Smith, George, (Nommo)
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George Smith earned a BFA degree in sculpture from the San Francisco Art Institute and an MA degree from Hunter College, CUNY where he studied with Tony Smith. He was awarded many fellowships and grants including a Guggenheim Fellowship, a National Endowment Individual Grant and a National Endowment Planning Grant, two New York State Council on the Arts Creative Artist Public Service Grant (CAPS) and two Cultural Arts Council of Houston Grants. Professor Smith’s sculptures have been exhibited in galleries and museums throughout the United States including the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Studio Museum of Harlem. Among his many permanent sculptural commissions are Lubben Plaza for the A.H. Belo Foundation in Dallas, Texas and the Niagara Frontier Transit Authority in Buffalo New York and the Metropolitan Rapid Transportation Authority in Atlanta, Georgia. His work is also represented in the permanent collections of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and The Menil Collection, Houston, Texas.
George Smith’s sculpture is powerful, original, and immensely dignified. On one level, it reflects his intellectual and aesthetic orientation and his skill and experience with steel construction. On another level, it communicates his spiritual ambition. Stylistically, his art is unique in that it synthesizes three fundamental sources: the sense of scale and the intuitive look of Abstract Expressionism, the flat-faced industrial geometry of Minimal Art, and the striations, expressive symbols and geometry inspired by the Dogon peoples of West Africa.Smith’s interest in Abstract Expressionism began in high school when he was on a class trip to the Albright-Knox Gallery. There he discovered the bravado abstract painting of Franz Kline. Kline’s paintings were informal, intuitive, emotional, and expressed high energy and decisive movement. These same qualities are evident in the gritty blackness of Smith’s fierce surfaces and in the vector-like movement of his forms and ambitious scale of his creations. Smith’s artworks also exhibit his openness to accident and his passion for the universality of form. At its best, the Abstract Expressionist approach, like the Jazz music that Smith so admires, provides the artist with an arena in which to express his emotions and his spiritual aspirations. This early influence persists in all of his works.After working his way through The San Francisco Art Institute, Smith went on to graduate school at Hunter College in New York City. There he first became a student and later the assistant of Tony Smith. Tony Smith, a progenitor of Minimal Art, created steel sculptures that bore a direct relation to Alexander Graham Bell’s tetrahedron kites and space frames. From this teacher and mentor, George Smith learned the techniques of building monumental sculpture even as he looked elsewhere to find his own style. Having experienced both the West and East Coast art worlds, he became fully cognizant of the various directions that contemporary art was taking during the tumultuous late 1960s and 1970s. At that time, Minimal Art was the major contemporary influence on sculpture, and while George Smith took it into account, he did not see it as an end in itself.Minimal artists were engaged in simplifying the vocabulary of form in sculpture through the use of industrial materials and clean geometric primary structures. The artists of this persuasion usually had their designs fabricated. Even though Smith’s sculpture was always hand-made, it expressed the structural clarity of the Minimal approach along with the baroque signature of Abstract Expressionism. Incidentally, the fact that his father was a worker in the steel mills in Buffalo, New York, may have been responsible for his choice of materials. However, it was to African art and architecture that Smith turned to find a geometry and spirituality which, unlike most contemporary American art, was not based on materialism.African American artists, such as Charles White and Jacob Lawrence, expressed their unique cultural experience from a Social Realist perspective. John Biggars and Lois Malibu Jones went on to investigate their African roots from a similar perspective. This genre, Social Realism, was considered a minor movement by the art establishment. Younger artists like Gerorge Smith and James Little who were well educated and who had experienced the Civil Rights movement, now felt that they had earned the right to define themselves and their art through a mainstream international approach to form and content. Smith, in particular, enriched his sources and his previous approaches through his focus on Dogon art and architecture.The Dogon who hail from Mali in West Africa, have over the centuries developed a distinctive aesthetic and knowledge of astronomy that along with their myths, are the unifying elements of their social and spiritual life. The Dogon believe that they came to earth from their original home on Sirius, the Dog Star, and consequently they orient their art and architecture to this star, resulting in a sense of scale and space that is almost limitless. In 1979, Smith went to Africa with the funds he received from the sale of a sculpture to Houston patron Dominique De Menil. There he studied the Dogon first hand and over the following years, he integrated their geometry into his sculpture. This caused his work to undergo a major change. His sculpture now communicated a profound sense of spirituality whose essence is ritual forms that evoke the unity of the tribe and by extension, the unity of all things.
Early in the twentieth century, African art provided the dynamic and the juju that became central to the fundamental styles of Modernism. Fauvism, Cubism, Surrealism, and Abstract Expressionism were each in different ways vitalized by African art. By contrast, Pop Art and Minimal Art did not reference African Art. By going to the source tradition in Africa, Smith was able to rekindle its spirituality in his sculpture in a time of extreme darkness in the art world.
Like so many African American artists, and because of the extreme bias, outright prejudice, or ignorance of the art establishment, Smith has not been given the attention his work deserves. Mainstream Anglo artists are being constantly exhibited and their work analyzed in the trade magazines, museum catalogues and scholarly literature while African American artists are often only exhibited with other African American artists during Black History Month. Smith’s work merits being shown with such Anglo art stars as Michael Heizer and Richard Serra. With the exception of the Whitney Biennial of l970, Smith has exhibited his work more or less exclusively with major African American artists, such as Mel Edwards, Martin Puryear, and Sam Gilliam. By this exhibition we acknowledge the excellence of his work and his ongoing contribution to American art.