South Orange native son, Tony Smith is one of the most famous and influential visual artists of the 20th century. He is a well-known sculptor, painter and architect who apprenticed with Frank Lloyd Wright. He reached international fame in the 1960s and 1970s with his large-scale, minimalist sculpture.
Born Anthony Peter Smith, on September 23, 1912, in South Orange, his ties to our area extend to the 1800's when his grandfather and namesake, A.P. Smith, founded a municipal waterworks factory in East Orange. The Smith family home still stands on Stanley Road in the Montrose Park Historic District.
Art historians trace the origins of Smith's artistic aesthetic back to hear early years on Stanley Road. At four years old, Tony was diagnosed with tuberculosis. "To protect the others from contagion, his father erected a small prefabricated house in the backyard... where the boy lived for several years. The setting and daily routine were Spartan; except for the company of a full-time nurse who cared for him, Smith ate alone and played alone."(2) Heat for the house was provided by a black cast iron stove, which he described as the only other 'presence' in the cottage. This stove is believed to have inspired his later work with black metals. While quarantined, he built pueblo-like structures from boxes of medicine. Those structures are also considered a pre-cursor to his later work.
In the 1930s he studied at the New Bauhaus in Chicago and subsequently apprenticed with Wright. In 1943 Smith met the opera singer Jane Lawrence, and after a five day courtship proposed marriage. Nine months later, they were married in Santa Monica, CA, with playwright Tennessee Williams serving as best man. The Smiths lived in Hollywood for a short time while Jane pursued her career, then they moved East where they lived until 1952 when they moved to Heidelberg Germany where Jane continued to pursue her opera career.
While living abroad, Smith explored Germany, Italy and France where he saw both modern and classical art and architecture; at that time he turned his attention to painting. Their daughter Chiara (Kiki) was born in Nuremberg in 1954, and the following year, the family moved back to his childhood home. Twins Seton and Beatrice were born here.
During the 1940s and 1950s he continued to paint and practice architecture, and he designed homes until the early 1960s. Soon after his return to South Orange, he ceased all architectural work and began teaching first at Pratt and NYU and later at Bennington and Hunter College. In the 1960s, Smith turned toward sculpture, the medium in which he created his most successful works.
Tony Smith was featured on the cover of TIME Magazine in 1967 and dubbed "Master of the Monumentalists." His large, abstract steel sculptures and geometric paintings are seen as a bridge between the postwar abstract expressionists and the 1960s minimalists. Smith became an international sensation.
Smith raised his family on Stanley Road, and the girls attended local schools. Kiki and Seton are now well-known artists in their own right. It was in South Orange that Smith played hosts to artist friends, including Barnett Newman, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Tennessee Williams. Smith created many of his famous works in his studio here; plywood sculpture mock-ups (built to actual size) often filled the backyards of his Stanley road house and another on Berkeley Road in Orange that the artist bought in the late 1960s.
The prologue to the Pulitzer-prize winning biography, Jackson Pollock: An American Saga, begins: "I'm going to kill myself." Tony Smith recognized Jackson Pollock's whiskey voice. The late night call was not unusual for Jackson..... With his ample Irish charm he tried to calm the distant voice, but Pollock was inconsolable. "Hold on, " Smith finally said. "I'll be out." He put down the phone and drove off into the might..." (4)
The book inspired Ed Harris to adapt the biography into the 2000 film, Pollock, in which John Heard portrayed Tony Smith.
Today Smith's work can be seen in the nation's foremost museums, including the lawn at the entrance to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Guggenheim, the Hirshhorn, the Walker Art Center, as well as the New Jersey State Museum, the Newark Museum, the Montclair Art Museum, Hunter College and RIGHT HERE IN SOUTH ORANGE.
Tony Smith's sculpture, TAU, is located in Meadowland Park, along Ridgewood Road, adjacent to South Orange Middle School. In 1961-62, Smith created the original model for TAU, which represents his bold, geometric work from that time. The sculptor often used small cardboard tetrahedrons (three-dimensional triangles or pyramids) to create the models for his pieces, a technique he began to explore while confined during his childhood illness. TAU was probably envisioned in this way, then enlarged and fabricated in steel as are the artist's other monumental sculptures.
To visit TAU and other historic sites in South Orange, see the self-guided tour by Cory Dahn.
- Tony Smith Sculpture Project Website: www.tonysmithsculptureproject.org
- Tony Smith: Architect, Painter, Sculptor, Robert Storr, 1998
- Tracing Tony Smith's Tau, William C. Age, 2004
- Jackson Pollock: An America Saga, Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, 1989.