Illustrated companion

In the early sixties Richard Smith's use of sources such as advertising or packaging often led to his being classified as a Pop artist. However, he stresses that the reflection of these sources in his painting is highly abstract, consisting of 'shared scale, colour, texture, almost a shared mati?re, with aspects of the mass media.' The scale of much of Smith's work, as in this case, is a particularly notable feature and he has also commented: 'The scale of a painting is often physically related to the hoardings or cinema screens which never present objects actual size. You could drown in a glass of beer or live in a cigarette pack.' These words have a particular relevance in the case of 'Riverfall', with its evocation, in both title, form and imagery, of water and the idea of falls or rapids descending in a succession of steps. At the same time these references are no more than allusions; misty green surfaces and the stepped relief structure reflect Smith's purely formal preoccupations at the time and he only reluctantly admitted anything more: 'I think green is a very difficult colour to use, but it has tremendous versatility, kind of hidden depths. It has in a way unwanted associations like underwater. If a thing gets that close you can't deny it.' Smith's practice of extending the canvas into three dimensions began in 1967 'as a way of tailoring the canvas shape to the canvas image.' The shape of the canvas thus became, in a way new to painting, a powerful element in the total expression of the artist's subject or motif, and Smith quickly became very fascinated with the possibilities: 'In a way one got seduced for a time by the forms one was making by stretching canvas. These forms were the dominant thing.' In relation to 'Riverfall' Smith has also commented on the relationship of works of this scale to the spectator, which was such an important concern of Situation painters: 'As some of the paintings have got much bigger, part of the experience has to be in walking by, you can't really get it all by standing at the far end of the gallery. They demand a close inspection as the paint incident is only visible close by. I paint very large paintings for a feeling of enclosure, to occupy the total vision and to make the full gesture of the hand visible.' He added that they 'become architectural in scale, rather like some kind of grand facade in a narrow street', an effect enhanced by the relief element which also created a further notable effect of Smith's relief paintings: 'There's something unnerving about a bulky thing suspended on the wall: it can fall'. 'Riverfall' does strongly suggest a wide-screen cinema, or wide hoarding, advertisement featuring landscape and water but Smith has never identified any particular source.

Published in:
Simon Wilson, Tate Gallery: An Illustrated Companion, Tate Gallery, London, revised edition 1991, p.231