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On the other hand, this inattention to scale - so much at odds with both the aesthetics of Smith's intimate friend Barnett Newman (who never made a sketch for a painting) and that of the younger Minimalist sculptors for whom overscaling was a way of sidestepping the issue of formal complexity) - confirms that Smith was, as he said himself and as various authors in the catalogue report, a designer at heart (that is, one who believes in a kind of formal Esperanto that can be applied in every context - someone who, for instance, sees no fundamental difference between streamlining the profile of a two-inch cigarette lighter or a 100-story skyscraper).
"This ideal of the 'all-purpose' artist nicely coincided with the notion of the knowledgeable generalist that had been a part of Smith's Catholic upbringing," notes curator Robert Storr in the catalogue. It might also have led to a certain lack of focus, to dispersion and thus uncertainty. Indeed, to explain the stylistic eclecticism of his architecture and painting (much of which was uncovered for the first time in this exhibition) Smith spoke of his "Jesuit training," adding, "I always worked in someone else's style." The modesty of the statement is striking, especially in the Abstract Expressionist context of macho individualism; given Smith's existential doubts, which help account for the relative paucity of his production (compare his output, say, to that of Rothko), the confession produces a chord of sympathy. It should not be forgotten, by the way, that Smith's production as a sculptor, which remains his major achievement, began only late in his career. But the statement about his "Jesuit training" is even more remarkable for its stress on education. Smith was, by all accounts, a spectacular teacher, which might not be entirely unrelated to why so much on view here (particularly his architecture and painting) looks like student work. His desire to verify vague principles of design (learned from D'Arcy Thompson, from Wright, or during his brief study at the New Bauhaus in Chicago) is a characteristic example of the, in many ways, disabling pedagogical curiosity that inspired what is most dated in his production; but in the end, it might also be what is most interesting.