OOSI Sculpture

Spitball

1961 / Tony Smith / Cleveland

Spitball2017a.jpg

One of the most recognizable structures at CWRU, Tony Smith’s Spitball is somewhat of a gentle giant. It is one of Smith’s earlier monumental works and in the book “Not an Object, Not a Monument” written by his daughters Kiki and Seton, Smith describes (in a somewhat cryptic manner) his process for realizing Spitball:

“This is based on one of the earliest exercises with the tetrahedron. I didn’t set out to make a large triangular pyramid from a lot of small ones. Looking at the model for another piece, I made some adjustments in my head… The plaster models having disappeared, a new model was prepared form flimsy paper units. This was carried off by the curator at Hartford, probably on the grounds that [no model] would be needed for executing such a simple piece. I did make another model, but in my haste left off a whole layer of units. The final product is perhaps too plain to stand for something that has been outlawed.”

As he broke apart and reformed shapes and models, Smith broke apart and reformed the world of Minimalist sculpture. He treated material and atmosphere as if they were governed by the same forces. Probably his greatest talent was being able to fracture and reassemble forms and materials to completely morph the atmosphere around a piece. Robert Motherwell once described Smith uniquely as being able to “turn surrounding buildings of whatever order into Hollywood stage sets.” He continues to say that the “monumental ‘simplicity’ of Smith’s sculpture is the reduction of essences of a complex mind;” a possible reflection of his Abstract Expressionist upbringing. Smith’s background in architecture under Frank Lloyd Wright informed his keen understanding of human scale and public space. It was this expert insight into how art and structure shapes a space that threw so many of his peers for a loop. Robert Morris, curious about the scale of Smith’s Die (a 6 ft x 6 ft x 6 ft cube), asked Smith why he didn’t “make it larger so that it would loom over the observer?” Smith responded “I was not making a monument.” Then Morris asked “Why didn’t you make it smaller so that the observer could see over the top?” to which Smith replied, “I was not making an object.” Neither monuments, nor simple objects Smith’s pieces strike a perfect balance of imposing and inviting. His works coexist with the viewer instead of using their size to either display power or submission.

Spitball is a deceptively complex work of art. Its outer faces define the tetrahedron and are angled such that they reflect any incoming light. However, the inner faces absorb any of that light, resulting in a piece that frames itself with light no matter where it is viewed from. Similar to Tacha’s Twist or Isamu Noguchi’s Portal Downtown, the shape of Spitball changes radically as the viewer circles around it. At some points the piece even has an open center, surrounded by a deep black, all enveloped in the bright reflections on the outer faces. This Spitball is the second of three originals in the world made by Smith. The other two are in the Menil Gallery in Houston and the Baltimore Museum of Art respectively.

For many, Smith’s name is not as recognizable as the names of some of his drinking buddies, such as Jackson Pollock or Mark Rothko: both of whom were Abstract Expressionists. But this does not mean that Smith had any less an impact on the Minimalist movement. Similar to Bladen, Smith started his artistic career painting large Abstract Expressionist canvases, which influenced his Minimalist sculpture. Though considered to be one of the leaders of the Minimalist movement, he was heavily influenced by his Expressionist background and imbued his work with a pervasive sense of human intuition.

Spitball is an incredibly disrespected and underappreciated piece of sculpture where it is located, suffering almost constant vandalism. Students and Student Groups like to use Spitball as a billboard to advertise their events in chalk, which I consider a complete shame.

When the piece first started being used as a billboard, Harvey Buchannan sent letters to professors and faculty pleading that one of the earliest monumental sculptures from one of the premier Minimalist artists be kept safe. After all, Spitball was valued at “over three quarters of a million dollars” in a letter from Buchannan from the eighties (which, adjusted for inflation comes out to around $2,098,162). The biggest problem with the chalk vandalism is relatively convoluted. The chalk itself is not causing any harm to the work (other than being disrespectful to the artist, who, had he wished for his piece to be covered in chalk, would have covered it himself), rather the constant washing off for reapplication of chalk by unqualified students/groundskeepers is wreaking havoc on the sculptures structure and paint. A sculpture like Smith’s is meant to be able to withstand rain and intermittent cleanings done by professionals. The Putnam Collection plans on undertaking a major restorative effort in the near future.

Location: Beween MLK Blvd. and Adelbert Rd. near Bingham Building, Off of Euclid Avenue

County

: Cuyahoga

Citation

: Tony Smith, “Spitball,” Ohio Outdoor Sculpture Inventory, accessed December 15, 2017, http://oosi.sculpturecenter.org/items/show/218.

Dublin Core

Title

Spitball

Description

One of the most recognizable structures at CWRU, Tony Smith’s Spitball is somewhat of a gentle giant. It is one of Smith’s earlier monumental works and in the book “Not an Object, Not a Monument” written by his daughters Kiki and Seton, Smith describes (in a somewhat cryptic manner) his process for realizing Spitball:

“This is based on one of the earliest exercises with the tetrahedron. I didn’t set out to make a large triangular pyramid from a lot of small ones. Looking at the model for another piece, I made some adjustments in my head… The plaster models having disappeared, a new model was prepared form flimsy paper units. This was carried off by the curator at Hartford, probably on the grounds that [no model] would be needed for executing such a simple piece. I did make another model, but in my haste left off a whole layer of units. The final product is perhaps too plain to stand for something that has been outlawed.”

As he broke apart and reformed shapes and models, Smith broke apart and reformed the world of Minimalist sculpture. He treated material and atmosphere as if they were governed by the same forces. Probably his greatest talent was being able to fracture and reassemble forms and materials to completely morph the atmosphere around a piece. Robert Motherwell once described Smith uniquely as being able to “turn surrounding buildings of whatever order into Hollywood stage sets.” He continues to say that the “monumental ‘simplicity’ of Smith’s sculpture is the reduction of essences of a complex mind;” a possible reflection of his Abstract Expressionist upbringing. Smith’s background in architecture under Frank Lloyd Wright informed his keen understanding of human scale and public space. It was this expert insight into how art and structure shapes a space that threw so many of his peers for a loop. Robert Morris, curious about the scale of Smith’s Die (a 6 ft x 6 ft x 6 ft cube), asked Smith why he didn’t “make it larger so that it would loom over the observer?” Smith responded “I was not making a monument.” Then Morris asked “Why didn’t you make it smaller so that the observer could see over the top?” to which Smith replied, “I was not making an object.” Neither monuments, nor simple objects Smith’s pieces strike a perfect balance of imposing and inviting. His works coexist with the viewer instead of using their size to either display power or submission.

Spitball is a deceptively complex work of art. Its outer faces define the tetrahedron and are angled such that they reflect any incoming light. However, the inner faces absorb any of that light, resulting in a piece that frames itself with light no matter where it is viewed from. Similar to Tacha’s Twist or Isamu Noguchi’s Portal Downtown, the shape of Spitball changes radically as the viewer circles around it. At some points the piece even has an open center, surrounded by a deep black, all enveloped in the bright reflections on the outer faces. This Spitball is the second of three originals in the world made by Smith. The other two are in the Menil Gallery in Houston and the Baltimore Museum of Art respectively.

For many, Smith’s name is not as recognizable as the names of some of his drinking buddies, such as Jackson Pollock or Mark Rothko: both of whom were Abstract Expressionists. But this does not mean that Smith had any less an impact on the Minimalist movement. Similar to Bladen, Smith started his artistic career painting large Abstract Expressionist canvases, which influenced his Minimalist sculpture. Though considered to be one of the leaders of the Minimalist movement, he was heavily influenced by his Expressionist background and imbued his work with a pervasive sense of human intuition.

Spitball is an incredibly disrespected and underappreciated piece of sculpture where it is located, suffering almost constant vandalism. Students and Student Groups like to use Spitball as a billboard to advertise their events in chalk, which I consider a complete shame.

When the piece first started being used as a billboard, Harvey Buchannan sent letters to professors and faculty pleading that one of the earliest monumental sculptures from one of the premier Minimalist artists be kept safe. After all, Spitball was valued at “over three quarters of a million dollars” in a letter from Buchannan from the eighties (which, adjusted for inflation comes out to around $2,098,162). The biggest problem with the chalk vandalism is relatively convoluted. The chalk itself is not causing any harm to the work (other than being disrespectful to the artist, who, had he wished for his piece to be covered in chalk, would have covered it himself), rather the constant washing off for reapplication of chalk by unqualified students/groundskeepers is wreaking havoc on the sculptures structure and paint. A sculpture like Smith’s is meant to be able to withstand rain and intermittent cleanings done by professionals. The Putnam Collection plans on undertaking a major restorative effort in the near future.

Creator

Date

1961

Sculpture Item Type Metadata

Location City

Location County

Location Site

Beween MLK Blvd. and Adelbert Rd. near Bingham Building

Location Street

Off of Euclid Avenue

Creation Date

01/01/1961