<i>Riverfall</i> by Richard Smith (1969) and <i>Hyena Stomp</i> by Frank Stella (1962) in the exhibition <i>Artists' Lives: Speaking of the Kasmin Gallery</i>, Tate Britain, December 2016 - April 2018. Photograph Joe Humphrys. Courtesy Tate.

Presence and metaphor in the work of Richard Smith

Rachel Rose Smith examines the subject matter of Richard Smith’s paintings.

Richard Smith was born in Letchworth, Hertfordshire in 1931. Following national service with the Royal Air Force in Hong Kong, he studied at St Albans School of Art and then, from 1954, the Royal College of Art in London. He taught at Hammersmith College of Art from 1957 and two years later was awarded a prestigious Harkness Fellowship in 1959 by the Commonwealth Fund of New York City. This allowed him to travel to the United States, where he spent several years painting and teaching. His first solo exhibition was held at the Green Gallery, New York, in 1961.

This essay focuses on the first half of Smith’s career, when Smith’s paintings show the growing impact to his work of consumer cultures in Britain and America, especially visual effects used in the advertising and packaging industries. In 1963 he began to create wall-based paintings using irregular shaped canvases. Though these extended outwards from the wall in arrangements of flat segments of stretched canvas, Smith always maintained that he was making paintings (layers of soluble colour on stretched material) rather than sculptures. In 1972 he made his first in a series of ‘kite paintings’. For these the painted canvas was stretched between cords and aluminium, creating softer shapes and contours.

In 1975, when Smith was forty-four, Tate mounted a retrospective exhibition of his work to date. A sentence from the introduction to the accompanying catalogue, written by American art historian Barbara Rose, remains worth considering today. Referring to the new kind of nature to which artists of the 1950s and 1960s were looking, she described the new ‘landscape image’ for them as the whole field of consumer culture. Smith was responding, she wrote, to the ideas that were being constructed visually around brands. She illustrated this point with the example of a metaphor: ‘the soft-focus blur of green in ads for mentholated cigarettes metaphorically equating cool tobacco with the freshness of a spring landscape.’

The visual languages of branded packaging certainly offered a new ‘landscape’ for Smith’s generation of painters and sculptors. Yet Rose’s description helps to explain Smith’s relationship not only with the effects of commercial messaging but also with its processes. Considering her words while listening to the Artists’ Lives recordings (made between 2010 and 2015), it became especially apparent that it might still be helpful to think about Smith’s work in relation to a process of ‘metaphorically equating’ that Rose described. Furthermore, oral descriptions (by Smith and others) in these recorded interviews provide ideal material with which to explore this theme.

Smith’s use of familiar words in his titles often associate his paintings with particular things, whether objects, actions, slogans or otherwise. Titles of three 1961 paintings include, for instance, Chase Manhattan (a banking company), Billboard (an object associated with advertising) and Panatella (a brand of cigar). None of these paintings would be seen by many to represent these subjects in a recognisable way. Yet, whether conceived before or after his paintings were complete, such titles open up Smith’s works to a process of metaphor, as Rose suggests. His works allude to familiar things while not straightforwardly representing them.

In his Artists’ Lives recording, John Kasmin (Smith’s gallerist from 1963) described Smith’s more three-dimensional ‘extended canvases’ in relation to a wider move in his work from representation towards analogy, meaning the creation of particular parallels or likenesses. In his recording Kasmin explained how these painted shapes were ‘no longer merely implied’ but ‘actually projected’ into space. Piano (1963), however, he continued, had not become a piano itself but only showed characteristics of that object: it ‘didn’t look like a piano at all’ but was ‘piano-ish’ in ‘the way it came down on the ground’. A protruding bulk that could be described as a stepped tower of yellow boxes tilting slightly forwards, the word ‘piano’ inspires an appreciation of aspects of the work, including its scale, heaviness, airiness and structure, including its lid-like form. The painting might be ‘piano-ish’ foremost in how it relates to the human form, as a long table-like structure to which a viewer’s stance and form might relate or respond in familiar ways.

Other speakers recorded for Artists’ Lives have discussed how Smith’s work was described during the 1960s as relating to visual strategies of branding and advertising. As part of his own Artists’ Lives recording, curator and art historian Richard Morphet recited diary entries from 1962 written after hearing Smith present at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) in London. Taking place the year before Smith’s three-dimensional canvases were first shown (at Kasmin’s gallery), this event gave Morphet the opportunity to hear Smith talk about his work. In his diary entry Morphet recalled Smith’s description of how his paintings functioned within the busy visual world. They should have initial impact through their presence (a form-grabbing structure, or scale, for example), but should not be taken as representations.

Morphet continued to describe how Smith outlined his love affair with ‘the visual aspect of advertising’. He especially noted the artist’s interest in the impact of double-page spreads, hoardings and juxtapositions of scaled objects. Smith was fascinated, Morphet recalled, with ‘the whole manipulation of images by the ad-man’. A seemingly controversial topic even for the ICA, Morphet’s entry described passionate arguments among the crowd about Smith’s response to this subject matter. However, the artist, he explained, successfully defended the importance of recognising and experimenting with such strategies of visual communication.

Smith understood the strategies of brand messaging and applied them to his own ways of working with abstract colour and form. The results, his artworks, contain formal and verbal references to familiar objects and experiences while not letting such references predominate over the fact that his paintings are primarily impactful compositions of colour, line and shape.

It is not surprising that others have taken note of the importance of scale and physical impact in Smith’s work. In his Artists’ Lives recording former Tate Director Nicholas Serota describes the importance of allowing Smith’s paintings to be experienced in ways that give them the impact of attention-grabbing scale of billboards and brand designs. He particularly remembers the effect of the relationship of scale between Smith’s canvases and Kasmin’s relatively modestly-sized enclosed white space. Serota goes on to suggest, therefore, the power of displaying Smith’s works in places where the viewer is forced to get up close.

Smith himself discussed his appreciation of the ‘fullness’ of imagery he found in advertising campaigns. Using their strategies of manipulation, the appealing, familiar ‘glow’ of advertising itself was, he would say, ‘within the paintings’.

Consistently clear from the recordings is that the ‘glow’ and ‘fullness’ present in Smith’s work of the early 1960s is connected to how they also draw back from the world of advertising and brand design. The richness of Smith’s contribution is most often described in terms of how his works refuse to be read simply as either abstract formal patterns or representations, but constantly move their viewers between the modes of abstraction and signification. The Artists’ Lives recordings by Smith and others are therefore an important part of the body of experiences that can be drawn on further to reveal the vividness of their effects.

Related oral history recordings

Follow the links below to listen to the life story recordings of individuals mentioned in this essay:

Richard SmithHarold Cohen

Many more life story recordings from Artists' Lives and other projects are available on British Library Sounds.

Selected extracts from the exhibition Artists' Lives: Speaking of the Kasmin Gallery (Tate Britain 2016-2018) are also available on British Library Sounds in Curator's Choice.

  • Rachel Rose Smith
  • Rachel Rose Smith is a curator, researcher and lecturer. In 2015 she completed an AHRC-funded collaborative doctorate titled ‘Modern Art Movements and St Ives 1939-49’ (University of York & Tate). From 2015 she was curator of the Heong Gallery at Downing College, Cambridge (2015-2016). The Heong Gallery’s first exhibition Generation Painting 1955-65: British Art from the Collection of Sir Alan Bowness (February-May 2016) included the work of Richard Smith. She has been Assistant Curator of Modern British Art at Tate Britain since November 2016, working most recently on the exhibition Aftermath: Art in the Wake of World War One (June-September 2018).

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.