In 1959 the young British painter Richard Smith arrived in New York having won a Harkness Fellowship. He had graduated from the Royal College of Art in 1957 and the scholarship enabled him to live and work in America for two years. Panatella was painted during this period and Smith exhibited the work at his first one-man show at the Green Gallery, New York in 1961.
At the Royal College Smith had been part of a group of artists, later to become known as Pop artists, who sought to engage with post-war urban experience. Young artists, stimulated by the Independent Group's celebration of the mass media, turned to popular culture as a new source of inspiration. In this climate, Smith read Marshal McLuhan's groundbreaking Mechanical Bride, the first book to analyse the impact of mass communications on perception and experience. He also wrote enthusiastic articles on American films, rock and roll and advertising for the Royal College Journal.
However, despite his enthusiasm for popular culture, it was not until he arrived in New York that he began to draw on the motifs and techniques of the mass media in his work. Smith gave his paintings of this period punchy titles such as Revlon and McCalls, thus making explicit reference to well known make-up brands and women's magazines. Panatella is part of this series, the title referring to a popular make of cigar. He also explored the methods employed by film and advertising to maximise visual impact and thus seduce the spectator. In an interview at the time he stated: 'The communication media are a large part of my landscape. My interest is not so much in the message as in the method. There is a multiplicity of messages (smoke these, vote this, ban that), but fewer methods.'(Quoted in Mellor p.130.)
The original inspiration for Panatella was the hexagonal brand logo on the small paper band which encased the cigar, from which the painting takes its name. The single motif is presented as if it were a slightly out of focus close-up and alludes to Smith's interest in photographic advertising techniques. The glowing tobacco and gold colouring referred to the colours of the cigar logo, rather than tones of the natural world. The large scale of the image was likewise intended to evoke the monumental scale of advertising billboards. He has said of the painting: 'It was the largest painting I had made at the time and the image base was probably the smallest being a cigar band.'(Quoted in unpublished Tate interview.) Elsewhere he notes 'the scale of the painting is often physically related to hoardings or cinema screens which never present objects actual size; you could drown in a glass of beer, live in a semi-detached cigarette pack.'(Quoted in Mellor p.130.)
However, despite Smith's deep engagement with popular culture, his exploration of the mass media was always filtered through the lens of his painterly technique. Panatella can also be seen as an abstraction whose monumental and engulfing scale, vigorous brush work, luminous colour and bold two-dimensional forms reveal the extent to which he was influenced by the American colour field painters. In New York Smith saw works by Mark Rothko (1903-1970), Sam Francis (1913-1994) and Franz Kline (1910-1962) at first hand, and he sought to integrate their expressive, painterly concerns with an exploration of the experience of mass culture. Smith's work of this period thus attempts to make connections between 'high' art and popular culture, simultaneously engaging with the contradictory concerns of abstraction and Pop art. It thus differs from the work of his British Pop contemporaries who focused more exclusively on iconic representational images.
David Mellor, The Sixties Art Scene in London, exhibition catalogue, Barbican Art Gallery, London 1993, pp.124-131
Marco Livingstone, Pop Art: A Continuing History, London 1990, pp.109-111
Richard Smith, Seven Exhibitions 1961-1975, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1975