1963 was a year of great innovation for Smith that culminated in his show at the Kasmin Gallery, London. Drawing on both painterly American abstraction and Pop Art, he continued to make large, billboard-like paintings which had a popular, everyday subject and explored the impact of advertising and the media. However, he also began to experiment with the conventions of painting, challenging both its rectangular format and its flatness. In a work such as Vista (Tate T00855), a shaped extension was added to the two-dimensional canvas. In Piano and Giftwrap (Tate T02004) the extensions became three-dimensional. In an interview of 1966 he stated: 'in Fleetwood, as in Pagoda or Vista, for instance, with these rectangular-canvas-plus-extensions, I felt that there could be another kind of … amplification: three-dimensional, which would then enter the real world [and] come out into the spectators space.'(Quoted in Robertson p.12.)

At this time Smith was fascinated with packaging. In an interview he stated: 'The carton is an incessant theme in present day civilisation … everything comes in boxes.'(Quoted in Robertson p.12.) For Smith the most ubiquitous of boxes was the cigarette pack, and in 1962 he had made a film called Trailer which consisted of close-ups of cigarette packets, repeated and seen from different angles. The imagery of the film was the inspiration for many of the works Smith painted in 1963. In the majority an originally small packet is blown up to monumental proportions. In Vista one packet appears to stand behind another, the scale of the boxes increasing so that they seem to zoom towards the viewer in order to grab their attention. Smith mimics the techniques of the advertising industry and the shaped canvas extension is used to enhance this effect. In Piano Smith takes this experimentation one step further. Employing the stepped imagery of the advancing and receding cigarette pack, the zoom effect is no longer simply an illusion. Rather it is actual: the huge three-dimensional canvas projects from the wall into the gallery space to confront the viewer and touch the floor. The illusionistic, perspectival drawing of the cigarette packs is simultaneously actual, the box-shaped, articulated construction projecting outwards into the space of the world.

Piano and Giftwrap were both made in Smith's Bath Street studio in London. First making small maquettes out of cardboard boxes from Windsor and Newton oil colours, he then proceeded directly to the construction stage without producing drawings. Each work was made of two parts bolted together and then painted in bright colours. In Piano the large black dots that cluster about the zooming box projection suggest cigarettes. However, though the image might allude to cigarettes and packaging, Smith named it Piano after it was finished. In an unpublished Tate interview he suggests that the name came from the sheer bulk of the piece. He stated: 'it was rather like a piano in its room fillingness'. Elsewhere, talking about the work's sculptural quality he noted: 'There is something unnerving about a bulky thing that is suspended on the wall: it can fall. A bulky thing that is on the floor is something that's in the way … It was like having a sofa over the mantle piece.'(Quoted in Smith p.2.)

However, in spite of the fact that Smith spoke of Piano and Gitftwrap in apparently sculptural terms, he emphasised their importance as paintings: 'Since I have always retained a wall, there is no question of a multifaceted sculptural object.'(Quoted in Robertson p.13.) Smith was never to go as far as producing completely free standing sculptures, but rather explored the ambiguous area between painting and sculpture, the illusory and the real, thus challenging the conventions of painting.

Further Reading:
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
Bryan Robertson, Richard Smith Paintings 1958-1966, exhibition catalogue, Whitechapel Art Gallery, London 1966, reproduced p.28
Richard Smith, Richard Smith, exhibition catalogue, British Pavilion, Venice Biennale, British Council, London 1966

Imogen Cornwall-Jones
October 2001