers included László Moholy-Nagy, György Kepes and Alexander Archipenko. Between 1938 and 1940 he worked for Frank Lloyd Wright, becoming clerk of works for Suntop Homes, Ardmore, PA; he later assisted with Wright’s Usonian houses. He established an independent architectural practice, where the modular basis for his work became evident, designing more than 24 private residences and a number of unrealized monuments (1940–60). In 1946 Smith began a long and influential teaching career, including posts at New York University and Hunter College (into the 1970s). He developed close friendships with Abstract Expressionist artists. From 1953 to 1955 he lived in Germany and travelled to France, Italy and Spain. Among his various projects were plans for a church and workers’ housing. He also produced the modular Louisenberg paintings (New York, Paula Cooper Gal.).
During recovery from a serious car accident in 1961 Smith decided to forgo architecture in favour of sculpture. He made his first metal sculpture, The Black Box, in 1962 (0.57×0.84×0.64 m; Ottawa, N.G.). In addition to creating rectangular-based works, he combined complex solid modules, as in Amaryllis (1965, 3.5×2.2×3.5 m; New York, Met.). His works are founded on principles of geometric abstraction and of primitive and modern architecture, as well as of science and mathematics; there are also frequent literary connections, such as in Gracehoper (1961–72, 6.91×7.32×14.20 m; Detroit, MI, Inst. A.), whose title derives from James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake. Smith’s emergence as a sculptor coincided with the early phase of Minimalism, a movement to which he never fully subscribed, but to which his use of reduced forms is related.
Joan H. Pachner
From Grove Art Online
© 2009 Oxford University Press