At Flowers Gallery, 21 Cork Street in London until 15 July is a stunning show, Work of Five Decades, of “paintings” by an old friend, Richard Smith (1931-2016). The scare quotes are there to note that several of the works have sculptural qualities and ambitions. Some are mobiles, and some extend and stretch the canvas in ways that make the picture plane three dimensional – a practice Dick had in common with our mutual friend, Stephen Buckley.
While the large window space at Cork Street is filled by a vast painting of this latter sort, Untitled, (2002), the entire ground floor of the gallery is taken up by a mammoth mobile called Snakes and Windows (1993). This is a development of the “kite” paintings for which Dick became so celebrated, since he made his first one in 1971, that pieces were commissioned for public spaces such as the Atlanta and Louisville airports. This particular work was created for a 1994 exhibition entitled Civic Virtues at Nations Bank Plaza in Charlotte, North Carolina. Both sides of the floating canvas panels are painted, and it appears that you can see through some of them to another panel, though some of the apparently cut-out windows are actually mirror glass, and what you are seeing is not another panel, but the reflection of another panel. It moves gently, it’s dizzying, deceptive and hugely enjoyable. And it somehow works in this gallery, though it was first meant to be seen from a good distance below where it was hanging in an atrium.
Staring at it intently, I had a (somewhat stale) epiphany (other artists, viewers and critics realised this long ago, I’m ashamed to say). Dick’s kite paintings were simply the logical evolution of pictorial space. What he was doing in them was to take the essential feature of painting as canvas made taut by stretchers, and move the stretchers from their normal position, as the sides of a square or a rectangle (or more rarely, outline of an oval or circumference of a circle), to new positions, often to the middle of the canvas. In the 1985 Round Flight you can see how this allowed him to make picture shapes that were no longer square or rectangular, or, for that matter, of any regular Euclidean geometrical form. By cutting the canvas and placing the stretchers (often lightweight metal struts) he could produce curved or bulbous shapes, or even the saddle-shaped plane of Riemannian, positively curved space. The language we need to use to describe Dick’s 3-D kite paintings is usually more complex and complicated than the structures themselves.
Left out of account here is Dick’s potent command of colour. Look at Snakes and Windows or Round Trip or the 1980 Madama, and you see that, however sculptural they are, they are still acrylic on canvas, still paintings, with glorious contrasts and resonant harmonies of colours. As another friend, Barbara Rose, wrote in the catalogue of the 2105 show of Dick’s kite paintings in New York: Dick Smith was “unique in his ability to not only revive and maintain the tradition, but also push it forward to the point that it can stand with the most progressive, radical and inventive art of his time.”
Richard Smith: Work of Five Decades is on view at Flowers Gallery, London W1 until 15 July. www.flowersgallery.com