A Sculpture Like No Other: Tony Smith’s “Fermi” at the Center Club

Tony Smith's - Fermi -Hallway

Located just off the elevator on the ground floor of the Center Club at Segerstrom Center for the Arts, is an unusual sculpture by the artist, Tony Smith. The artist’s choice of material for this work is highly unusual for him, as sharp-edged black metal was ordinarily his preferred medium.  But at the Center Club, we find a solid block of white Carrera marble, smooth and cool in its pristine craftsmanship, penetrated with regular circular negative spaces. The sculpture is called Fermi. Tony Smith (1912-1980) made it in 1975 and it was immediately acquired by Henry T. Segerstrom for his public art collection.

Tony Smith's FERMI

Smith explained that the title, Fermi references Enrico Fermi, the physicist who investigated the quantum theory and discovered that within an atom, the nuclear transformation could occur in nearly every element. One atom of an element he split was uranium. This work led to the discovery of the ability to slow down neutrons, which led to nuclear fission and the production of new elements beyond the traditional Periodic Table.  Fermi was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for this discovery in1938. Smith’s Fermi presents negative space balls as enormously magnified particles of the atom. Solid bonds of marble connect the negative balls that penetrate this modular, highly symmetrical block of stone.

Since 1960, Smith continually used a fluid and self-generating network of sculpture based on the concept of a continuous three-dimensional space-lattice and a standard tetrahedral (and octahedral) module. However, with Fermi, Smith directs the viewer to consider the complex structure of nature while offering up a form that can also be appreciated for its uncomplicated and crisp elegance. He was exploring physical phenomena like momentum, velocity, weight, and counterweight in Fermi and was able to manipulate these ideas and bring them together in the sculpture. Weight and volume have been explored by most sculptors since the beginning of the art form. Modernists sculptors experimented with these concepts by assembling them or reconstructing them, but Smith recognized weight and volume by changing it into pure mass. In Fermi, he takes the mass and penetrates its volume with negative space. Empty, weightless space.

Smith shied away from referring to his three-dimensional works as sculptures, instead calling them “presences.” He is often cited as the leading sculptor of the Proto-Minimalist wing of Abstract Expressionism, a practice of sculpture where primary forms can be understood in their entirety without having to walk around them to see all sides. A total gestalt viewed from one position.

Die, 1962. Painted steel, 6 x 6 x 6 feet
Die, 1962. Painted steel, 6 x 6 x 6 feet

All the sculptures Smith made were enriched by the complexity of his background as an architect and painter and his knowledge of a sophisticated geometry related to crystallographic structures, and in the case of Fermi, atomic particles.

We Lost 1962 Steel, painted black 128 x 128 x 128 inches
We Lost 1962 Steel, painted black 128 x 128 x 128 inches

Smith made more than fifty large-scale sculptures in the final two decades of his life. With their geometric forms and distinct black finish, they represent one of the supreme achievements in American sculpture. Smith studied painting and architecture in the 1930s before turning to architecture full time in the 1940s. It was not until the late1950s that he began to make sculpture. His first one-person exhibition was in 1966, the same year his work was included in Primary Structures at the Jewish Museum in New York, one of the most important exhibitions of the 1960s.

Smith’s unique vision has had a profound influence on subsequent generations. In1998, the Museum of Modern Art in New York mounted a major retrospective of his sculpture, architecture, and painting. A European retrospective followed in 2002, arranged by IVAM in Valencia, Spain, and in 2010 the Menil Collection, Houston, organized a retrospective of his works on paper. In 2012, institutions around the world celebrated Smith’s 100th birthday with special exhibitions, including an outdoor installation in New York’s Bryant Park.

Generation 1965 Aluminum, painted black 407 x 443 x 443 inches
Generation 1965 Aluminum, painted black 407 x 443 x 443 inches

Smith’s work is included in leading international collections such as the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC; the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Menil Collection, Houston; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebaek, Denmark; and the Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterloo, Netherlands. And more recently, the Los Angeles County Art Museum, presented an exhibition of his iconic work Smoke, one of the largest sculptures conceived by Smith and the largest ever conceived for an interior space.  This exhibition opened February 26, 2017 and closed on July 2, 2017. Thanks to the critical eye of Henry Segerstrom, Segerstrom Center for the Arts has on permanent view one of the most remarkable atypical sculptures by Tony Smith.

 

Center Club Hours:
Monday: 7 a.m. – 7 p.m.
Tuesday – Thursday: 7 a.m. – 10 p.m.
Friday: 7 a.m. – 11 p.m.
Saturday: 5 – 11 p.m.
Sunday: Closed

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Bonnie Rychlak
Bonnie Rychlak

Bonnie Rychlak is an artist, curator and museum consultant. She is the former curator and studio assistant for Isamu Noguchi, his museum, and foundation. As an artist, Rychlak has presented her work in numerous solo and group exhibitions. She received a grant from National Endowment for the Visual Arts, a fellowship from the Rockefeller Foundation at the Bellagio Study Center, and The Prix de Rome from the American Academy in Rome. Most recently she received a residency at the Bogliasco Foundation in Italy.

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