Richard Smith



Not on display

Richard Smith 1931–2016
Acrylic paint on canvas, plastic, string and aluminium tubes
Support: 2083 × 1016 mm
Purchased 1973


During the 1960s Richard Smith produced a large body of work which pushed the definition of painting to the limits, exploring the relation between two and three dimensions. In Vista 1963 (T00855), Smith challenged the conventions of easel painting by adding shaped extensions to the rectangular canvas. In subsequent works such as Giftwrap 1963 (T02004), or Riverfall 1969 (T01161), Smith constructed different types of three-dimensional additions that projected into real space, so rupturing the flatness of the picture plane. However, notwithstanding works engagement with the sculptural, Smith always emphasised the importance of his work as painting. A work might project outwards into the space of the world, but it would continue to maintain a relation to the wall. Smith never made fully free-standing, three-dimensional objects.

In the early 1970s Smith's investigation of painting began to take a slightly different direction when the work became less three-dimensional. Continuing to explore the relation between painting and space, he became increasingly concerned with texture and surface. The flatness of painting has its origins in the flatness of the canvas support. Smith followed such a deduction to its logical conclusion, abandoning the conventional stretcher and working with the canvas support itself. In 1966 he had designed a tent for the Aspen Colorado Design Conference. This had led him to think about how it was possible to stretch canvas over rods, as collapsible tents are erected on poles. Dealing with the canvas in this way, he began to work on the so called 'Kite' series, abandoning what he felt to be the excessively bulky, wood stretchers employed in the production of the three-dimensional works. As the name suggests, the works in the new series evoke the two-dimensional structure of kites. Many also suggest a delicate membrane such as skin.

In the first works of the series, Smith stretched canvas over aluminium poles whose presence was indicated by ties on the picture surface. He made subtle play between the painted canvas and interwoven tapes or hanging threads. However, in later works the supports were displayed on the surface rather than concealed on the reverse. In Mandarino the canvas is stretched between three aluminium tubes placed diagonally across the back, and six lying diagonally across the front. Strings run through the tubes in order to attach the poles to the canvas. The canvas edges were left raw, and Smith contrasts the harsh, linear tubes with the soft, silky texture of the orange and pale blue paint. The poles can be compared to drawn lines, as can the taught black string which lies across the front of the image, by which the canvas is attached to the wall. When the picture was placed on the wall, it hung askew. Smith had expected it to hang upright, but he decided to let gravity determine the angle from which it would hang. The work was named Mandarino because when Smith saw it hanging, he was reminded of a Chinese junk sail.

In subsequent works such as the 1973 commission for Mr. Chow's restaurant in Los Angeles, Smith took the kite theme even further. Large black and white canvas disks were hung from the ceiling of the restaurant above the heads of the diners. In such works Smith began to explore the relation between the two-dimensional painted surface and the three-dimensional space of the world, creating layered environmental installations that evoked sails or hanging sheets.

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

Imogen Cornwall-Jones
October 2001

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Catalogue entry

Richard Smith b.1931

T01807 Mandarino 1973

Not inscribed.
Aquatec and Gel Pearl paints on canvas which is tied by string to aluminium tube supports,82 x 40(208·4 x101.6).
Purchased from Garage Art (Grant-in-Aid) 1973.
Exh: Garage Art, November1973 (repr. in colour on front cover of handout; no catalogue numbers).

The style and appearance of ‘Mandarino’ arose from Smith’s belief at the end of 1971 that his paintings had become too bulky and weighty and that the technical problems of making canvases were becoming overriding. Also the progress of painting any picture was often delayed because he had to rely so much on suppliers for stretcher parts. He decided to make his own light-weight stretchers. He tried using aluminium poles and experimented with grid shape stretchers of dowels but they tended to provide over-rigid support. One result of making his own stretchers was that he abandoned the three dimensional shapes for more regular two-dimensional canvases. In Italy, early in 1972, he made a work in which the canvas was simply tied through onto aluminium tubes at the back. The work was not framed and the artist was pleased that the structure was clear and the appearance of the work much more modest than of the preceding paintings. In the paintings which he exhibited at Kasmin, July 1972, all the aluminium tube supports were arranged in a grid-shape behind the canvas, tied through to the front surface and fitted into small pockets on either edge of the painting. Also the comers of the painting were not supported.

Smith subsequently felt that the works were still too elaborate and that he could stretch the whole canvas on fewer supports and could display the supports rather than indicate their presence by ties on the picture surface. He decided that the structure of his paintings should be revealed as far as possible. In many of the paintings he made between July 1972 and his Garage Art show in October 1973, including ‘Mandarino’, he tried to use a minimum number of supports and he placed them diagonally across the front and back of the canvas, right up to the corners of the picture. Smith had found that the technique of slipping the ends of the supports into pockets did not make the canvas sufficiently taut, so he invented the device of strings running through the tube. All the paintings except ‘Mandarino’ hang upright.

In ‘Mandarino’ Smith used aluminium tubes to stretch the canvas, which measures 75 x 37 in., three being placed diagonally lengthwise across the centre of the back of the work and six diagonally across the front. Each tube was fixed to the canvas on either side by a small plastic ring and by a string which was attached to one edge and was run through the tube to tie at the other edge. The canvas edges were left raw and were not supported along their length. Wherever the front and back supports crossed each other they were bound together with string which was knotted at the front of the canvas. The number and position of supports were chosen to ensure that the whole surface of the canvas would be taut even at the edges. After the supports were fixed the front of the canvas was painted, the area within the front supports being a matt orange, and the top and bottom areas outside a pearly green. The artist was concerned that the canvas should not appear like cotton duck but should be transformed by the paint into a silky-like texture which could be subject to close examination. The picture was hung on the wall by a piece of black string—its colour chosen to contrast to the orange and green paint which was attached to the highest and lowest front supports. When the picture was placed on the wall it hung askew. The artist had expected the painting to hang upright, but at an angle because the 90” line from the centre of the front supports did not correspond with the vertical centre of the canvas. He decided to accept the way that the picture happened to hang rather than deliberately seek a way to place it upright.

Many of the aesthetic features of the painting were determined by technical and practical aspects involved in producing the work. However although Smith had initially wanted all the supports to be evident he decided to place the three long supports behind the canvas because to bring them forward would make the front excessively bulky and probably turn the picture into a relief structure. After finishing ‘Mandarino’ he realised that even the position of the supports on the front of the canvas could determine the picture too much and so he decided to place all the supports at the back of the subsequent paintings.

All these recent works look like kites and Smith said that the term ‘kite’ was a satisfactory generic description for their structure, if not their function. He did not think the work ‘construction’ was appropriate. He said that he had long been interested in kites, but the title ‘Mandarino’ was given because on seeing the work hung he was reminded of a Chinese junk sail.

Published in The Tate Gallery Report 1972–1974, London 1975.


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