Richard Smith

Gift Wrap


Not on display

Richard Smith 1931–2016
Oil paint on canvas
Object: 2019 × 5290 × 800 mm
Purchased 1975


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 Giftwrap and Piano (Tate T002003) 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. Giftwrap is over five metres long and suggests the scale of an advertising hoarding. The title and image are a direct reference to the now discontinued Philip Morris cigarette pack, which incorporated a red oval motif with a segment cut out of it. In an unpublished Tate interview, Smith recalled that it was the only American cigarette pack readily available in British tobacconists and it was the brand that he himself smoked at the time. It thus expresses some of his deep pre-occupation with America and American things (in 1964 he was to emigrate to the United States). In Giftwrap, two three-dimensional boxes burst out of the two-dimensional surface. Painted to resemble cigarette packs, the canvas box constructions rupture painting's conventional flatness, breaking into the real space of the gallery.

Giftwrap, like Piano, was 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 preceded directly to the construction stage without producing drawings. Each work was made of two parts bolted together and then painted in bright artificial colours. Considering the sculptural quality of the works, Smith stated: '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, despite the fact that Smith spoke of Giftwrap and Piano 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 real and the illusory, thus challenging the conventions of painting.

Further Reading:
David Mellor, The Sixties Art Scene in London, exhibition catalogue, Barbican Art Gallery, London 1993, pp.124-128, reproduced (colour) p.128
Marco Livingstone, Pop Art: A Continuing History, London 1990, pp.109-111, reproduced (colour) p.100
Bryan Robertson, Richard Smith Paintings 1958-1966, exhibition catalogue, Whitechapel Art Gallery, London 1966
Richard Smith, Richard Smith, exhibition catalogue, British Pavilion, Venice Biennale, British Council, London 1966

Imogen Cornwall-Jones
October 2001

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Catalogue entry

T02004 GIFT WRAP 1963

Not inscribed

Oil on canvas in three sections, overall dimensions 79 1/8×208 13/16×31 3/4 (202×529×80)

Purchased from the Peter Stuyvesant Foundation Ltd (Knapping Fund) 1975
Coll: Kasmin Ltd; Peter Stuyvesant Foundation
Exh: Richard Smith, Kasmin Ltd., November–December 1963 (unnumbered, repr. on exhibition announcement); Nieuwe Realisten, Haags Gementemuseum, The Hague, June–August 1964 (136, repr. p.41); 5 Young British Artists, XXXIII Venice Biennale, June–October 1966 (British Pavilion 26, repr.); Richard Smith, Jewish Museum, New York, March–May 1968 (4, repr. in colour); Richard Smith, British Pavilion, XXXV Venice Biennale, June–October 1970 (repr., incorrectly dated 1966); Richard Smith: Seven Exhibitions 1961–75, Tate Gallery, August– September 1975 (14, repr. p.51)
Lit: Pierre Rouve, ‘Smith and Space’, Arts Review, XV, 16 November 1963, p.8, repr. Norbert Lynton ‘American Pop Art and Richard Smith’, London Letter, Art International, VIII, 1, 1964, pp.42–3; Jules Goddard 'Richard Smith; Isis, 7 March 1964, pp.16, 17; Lucy R. Lippard ‘Richard Smith; Conversations with the artist’, Art International, VIII, 9, 1964, pp.31–4, repr. p.33; Cyril Barrett, SJ., ‘Richard Smith: Sculptor or Painter?’, Art International, XI, 8, 1967, pp.35–8, repr. p.37

‘Gift Wrap’ was made at the same time as ‘Piano’ and for a general commentary on the construction and sources of these works see under T02003.

The title and image of ‘Gift Wrap’ are a direct reference to the Philip Morris cigarette pack, now discontinued, which had a red oval motif with a segment cut out. Smith remembered (conversation with the compiler 15 July 1976) that it was the only American cigarette readily available at any tobacconist in Britain, and that it was the brand that he smoked at that time. In 1959 he had won a Harkness Fellowship to travel in the United States and spent the next two years there. He returned to Britain in 1961 and taught painting at St Martins School of Art, London, until the end of the summer term in 1963. At the very beginning of 1964 he moved back to New York, emigrating this time. The use and immortalisation of an American cigarette packet (two giant packs in the work) expressed some of his deep pre-occupation with America and things American. Like ‘Piano’, ‘Gift Wrap’ demonstrates Smith's interest in the depiction both of the physical shape of boxes and in the use and meaning of their image. ‘The carton is an incessant theme in present-day civilisation: shops are full of boxes and you see these before you see the goods; they practically stand in for the goods-it is not just a question of labelling and depiction. Everything comes in boxes: you buy boxes when you are shopping, you do not buy visible goods; you don't buy cigarettes, only cartons’ (Dialogue with the artist in Whitechapel Art Gallery Richard Smith catalogue, 1966). The link with advertising material is emphasised by the scale of this work. ‘Gift Wrap’, even more than ‘Piano’, is of billboard scale, being over seventeen feet long and more than six feet high. The work also uses the play between real and depicted shadow, itself part of the illusionism which Smith had been developing in the two-dimensional works of the same year (‘Pagoda’, ‘Staggerlee’, ‘Vista’, and ‘Fleetwood’) and in the other three-dimensional canvases (‘Piano’, ‘Surfacing’ and ‘Re-Place’).

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1974-6: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1978

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