Joshua P. Smith: A Personal Collection of 20th Century Art
2 November 2018
by David B. Smith: Artist and son of Joshua P. Smith
I am pleased to present this selection of Contemporary 20th Century prints, photographs, paintings, drawings and sculpture acquired between 1975 and 2005, primarily from artists’ galleries, by my father Joshua P. Smith. Joshua was an independent collector who curated highly praised shows such as The 1980s: Prints from the Collection of Joshua P. Smith at the National Gallery of Art, The Photography of Invention: American Pictures of the 1980s at the Smithsonian Museum of American Art, and exhibitions at the Katonah Museum of Art and the Corcoran Gallery of Art. His rigorous research, intuitive eye and deep connections ensured the works he acquired continue to inspire viewers in prestigious museum, university, and corporate and private collections around the world.
My sister Rebecca and I (pictured behind our father in the image above) grew up surrounded by hundreds of classic, eclectic and avant-garde artworks. Hung salon style, these works played off each other in unexpected ways, suggesting conversations among artists working at different times and in different media - conversations Joshua worked to foster and preserve. Fascinated by artistic minds and practices, I majored in Art History at Oberlin College, earned an MFA from Bard College, and became an artist myself. A solo show of my fabric-based works is currently on view at Halsey McKay Gallery in East Hampton, NY, with another upcoming in March 2019 at Geary Contemporary, New York, NY.
My father did not identify as an artist. Rather, he expressed himself through deep consideration, appreciation and understanding of artistic works. His relationship with the art he loved was intimate, as demonstrated by his ability to dutifully organize and highlight threads of meaning and style through movements and over time. He was at his best hanging out with artists in the East Village and hanging shows at the National Gallery of Art.
Below, I will highlight a few works from my father’s collection on offer at Rago Auctions on November 10, with a particular focus on their importance to me, my father, and to their contribution to the conversation within the collection.
Sigmar Polke was Joshua’s favorite artist and this piece was the most significant he acquired - another in the edition was featured in the recent retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Joshua was drawn to the combination of formal experimentation and humor used to confront issues such as trauma, loss and confusion. In this case one potato can be seen as searching for, yet never crossing paths with, another.
One area of specialty for Joshua was Post-War West and East German art. He was drawn to struggle and intense energy. Der Knofel’s works are among the most extreme examples of raw emotion in the collection, but it is common to many works and starkly present in the German Neo-Expressionist works by Antonious Hockelman, Gunter Damisch, A.R. Penck, Franz Hitzler, Arnulf Rainer and Dieter Roth, among others.
Josh loved works that blurred lines, confused you at first glance and had a strong, inventive and almost performative sensibility. Andy Goldsworthy’s works are an example of such. To create this series, the artist would lie down beneath a rainstorm to create an ephemeral document of his body in time and space. The photographs that he took after the storms passed are all that remains; a memory of this fleeting and deceptively powerful moment.
Nikki Lee also used performance to make her photographic projects. By portraying herself in various social groups she speaks to photography’s ability to blur the line between truth and fiction and explores issues of subcultures and identity. My father was often inspired by such conceptual projects; a thread of conceptualism runs through the work of many of his favorite artists, including Robert Heinecken, Kurt Peter Buchwald, Gunther Forg, Hiroshi Sugimoto and Robert Smithson.
The people in William Klein’s iconic documentary photos burst with life and character. His subjects, whether in New York, Paris, Tokyo, Rome and Moscow, often seem to be knowingly performing and controlling their own images. His style translates perfectly to the realm of fashion photography, where he is widely seen as an innovator and influencer.
Lewis Baltz perfected a cool, detached and quiet voice that was central to the New Topographic movement. Far from the streets of the city, Baltz trained his large format camera on new suburban developments, often during construction or before they were occupied. His is a formally stunning criticism into the suburbanization of the American West.
In the 80s, Joshua spent considerable time among the artists and gallerists in the East Village, including Richard Hambleton, who was, at the time, primarily painting dark figures in doorways and on walls. He was an artist that moved away from the spotlight, but whose works have emerged as arresting and powerful creations of the era. Other works in the auction acquired by my father during this time are those by Brian Wood, David Sandlin, Amy Sillman, and Jean Holabird, Tony Towle, and Joseph Nevechtal among others.
Sandback’s work, while seeming quiet at first, contains a crackling energy within the taut and rich lines, making these works some of the most powerful in the collection. Other related works in the collection include those by Bjorn Copeland, Peter Downsbrough, Xylor Jane and Gunter Tuzina.
Gallace’s work is painted with grace and simplicity, yet there is something slightly unsettling under the surface. It’s this mysterious feeling that keeps me coming back to these works - wondering what lies behind the seemingly comfortable facades.