The black figure has always been a subject of entertainment in popular culture, as well as an image to sell things. In some ways, that’s how people relate to us—because they’ve seen us on television.
Summer of 2009
In the Open: Art and Architecture in Public Spaces.
The following is a transcript of the conversation.
Keith Sonnier I think we were at an intersection when we ran into you.
Ned Smyth Yeah, it was like 9W. I mean, who—from my point of view, someone from New York is out on 9W on New Jersey. But, and I had just left my parents home having come back from Colorado and was hitching into the city, and this truck pulled—you guys pulled up and said, “Where ya going?” And when I said, “SoHo,” you guys burst out laughing. Very slowly I began to click who I was in the car with. Which was very impressive.
KS But I do remember the idea came up about a job. And you were saying, “Well, what do you think I should do for a job?” and we both—Dickie and I both looked at each other and said, “Well, why don’t you get a job at Food?”
NS By that spring, you know, all of a sudden I was part of this maybe 40 people community, and that was kind of my art school.
KS Right, and then of course there was 112 Greene Street—that was literally a block or two away—where it became an arena for, especially the artists who are associated directly with Food began to show.
NS And then after Food, working with Gordon, and actually working with Gordon doing splitting and all those other cuttings … but 112, and 112 was also probably my art school in a way, because, um, and something so great about that time, because it wasn’t so commercial, there were so many people just making work that we all worked together.
KS Yes. It was a very collaborative effort.
NS And so I would help Gordon make pieces or I would help Richard Nonas install or Gene Highstein install. George Trakis was there, I don’t think I ever worked with him, but he really kind of impressed me at the time as well.
KS Right. Yeah.
NS But it was a great learning process, and it’s interesting jumping, and I’ll go there before we even get there, to public art.
NS The idea of working with other people was so kind of innate in that period of time—and what’s interesting is when other galleries began to happen, when Holly Solomon opened a gallery
and all of a sudden there was this kind of amazing flowering of galleries there and people who had been showing at 112 went here or here or here, that kind of connectiveness … changed. And it was more competitive—you were with this gallery, that showed new image, or with decoration, or minimal.
KS Right. Right.
NS And all of a sudden, people took sides. But in the beginning it was an amazing open period of people working.
KS Right. Yeah. And I think people were actually talking about the creative process and making work. And that was a very unusual thing to happen.
NS Also, working with Gordon: he, at one point, was supposed to have a show there, and I was doing these kind of architectural two-by-four pieces, and because he was so interested in “an-architecture”, or “anti-“ or “cutting out” architecture, the fact that I was doing architecture, he said, “You know, why don’t you show on my spot?”
NS Which, again, was very much about that time—well, very much about who Gordon is, because he was so giving, but also very much about that time, where people were really kind of supportive and helping, and it wasn’t a competitive thing so much as it was, “Oh let’s put this into the dialogue or this into the talk,” which was great.
KS What were these architectural elements? ’Cause there was this architectural group associated with 112. How did you come to these … this interest in these architectural “façadal” elements and architectural structure? How did those first early cast pieces begin?
NS You know, it’s funny because it took me a long time to even know why I did it.
KS I know, there’s a big unconscious period, same with me, yeah.
NS Yeah, and then, all of a sudden you’re, Oh, oh, oh, oh. But there were a number of things. Big one: growing up with a father who was an art historian—Renaissance art historian—living in Europe for two years, coming back, living in Europe for two years, coming back. So from age—before I was even one—all the way up through, we would go for a year-and-a-half or two. So the kind of urban European Italian landscape was something that was the norm for me. So piazzas, with an object or a fountain or something and then these façades, were kind of deep in my memory system, so … and the idea of stone, everything that I saw, whether it was a cathedral or a museum or a piece of Egyptian sculpture, it was done in stone because if it was ultimate, or supposed to be reverent, the things that lasted were in stone.
KS Well, that’s an element that’s very unique about this early work is that they focus on mass in architecture or architectural mass as opposed to skin architecture which is how we think in terms of contemporary architecture.
NS Big, big thing for me, because it was exactly that—when you walked in—and again, this was like going back to early-kid feelings, intuitive kind of reactions; walking into a Romanesque church, the columns are like this, and the weight, you feel it in your gut, the weight of this thing, and they’re not decorative, and maybe it was this Romanesque, and then it had a beautiful gold dome or something. But um, the idea of real and weight was a big thing for me. I got into … . so that’s one thing. I worked in college summers in the Virgin Islands, uh, construction. And I was working for a concrete company, and we cast concrete. So I had learned all this process down there. I then went out after graduating and worked in Aspen with some Yale architects building houses, and we had to cast kind of footings and the stairs and all kinds of stuff like that. And I got kind of hooked on the kind of alchemy of cement, where you take sand and water and put it together—
KS Cooking, in a way.
NS Cooking, in a way. So, you took these materials and you put them together, and you had this plastic material that would fill any shape, um, which again was kind of magic, and then it would harden into this hard surface. So, and it was contemporary stone—for me to make something in marble or whatever would be—but it was kind of everyday what we used. So that made sense to me. Um, the idea of two-by-fours… so these shows were two-by-fours, cast concrete two-by-fours, that leaned against the wall making a wall or a façade, and then there were two-by-four, uh, arches that would go four feet straight, four foot curve, four feet straight, and that would lean against the two-by-fours and allude to an interior. When I came to New York, Minimalism was the thing that blew me away. So Carl Andre’s pieces on the floor, being on the floor was really important. And Stella black-and-white paintings. So Stella black-and-white paintings really reinforced my idea of these linear two-by-fours, and surfaces.
KS And I also think the kind of color of the cement, the ghost quality of this cooked material, uh, and all the variation, and I’m looking at them now, and still this amazing color gradation of grays through this—
NS And the older these got, most of these were cast in ’73 or something, and I’ve used them and shipped them to Europe and stuff like this. They pick up a patina of just rubbing, which is also kind of amazing. In fact, cement can be super warm. But it was, for me, it was a very, it was a contemporary, lasting material.
KS And it becomes the great material of postmodernism.
NS Postmodernism was about a veneer, and, and quoting details from art history, but it might be out of plastic, or it might be out of—
KS Extruded metal. Glass.
NS Extruded metals, it could be anything. But it wasn’t about the weight of the material.
KS No, it was about the skin.
NS And that’s where I, postmodernist, not the postmodernist idea, but the postmodernist architecture I really didn’t like, because it seemed like a cartoon—it was more like an Oldenberg versus a Serra.
Ned Smyth The idea of a different culture, and you know, you mentioned India as being a big kind of change in your work.
Keith Sonnier Well, first having grown up in America not even thinking of myself as American. Because I was bilingual, and I was from a French settlement in Louisiana, and my grandparents referred to people as Americans, they said, “Oh, there’s an American in town.” So there was a very easy jump to, in fact, my first trip to India, seeing art in a very different non-western context, where the physical realities of life are all there. Like art is used to death; it has food around it; it has—in the temples especially—everybody can move through it at a very pedestrian level and it’s very grand still.
NS And they can throw honey on it and still—
KS —and they anoint it, and do all these kinds of things. Where in the Christian iconographic distance, like the church or even the museum, you’re the spectator and there’s the art. And all of a sudden, this made these ideas become very real, that you could physically have some kind of connection to the work. I mean my first interest in light was what the light felt like on my skin more than what it looked like to be bathed in light. This was the impressive aspect of it. And my first light pieces that I saw were there, seeing light over the rice fields in Louisiana, and you’d see the light coming from miles away, and it would wash the landscape and these attachments to nature and natural material with light changed things very much.
KS But the first light pieces were not neon, they were incandescent light, the first neon piece was a piece that was using neon and cloth and it went off and on, and it created this amazing altered perception of what you’d look at. It was like you looked at an afterimage.
NS Some of it is totally environmental. Because you walk through the whole—
KS Yeah, and the electrical charge becomes very important. It’s about the electrical charge.
NS The idea of when color became space, like in Germany in the hallways, and things like that.
KS Well that’s where the color then shifts to become a volume. And that’s its relationship to architecture again, where you create color as a volume.
NS But see, and I think that that’s something that was going on for me in the early ’70s, is going from that flat façades with objects distributed on the floor to give space to actually making cloistered space, where you’d have an arcade and an arcade and an object that defined the center and doing environments; they weren’t really pieces at that point.
KS They delineated the space.
NS The whole space, the walls and everything else became very much part of the piece. And there was this kind of playing around with environment. All my first pieces were just environments made up of details, um, not necessarily—
KS Yeah, that’s very much what your early pieces are about, I think—
NS And even as I went more decorative, the idea of a reverent space—whether it was like a museum—was reverent, because it’s revering our history and culture and objects we’ve made. Or a church, and I wasn’t religious, but I was dragged to every church in Europe as a kid. You know, you went in there, and you had the painting and the sculpture and the stained glass and the architecture and fabric and furniture, and you had this. As a kid I’d walk in and they were enormous; you had a gut reaction to the whole combination of everything.
KS Granted, you were looking at cathedrals and piazzas, but I think that these works call to mind anthropological sites, like you really sense that it’s some kind of unearthed kind of object in a way too, or some graphic plan or some city plan.
NS Well, it’s very interesting that you say that because it’s very much … . because again, as a kid, you’d be taken to these Roman ruins, and there would just be walls and maybe a pavement floor, and your imagination took over and built these things, or if you went to the Roman forum or something like that.
KS Yeah, and seeing all this tile work too.
NS Yeah, and so as a teenager I worked on excavations, and my job was to clean the mosaics, so you’d see all these texts where they’d all be the same color gray, and you take acid and rub ’em and then slowly these images would come up, which again was kind of wild and kind of exciting. So my transition to public art was really making these spaces that at some point either the art consultant or the architect or the owner of a corporation, or, um, uh GSA or something said, “Well, what would you do to this space?” Rather than ever buying an object. And that was my kind of hook into that. And who knew? I never thought that I would do public work; it wasn’t really in the thing, but slowly … It’s interesting in careers how all of a sudden you start to do this, and that ignites someone to say, “You should do this,” and in a sense I’m sure that the neon took you in a sense that way.
KS Yes, well the neon and the glass definitely did and it’s what led to the public work for me. In a way that you could walk into a space, you literally could walk into the mirrored space. It reflected back; it created voluminous color and this kind of stuff, but I think the thing that changed for both of us in public is that architects and architecture began to address art and artists in a very different way because before the whole issue of public work was to put a work in a place, someplace in a corner, preferably. And to introduce the idea of collaboration once again, between artists and architect, which it did have a very early connection, but a lot of contemporary architects were not interested in collaborating, or having a confrontation of the work to the architecture, and what—why we were both hired I think, as GSA project artists—was that we could in fact collaborate with the architects.
NS So it was really interesting to make the work feel part of the space rather than separate than the space, so that it was all a whole, and if the architecture had a certain power of some sort by placing an object or doing something, you could kind of enhance that power and make it even stronger. Obviously in, say, your airport pieces, there’s real need to go from here to there; it’s about the flow and direction. In a lobby for Prudential Life Insurance’s home offices in Newark, it’s a block-long lobby, and you had to get to find in this block-long lobby where the desk was and where the elevators were. And so all the terrazzo floors were done with a kind of modernist … kind of looks like a modernist painting, but all the movement of the shapes were leading you to a certain thing, which was not probably the norm in making art. It was a kind of an interest and kind of a expansion which I was interested in when you began to get into the public arena.
KS Yeah, getting out of the studio and having to really have the interaction in the public arena, and again changing the artistic arena, because it goes from, you know, church art to the museum to public art and then the arena becomes once again a public participatory sort of action.
NS So, to kind of politically make art instead of for a collector who may like but who also may want to make an investment out of it versus something where people who knew nothing about art passed through and then it becomes part of their daily life. That politics was really interesting for me to go into that. But it has its drawbacks.
KS Well, it’s interesting that we both eventually go back to studio work. And I think that the important thing about studio work is that it creates the form language to continue to work in a lot of different directions, because if you don’t readdress your form language you end up making the same thing all the time.
NS And that’s also what was exciting about public work, because if you worked for a, or if I worked for a science, a marine science department of Florida or something, all of a sudden there’s all of this new imagery and fascinating new stuff to get into.
KS Yeah, all of a sudden there was a thematic sort of direction.
NS Yet, the downside of it is that it’s exciting and you’re getting new information, but you’re always solving this problem, and using this information and that, and you’re not doing your own kind of formal continuum of your own work.
KS Well, there is a thing about the daily process in the studio; a lot of us don’t have the luxury—especially sculptors—to have that daily studio process. We have a lot of orchestration to do before we can get to the point to do the making. And so that, the studio, does reintroduce that introspective, meditative sort of state to where you can begin to look at those things.
NS After 25 years of just doing big pieces, I really missed that intense study or fast movement of developing something. And I also missed the dialogue, which was surprising to me, at the gallery itself.
KS Right. I think that’s what’s so exciting about the new body of work that you’re doing now, is that it reintroduced that introspective sort of search for that element that really began in the early work.
Keith Sonnier These new works have an almost Paleolithic-tool element, which is pre-architecture, and it goes beyond architecture now, this new work, to the earliest sorts of tactability to material to place to placement and to the human body.
Ned Smyth My work was so focused on Judeo-Christian kind of tradition of some sort, and it took me many years to kind of get that off my back. The underlying essence of what all that work was about I’m still totally connected to. It was always kind of culture and nature, the balance between those two. But now, I’ve been able to—and it’s kind of a liberation—to use as you say, this sort of natural material that can go prehistoric, prehistory, but can also allude to history and things like that. All these things are natural-stone objects that have been broken off of a mountain, been carried by a glacier millions of years, deposited at the marine, washed with waves and sand, and shaped. And by looking and picking up these things there, some really relate to history: Asian history, western history, but also that paleolithic quality. So it’s nature, but still when you blow it up or make it, it still has that kind of cultural reverence. So you can play with culture in that, but another thing I think of is that I was kind of focused on: that sort of European tradition, where we came from, which wasn’t here, and now, with these stones, it’s like focusing. It’s American, you know? America is like the Grand Canyon. That’s the cathedral, that’s the—
KS You see, I think it’s interesting that you’re doing more trips, or now focusing on these natural sites.
NS The American kind of reverent space, or mystical space or whatever you want to call it, but overwhelming awe of scale and mass. Also, politically or economically, it’s such a pure, it’s almost like arte povera that all these things can be incredibly classic and sophisticated but it’s just made totally by ice and sand and water.
KS Now with these pieces you want to be in a physical proximity to the work. You want to physically sense the density of the object.
NS And it’s real. It’s not even the alchemy anymore. The alchemy that happened in that rock happened millions and millions years ago, when these things came up.
KS Yes, and that’s the psychological baggage behind these.
NS And the sense of time in these is an enormous sense of time.
KS It’s interesting, this new work, leaving the city, took a long time to unload the city, leaving in a sense the South Fork, the Hamptons, and coming to Shelter Island, kind of isolated me more, and up came again this whole new body of work, which is kind of a continuum of all the information. However, it’s very much like me going to New York for the first time, and coming to SoHo, where you have these kind of ideas; you’re not really sure at that point what they are, but people react to them, and you react to it, and it could go, it could have so much potential of going this way or that way, so I feel kind of lucky in a sense to be developing this new vocabulary.
KS But I think that all of your experiences—and this is the thing I think about being an artist—is that it’s your form language, which is a composite of all of these things, psychological, scientific, that, and your education, that make your form language viable. Remaining an artist is the hard part; as we all know, it’s sustaining creative energy while there’s not a lot happening. So for both of us in a way, because we’re older artists, we’ve had to go through many things and then still continue to work.
NS Philip Guston was totally accepted as an abstract painter, and then stopped being an abstract painter and then did these almost cartoon-like paintings. But the paintings still had all that he’d learned in abstract and color, and quality and everything. Or Sonny Rollins, who was very a very hip saxophone player, and famous, and then dropped out of the jazz world and was playing under the Williamsburg Bridge and then he kind of developed a whole new sound. He was searching. I think his was kind of a religious kind of thing, in a reaction to commercialism in the music business. And then he came back with a whole new sound. And that kind of thing has always intrigued me, and it’s really, in a sense, you’re lucky in a career if you can do that. Most everyone’s career goes up and down; you have highs you have lows, or, you know, Louise Bourgeois, who made work, showed, but no one really took seriously until her—until ’65 or something?
It is amazing, but on a certain level I really kind of believe in all that kind of stuff, because on a certain level Gordon was really my entree into New York, and really learned what it was to be a sculptor. You know, for me, a kid, and working with him, and cutting in the Bronx, I just learned a lot from that. And then I left New York, went to Sag Harbor, and at the end of my street is a graveyard, and I used to walk my dog there all the time. And one evening I’m walking around and there’s this new stone with all these pebbles on it, and I go, That’s a new one. And I go up, and it’s Gordon Matta-Clark and his brother and his mother. And I just thought, you know, full circle again! Because here’s the guy who brought me in and now he’s right there on my street. Which was again an amazing kind of cyclical thing.
Though Ned Smyth is best known for his public art projects, his studio work has been highly acclaimed since he began showing in the 1970s. He continues to produce both public and studio work today. His forthcoming public project, The Next Generation, will be installed at Lehman College in the Bronx. His recent show at Salomon Contemporary featured primal, found objects—such as stones, twigs and cast concrete—composed for private spaces.
Fellow sculptor Keith Sonnier, known for his work with neon, visited Smyth at his Shelter Island studio early last summer. The two discussed their early days as artists in the SOHO scene in the ‘70s as well as the development of, and tension between, their public and studio art.
In the Open: Art and Architecture in Public Spaces is sponsored by Cary Brown-Epstein + Steven Epstein and with public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts, a State agency.
The black figure has always been a subject of entertainment in popular culture, as well as an image to sell things. In some ways, that’s how people relate to us—because they’ve seen us on television.