23 AUGUST 1975, Page 27



John McEiven

In 1959 Dick Smith went to New York. Although he was already twenty-eight, he is in that generation of British artists who did not have to adjust to the prevailing pre-eminence of New York art. They were a new breed: urbanites — Smith comes from Letchworth — who despised the rural and culture-bound traditionalism of their superiors, wanting to celebrate the modern, 'urban experience of' the majority. instead. Even the few older artists they did admire tended to move out of town .and become 'ungetatable,' as Lawrence Alloway put it, as soon as they became acceptable to the Establishment, Bacon notably excluded, of course.

For Smith, America was new and lobe enjoyed: another aspect of the urban attitude was a lack of puritanism and snootiness when confronted with 'popular' culture. Smith stayed in New York two years till his visa ran out and then returned for a further spell from 1963 to 1965. His example of actually working in New York had an inspiring effect on his London contemporaries.

In his present Tate exhibition (till September 28) — a reassembly of his six most important one-man shows to date plus some new work — it is the most American-derived pieces which seem best to exemplify this spunkiness. Their colours are bright, their movement carefree And their titles uncompromising:

'McCalls,"Revlon,"Billboard' (brickwbrk along the bottom), etc. That was the Green Gallery show in New York, 1961. Oldenburg showed there, too. The mood continues even more audaciously in the next room, a reassembly of the Kasmin 1963 show. 'Gift Wrap' is a cinemascope-size horizontal piece about twenty feet long (no dimensions given in' the £3.50 and largely black-and-white catalogue) with two huge cartons jutting from it. It's highlighted by scarlet, white and a sharp green, and looks startling even now. Elsewhere in the same show were other box shapes: 'Piano' looking a bit knocked about, but still awkward with the cumbersome raised rectangle pretending to rest on the floor; and 'Staggerlee' ("Was downtown having some loving fun"), a beautiful, shaped painting, hardly finished, seems to have been done with such exuberance. And from then on a slow decline, or perhaps a long period of cud-chewing. The Kasmin show of 1967, for instance, chic edging, creeping in, looked faded and dirty, like something brought down from the attic. If this was the fault of fading, and flawless acrylic, or warping stretchers, it nonetheless gave it a modish look, stuck in its time. The one exception, 'Riverfall' 1969 was quite rightly snapped up by the Tate when it first appeared, but its beautiful paintwork does not seem to have been attempted again. And that was that. Why?

In `Pagoda' 1963, there's a vivid blue band painted across the lower part of the picture which gives the optical illusion of swelling up from the surface, very much in the way Smith actually swelled his canvases later on. Smith's work has always displayed an obsession with cross reference, spatial illusion and other puzzlements which seem in danger of swamping his latest work altogether. The figurative element round which his best work always seems to skirt closely, has vanish-ed. Perhaps his prints and drawings retrospective at Gimpel Fils (till August 30) give the clearest view of his constant preoccupation with the minutiae of craftsmanship.

Craft tends to set up the problems it solves: the string becomes a line, the line becomes a rod, the rod becomes the stretcher and so on. There are milberry papers, tracing paper, codatrace (dimensionally stable, don't forget), Barcham Green's Waterleaf, or some equally opulent equivalent, and many other papers and combinations and allusions and illusions. He's not the son 'of a printer for nothing. But it's a dangerous development, even in someone so exceptionally prolific.

Artists, particularly English ones, . seem to have a habit of digesting and assimilating. And then, having rid themselves of the grist of their philosophy, they turn happily to

• the endless distractions of technique, and so to tastefulness. Abstract art is particularly prone to wash up on these rocks. Dick Smith ought to get his oars out. He condemned taste once. And seemed very much on the side of those who lamented successful artists retiring to Wiltshire and becoming 'ungetatable.' And then I see that in 1971 he got the CBE. Now what would the Duke of Bacon say, or young Dick Smith, come to that?