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Tony Smith's monumental sculpture 'Smoke' will not disappear from LACMA; multimillion-dollar purchase finalized

June 18, 2010 |  4:32 pm

Tony Smith Smoke

It's hard to imagine the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's Ahmanson Pavilion without Tony Smith's Smoke--a monumental, multifaceted sculpture that the space was redesigned to showcase. Now, museum visitors don't have to.

The work, which has been on loan from the artist’s estate for more than two years, today belongs to the museum.

LACMA Director Michael Govan confirmed Friday that after several months of intense fundraising efforts, the museum has acquired the work for an undisclosed amount reported to exceed $3 million.

“What I can say is that the sculpture is insured for over $5 million,” Govan said, “but the estate made a significant discount to us because they thought it was a good idea to keep it in Los Angeles.”

“There is no other major Tony Smith on this coast,” Govan added. He described this particular work, which was first built in 1967 and refabricated by the estate in 2005, as “a cornerstone in the transition of sculpture in the mid-1960s from a solid object you move around to something you can move within,” comparing Smith to artists like Dan Flavin and Robert Irwin in that respect.

Kiki Smith, one of Tony Smith's daughters and a celebrated sculptor in her own right (who worked with her father to make the model for "Smoke"), says that she and her sister, Seton, are happy that the sculpture has found a good home. "It seems to function like a heart for the museum," she says.

So why did the acquisition take so long? Govan chalks it up to the “collapse of the economy” in 2008, and a certain amount of inertia because the piece was already on display at LACMA. But word of a competing offer this year gave the museum a renewed sense of urgency. The museum director says that a relatively new trustee from Bel-Air, who prefers to remain anonymous, provided the full funding for acquisition.

Originally built out of plywood instead of metal for cost reasons, Smith's sculpture appeared on the October 13, 1967, cover of Time magazine with the tag line "Sculptor Tony Smith: Art Outgrows the Museum.” In 2005, the 22-foot tall sculpture was re-created by the artist's estate with the same dimensions—45 feet long by 33 feet wide—in painted aluminum. Renzo Piano redesigned the Ahmanson Pavilion in 2007 with the sculpture in mind, and it was installed there in multiple pieces.

Art critic Christopher Knight, writing in The Times in 2008, described it as a dynamic, "shape-shifting" sculpture that appears from one position to “rise on hind legs” and from another “to stretch out like a cat in sunshine.”

Or, as Govan said, sounding much like an art critic himself, “The play between the geometry or predictability of the system and the chaotic experience of the piece is incredible—that’s why it’s one of the most powerful sculptures of the 20th century.”

--Jori Finkel


Photo: Tony Smith's "Smoke" (1967), fabricated in 2005. Courtesy Museum Associates/LACMA

Comments () | Archives (9)

thank God for this.

Please accept a heartfelt thank you to the anonymous trustee from Bel-Air and to the Tony Smith estate for allowing us to continue to enjoy this monumental masterpiece here in Los Angeles.

Yea so in lov with smoke! Glad we get too enjoy forever thank you LACMA.

Question: How many billionaires are on the board at LACMA? Why did it take "intense fundraising efforts" to buy an obviously great artwork that the museum should have acquired the minute it was offered? Three million dollars is a lot of money to most of us but to a cast of billionaire LACMA trustees it's practically nothing. So this article gives me no reason to celebrate, just to doubt once again the current notion of "philanthropy." What was once gifted is now bartered and what was once art is now ONLY commodity and we are always told how much the artwork costs. It's a TONY SMITH Ms. Finkel - could you at least give the readers a few words about one of the great American sculptors of the 60s, place the work historically so general readers will know how important it is for us to have it here in LA?

RMills: 3 million dollars could help the LA schools, cleanup efforts in the gulf, help a startup company to hire people, medical research, endangered species etc. Seems like there are many worthier causes out there other than to get a sculpture that's made after the artist's death. Perhaps those billionaires had other causes in mind (e.g. Bill and Melinda Gates foundation).

Not that I don't love the sculpture...it's perfect in the pavilion...all's well that ends well.

It's an ugly piece. Boring and banal. It should be on a dock somewhere, headed off shore.

Actually artists should be hired by big oil to design drilling platforms. They they would look cooler when they caught fire.

I thought they did a good job designing the rigs offshore Long Beach which look like they belong to the Jetson's TV show.

Govan claims “There is no other major Tony Smith on this coast.” He must be unaware of Smith's "Stinger," in the collection of the Seattle Art Museum, which has been on view at the Olympic Sculpture Park since it opened in 2007.



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