Richard Smith



Not on display

Richard Smith 1931–2016
PVA paint on canvas
Object: 1826 × 2772 × 1140 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 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

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Display caption

Richard Smith began his career making gestural abstract paintings inspired by the work of American artists such as Willem de Kooning. Following a visit to New York in the early 1960s, he found a new source of imagery in the packaging and advertising of cigarettes. In works such as this, the rectangular projecting form derives from the shape of the packet and the repeated circular motifs from the cigarettes tightly arrayed inside. In this way Smith established a form of abstract art that referred to sources in popular culture and the visual languages of the modern world.

Gallery label, November 2016

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Catalogue entry

T02003 PIANO 1963

Not inscribed
Oil on canvas in two sections, overall dimensions 71 3/4×109 3/16×44 7/8 (182.5×277×144)
Purchased from the artist (Grant-in-Aid) 1975
Exh: Richard Smith, Kasmin Ltd, November–December 1963 (unnumbered, repr. on exhibition announcement); London: The New Scene, Walker Art Centre, Minneapolis, February–March 1965 (64, repr. p.25), and tour: Washington Gallery of Modern Art, Washington D.C., Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, Mass., Seattle Art Museum Pavilion, Vancouver Art Gallery; 1966: Art Gallery of Toronto, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa; Richard Smith, Whitechapel Art Gallery, May 1966 (28, repr.); Richard Smith, Jewish Museum, New York, March–May 1968 (3, repr.); Richard Smith: Seven Exhibitions 1961–75, Tate Gallery, August–September 1975 (18, repr. p.55, in colour p.5), and in ‘broadsheet’ Richard Smith); Pop Art in England, Kunstverein, Hamburg, February–March 1976 (75, repr. 120), Städt Galerie im Lenbachhaus, Munich, City Art Gallery, York
Lit: Jules Goddard ‘Richard Smith’, Isis, 7 March 1964, pp.16–17, repr. p.17; Lucy R. Lippard, ‘Richard Smith, Conversations with the artist’, Art International, VIII, 9, 1964, pp.31–4, repr. p.33; Barbara Rose, Introduction to Seven Exhibitions 1961–75, Tate Gallery 1975; Barbara Rose, ‘An interview with Richard Smith’ Studio International, CXC, 1975 pp.165–7

‘Piano’, like ‘Gift Wrap’ T02004, was made in the artist's studio in 13 Bath Street, London E.C.1. The stretchers were designed and ordered at the same time, and the artist was unable to remember whether one was made before the other. Maquettes, but no drawings, were made for each work. These were not measured in any way, but were essential for the planning of the picture when it was impossible to experiment on the canvas itself. The maquettes indicated both colour and line as well as the form of the construction. Smith used a cardboard box from a pack of Winsor and Newton oil colours (box for three No.14, 37cc tubes, 3 1/4×4 1/2×1 1/4 in.), as the basic module to cut up in order to make each maquette. ‘Piano’ and ‘Gift Wrap’ are each made of two parts bolted together through the stretchers. Each part is made of ‘separate keyed stretchers, real stretcher corners, even with bizarre angles’ (Studio International, op. cit).

The series of works which includes ‘Piano’ and ‘Gift Wrap’ is not large, and includes ‘Re-Place’ (Southampton Art Gallery), 'Surfacing, and ‘Alpine’. These works are characterised by their use of three-dimensional box-shaped protrusions from the canvas, and were the first three-dimensional works the artist made. They were preceded by flat canvases with rectangular shapes and by flat canvases with ‘extensions’ of flat parallelogram-shaped canvas giving the illusionistic impression of rectangular forms. Some of these works were also shown in the 1963 Kasmin exhibition and include ‘Staggerlee’ (National Museum of Wales), ‘Fleetwood’ (private collection, London), ‘Pagoda’ (private collection) and ‘Vista’ (Tate Gallery, T00855). The three dimensional works were a logical progression from the works with extensions. ‘But at the same time, in “Fleetwood”, as in “Pagoda” or “Vista”, for instance, with these rectangular-canvases-plus-extensions, I felt that there could be another extension or amplification: three-dimensional, which would then enter the real world, come out into the spectator's space, and be unconfusedly a box’ (Dialogue with the artist in Whitechapel Art Gallery Richard Smith catalogue, 1966).

The ‘box’ works were unstable, and the stretchers complicated and unwieldy. The relationship with sculpture seems to have been unsatisfactory, and Smith emphasised the importance of the works as paintings: ‘Since I have always retained a wall, there is no question at all of a multi-faceted sculptural object’ (Whitechapel op. cit). After these ‘box’ works, he changed the format of his extended canvases so that each work had a continuous unbroken surface.

‘Piano’ was so called because it was ‘about the size of a piano’ (conversation with the compiler, 15 July 1976). It was given the title after it was complete, and although the fact that there was a lot of black in it and it had rectangular shapes coming forward in a way similar to piano keys helped contribute to the title, it was the scale that was more influential. The artist said: ‘It was rather like a grand piano in its room-fillingness’ (15 July 1976). All the works in this series related to imagery from everyday life, but the box itself was the dominant source. Some of the earlier works had shown the shadow cast by a box in the shape of the flat extension. The three-dimensional works showed a box, or in this case a succession of boxes.

Lucy Lippard, (op. cit) has taken the black circles to indicate the ends of cigarettes, and thus the whole as a series of cigarette packets. ‘I have tried to keep them close to the sensibility, ethos almost, of objects and themes in present-day life (like boxes) rather than reconstructing the objects themselves or painting collages of them’ (Whitechapel op. cit). The artist confirmed that he was very interested at this time in making many layers of physical and conceptual illusion. The illusions and allusions referred both to the shape of a canvas and to the scale of imagery found in advertisements on hoardings. The scale was an important part of the work. In using a maquette made from a small cardboard carton, Smith was making a large transformation of scale; making monumental, things which were very slight. The contact with the floor contributes to the feeling of size. With the exception of the ‘Place’ installation, ICA, 1959, ‘Piano’ and ‘Re-Place’ were the first paintings where the canvas rested on, or was in contact with, the floor.

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

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