Ned Smyth – the subject of a current exhibition at Grounds For Sculpture – says his journey toward becoming a sculptor of major renown reached a critical juncture in 1971 when, as a long-haired 23-year-old hitchhiking from Colorado to New York, he was picked up on Route 9W in New Jersey. The drivers just happened to be postminimalist neon artist Keith Sonnier and saxophonist Dickie Landry, who played for Phillip Glass. When the drivers learned Smyth was also headed to Soho, they dropped him off on West Broadway, but it wasn’t the last they would see of him.
In need of a job, Smyth saw an ad for waiters and bus boys in a Prince Street window. He walked in to apply, and the owner, Carol Gooden, changed the subject: “Can you chop and boil vegetables? Can you make a salad dressing?”
Responding in the affirmative, he was handed the job of assistant chef. Within months he was made chef in chief.
The restaurant was Food, run and staffed by artists. Gooden was the partner of artist Gordon Matta-Clark, and Food become a gathering place for the likes of Robert Rauschenberg, the Mabou Mines theater company, Phillip Glass musicians, and Sonnier and Landry, as well as artists of the 112 Green Street Gallery — an artist-run nonprofit founded by Clark where experimental sculptors, painters, dancers, and musicians collaborated. This, says Smyth, was his art education.
The friendship with Clark blossomed over a shared fascination with “an-architecture” — or architecture cut out. With Clark as a mentor, Smyth would break into abandoned buildings in the South Bronx, hauling power tools and a generator, and cut large, geometrically shaped pieces out of walls and floors, photographing their excavations into the urban landscape. When Clark wasn’t ready for an exhibition slot at 112 Green Street, he offered it to Smyth. Among the works exhibited was a bed and pillow made of stone.
Now “Ned Smyth: Moments of Matter” is on view at Grounds For Sculpture through April 2 and includes stone sculpture, stone collections and assemblages, and manufactured stone forms (fabricated at the nearby Digital Atelier), as well as drawings of stones and large-format photographs of stone — in short, everything an artist can do with stone. In addition, on the upper lever of the Museum Building is a series of cement paintings that have never before been exhibited.
Smyth learned to cast concrete during his summers in college while doing construction work in the Virgin Islands and, later, in Aspen. He compares the process to cooking: “So you took these materials and you put them together, and you had this plastic material that would fill any shape, which was kind of magic, and then it would harden and it was contemporary stone . . . And the older these get, they pick up a patina from rubbing. It was, for me, a very contemporary, lasting material.”
The cement paintings, based on fresco principles, add another layer to his oeuvre, paired with rusted iron balls, cylinders, rods, and torso-like shapes that render them three-dimensional. Completed in 1993, they evolved from the materials — concrete, sand, pigment, adhesive, and lime spray. Smyth calls it “alchemy and random. I was working intuitively.”
“My early work was reverent — these cement paintings are reverent in a prehistoric way.” He says he was “dragged to every church in Europe” with his father, renowned Renaissance scholar, art conservator, and New York University Institute of Fine Arts director Craig Hugh Smyth. The family lived in Europe on and off; Ned was immersed in the world of classical art from his earliest days.
Wandering the exhibit at Grounds For Sculpture, I ruminate about how divine a sculptor nature is, and how respectful Smyth is in honoring it. “Always interested in standing stones, ruins, and stone structures, Smyth began collecting stones primarily from along the shores of Sag Harbor and Shelter Island (New York),” says GFS curator Tom Moran. “Once Smyth started building his studio, he found a forgotten cache of stones that he had previously amassed by the dozens. This stockpile of stones had grown exponentially. Smyth sees our world in these objects. They contain the archaic ‘fingerprints’ of the rolling mass of stones trapped within the ancient glaciers which deposited them throughout the region.”
In 2002 Smyth set the stones, from 35 years of collecting and packed in milk crates, on the studio floor. He stared at them for months and found recurring shapes, themes, and affinities. “Like anyone, you go to the beach and pick up a rock . . . I never thought I had a collection,” he says. “When people visit my house they tell me they collect stones. It’s something that’s innate in all of us.”
The stones are magnificent in their beauty; nothing more need be done to them. If you were a person one inch tall, walking among them would be like walking through Stonehenge or a Paleolithic site, Smyth points out.
Some are arrayed on a large white pedestal and convey peace, strength, wisdom. They suggest classical forms of shape and texture. Some are smooth and round, others are pitted and rough, some are monolithic, some balance in unimaginable ways, and others are sensually cradled within each other. To find the perfect mate — and yet their union seems so perfectly simple.
There are infinite stories these stones tell.
For Smyth, they are a starting point. They have inspired drawings, photographs (six feet high!), paintings, and sculpture. In stone Smyth finds the figure: torsos, wings, portraits, pregnancies. The stones are a form of pre-architecture.
“All these things are natural-stone objects that have been broken off of a mountain, been carried by a glacier millions of years ago, deposited, washed with waves and sand, and shaped,” says Smyth. “And some really relate to history. So it’s nature, but when you blow it up, it still has that kind of cultural reverence.” He mentions the Grand Canyon — “that’s the American cathedral, a kind of reverent space or mystical space whose scale creates overwhelming awe.”
He recounts a dyslexic childhood in the shadow of his super intellectual father who never came to his ball games — the senior Smyth was one of the “Monuments Men” who recovered art stolen by the Nazis. Smyth says he learned to see from his father. After retiring from NYU the senior Smyth served as director of Harvard’s Center for Italian Renaissance Studies in Florence, and the family lived on and off in Italy. Touring Europe as a child, Ned developed a fascination with classical architecture. His father took him on archeological digs. “I really liked climbing on the ruins at that age and all the drama and fantasy that went on.”
At Kenyon College Smyth studied behavioral psychology and probability. “I was a jock, playing semi-pro soccer — my sense of self was as an athlete. Art was my dad’s world.” He had learned soccer on the streets in Rome and was captain of the team at Kenyon. Then he took a class in color theory from a disciple of Josef Albers, met a new group of friends with whom he stayed up until 1 a.m., and discovered, in his senior year, that he could actually major in art. He graduated with high honors in 1970.
After his experiences with Clark and 112 Green Street, Smyth was awarded a public art installation in 1977, a fountain for the Governmental Services Administration in the U.S. Virgin Islands. After showing internationally for 10 years, including at MOMA, the Whitney, the Hirshorn, PS1 in New York City, and the Venice Biennale, Smyth refocused on public art. These architectural environments resemble cloisters and arcades with columns, arches, and portals and suggest spaces for the expression of reverence. The more than 30 large-scale public projects include “Upper Room” (1986), the first art project commissioned for Battery Park City, New York. Made from cast concrete, bluestone, and mosaic, it has the look and feel of an ancient roofless temple, with columns, a table lined with chessboards, an altar-like structure at its center, and a view of the Hudson River.
Additional public work can be found as far as Anchorage and Dublin. Closer to his home are works in New York at Dag Hammarskjold Plaza Sculpture Garden, Wave Hill, the Brooklyn Bridge, and Coney Island. For the New Jersey Transit Light Rail System, his commissions can be seen in Port Imperial, Ramsey, and Weehawken. Another is located in downtown Philadelphia.
Visiting the Louvre as a toddler with his parents, Ned ran ahead to the entrance and, they recounted to him later, fell to his knees. Perhaps it was a gesture he learned visiting so many churches. Though never religious, he knew these were places of reverence. He has spent his career re-creating the awe.
Ned Smyth: Moments of Matter, Grounds For Sculpture, 126 Sculptors Way, Hamilton. Tuesdays through Sundays, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Through Sunday, April 2. $10 to $18. 609-586-0616 or www.groundsforsculpture.org.