Projecting from wall area and wall corner into the room.

Cornerpieces, paintings and sculptures in the works of David Smyth





Historic background



Frames come in different shapes and forms: painted frames, as they appear in antique frescoes; unpainted edges framing – and thus protecting – images, such as icons, painted intaglio-style onto panels of wood in medieval art; late Gothic or Renaissance altar frames, often designed to match the architectural style of churches. The kind of frames we use today, consisting of four profiled bars, often encarved, colored or guilded, are an invention of the 15th century.


Abandoning the primary role of a frame to provide protection for a painted image or photography, concept art started to exhibit empty frames in the 20th century as works of art in their own right. Historically, frames have typically been portrait or landscape in format or oval in shape. In contemporary art, in contrast, we also find free forms, such as trapezoid frames. In the works of the Vienna-based American artist, David Smyth, we find yet another special form of frame: frames that go beyond the edges.




Supporting actor in a leading role


The autonomy of corner frames in the works of David Smyth



Smyth, who graduated from art school in Chicago in the 1960s, first experimented with corner paintings in the 1970s. As early as in the 1970s, he exhibited a series of corner paintings, convexely and concavely shaped; or produced corner paintings emphasizing an illusion of depth – with frames to go with those images, containing the odd bar accentuating the edge. The designs created in the 1970s showed abstract objects.






Corner paintings with realistic motifs



The corner paintings produced between 2005 and 2016, which edit and alienate realistic photographs, e.g. stage a provocation between a nude young woman projecting or rather looking into the space of a dressed man with her hand and her face. The corner in the piece “Irene Teasing” accentuates the illusion that the man is only viewing the woman´s head and not her naked body. Thus the corner, being an integral part of the piece, defines the content of the work. It allows the viewer to see the naked woman from behind but denies this view to the staged man.


Other corner paintings of David Smyth represent stories about different cultures, like the work ”Red Rain” which shows a dancer of the famous Kabuki theater – the classical bourgeois Japanese dance-drama of the Edo period consisting of singing, pantomime and dance. The fact that the corner, which is integrated into the picture, divides the face into two halves accentuates the facial expression of a wicked-looking person. The photograph has been worked on with diagonal wooden red sticks, thereby increasing the dramatic nature of the evil eye.


Apart from anonymous individuals, celebrities like the famous American actors Paul Newman and Lee Marvin can also be found in Smyth´s corner paintings, like in ”Portrait of Lee and Paul”. They are presented side by side, escorted by an inner corner in the background, bringing them closer together and emphasizing their cooperation and private relation. They meet up in the common corner, while at the same time occupying their own respective representation area.


In general the corner paintings with realistic motifs are characterized by the fact that they are positioned on inner or outer corners of a wall, sometimes both sides of equal length, sometimes one side covering a larger part of the wall surface in favour of the composition lines. The motifs, mostly photographs or posters, have been reworked. They have been painted or lines have been applied. Sometimes the middle edge was reworked or alienated, or it was cut in its essence (“Pay to Pray”) In contrast, the middle ledge of the frame was accentuated by an additional element, for instance by a capital in the middle of the piece “5 Percent”, thereby emphasizing the sacred in the context of works of art from the antiquity. The capital has been staged like a small icon, framed on the right and left by massive, broad pieces of wood, the importance of the angle being accentuated. According to the artist this illustrates the 5 percent of people whose wealth and social status is so much higher than that of the remaining 95 percent.




Abstract corner paintings



In Smyth’s 2005 series entitled “Red Corner” and “Grey/Blue Corner”, classical-style frames, bent at right angles, encase the image area which is divided into two parts and features a single color (red or blue), thus producing a mix of old and new art. The object, which has been reduced to form and primary colors, echoing the art of geometric abstraction of the 20th century, contrasts with the classical frame. This design creates a play between old and new, yesterday and today, history and contemporary art. Individual works of art are put into a context. Moreover, the fact that one corner frame connects different wall areas helps us see the frame as an element that unite differences as they converge toward each other.


In contrast, David Smyth’s new series of corner paintings, entitled “Untitled outside corner” and produced in 2016, builds on variations first created in the 1970s and in 2005. The frame is now empty; or forms part of the corner of a wall, opening up toward the wall area; or projects three-dimensionally into the room.


David Smyth exhibitioned a series consisting of three different types of frames.


One frame may be hung on the wall area both in the inner corner of the room between two walls and in the outer corner of the room (turned on its back). This frame, consisting of untreated wood, can be double-sided, as the artist or viewer would have it. Since the frame is empty, it encases either an inner or an outer corner of a wall – depending on where it is placed. The frame, which, historically speaking, encased or isolated a particular object, can now flexibly define an empty corner of a wall as the object. In this respect, the frame itself, which retains its characteristic shape, is the key object of work of art. Smyth thus shows that the object of a work of art also depends both on how it is placed in a room and on the perspective from which it is seen.


Furthermore, this design underlines that the supporting actor can indeed take on a leading role once it conveys an unconvential design or an unusual content. What appears aesthetical to the viewer, may, when positioned differently, turn into an obstacle.


Here, the frame is used not as a rectangular framework that aesthetically isolates works of art, but as an empty corner frame, designed for a particular corner of a room, like an autonomous sculpture. What is more, this series also finds the frame opening up toward the space of the viewer, thus creating the impression that the object that used to be framed, has now spilled over into the space of the viewer. It is almost as if the frame had turned into an imprint of what used to be framed in a picture.


The last frame to be built in the series embodies elements of the two other frames: it is open at one point and projects into the space of the viewer like a sculpture. Moreover, this frame has been colored in white, with red and yellow touches – colors Smyth has used before. This frame, the sharp edges of which recall the works of Hard Edge Painting, opens up into the space of the viewer with elegance. The bar torn from the frame has been staged like a rhomboid door opening into the frame, thus producing a work of art that invites us to explore the empty space of the wall, the true aesthetic of which is created by the frame.


The frame, originally a draft in Smyth’s oeuvre, like a drawing with an opening toward the wall, now emerges as an open, three-dimensional creation. The frame that used to enclose images, or colored areas, or simply empty wall areas, now frames inner or outer corners of a wall, emerging as the object as such, created in unusual forms. Through its shape, it guides the eye from one wall to another, or from a wall to the space of the viewer. The frame projecting into the room now defines part of the room, creating an obstacle. In this respect, its function is not at all that of a supporting actor: it defines the wall areas, it relates the wall areas to each other, sometimes turning the walls into a window of sorts, guiding the object of the piece of art from the surface of the wall into the room as such. The frame is the definition that the artist would like to give to a work of art. The frame encases that which the artist would like us to see on the wall.


The compulsion to intervene in the space of the viewer also appears in one of Smyth´s most recent works of art called “Glory Days” produced in 2016, where a chair has been staged as projecting out of the painting into the space of the viewer.




Sculptural Paintings: The viewer as the main protagonist of the work of art



In art, chairs are primarily used to visualize hierarchies in society. We know for example from art history the throne as the seat of power, armchairs for kings and aristocrats, chairs with backrest or tabouret for other classes of society. Smyth too is using a chair with a backrest in his work “Glory Days”, its meaning however deviating from the historic connotation.


The work “Glory Days” is a combination of sculpture and painting. Black stripes, blurred with white paint, are projected three-dimensionally into the room by means of the composition lines of the chair. Thus, Smyth creates a flow of the object from the two-dimensional into the three-dimensional. By cutting off one part of the chair it appears that the object projects from the painting into the room. Painting and chair in interaction result in an overall picture also inasmuch as the white paint which covers the black stripes on the painting also conceals one part of the chair.


A similar motif can be seen in Smyth´s work of art “Fred Astaire” where a chair projects from the wall rising up into to the air. The three visible legs of the chair are buckled and it appears that this chair could not serve as a seat. And it is staged as such. In contrast, in the more recent piece “Glory Days” the chair rests on the floor and arises from the painting and not from the wall. The artist gives the impression that he created the world the chair arises from (the painting) for us as well, and invites us to sit on that chair. The chair is not a decorative element, but an opportunity for the visitor to linger. The visitor would become part of the work of art, if he sat down as intended by the artist. The viewer would not only be a spectator, he would become the main protagonist of the work of art. Without him or her the chair remains empty and the story told by the painting is standing alone.


This is an innovative work of art which invites the viewer to interact and to become part of the art. Already in Caspar David Friedrich´s de-personalized rear-view figure paintings the viewer felt invited to become part of the work. Later then, in forms of art like fluxus, happenings and action painting the visitor was asked to take part in the creation of the works of art. Certainly, interactive media art may be mentioned here as well, where the works of art would not exist and could not be realized without the presence of the visitors. Smyth creates this effect without using high tech through the integration of painting and sculpture in a total artwork. His paintings tell stories about music, the order of the world, rainy days and many more tales of life and need the viewer to become completed. The world he is creating for the viewer can be attributed to his earlier paintings. In the piece “Page 37” from 1999 free forms emanate from tectonic lines. The colours surge through each other or stand against each other. They run in straight lines from one area to the other, structured almost orthogonally to each other, repeated in a rhythmic way on the surface of the painting, thus adding to a uniform overall picture for the beholder. Mainly primary colours, red, yellow, blue and their values can be seen, forming elongated or broader patches.


Viewing the painting “White Light” that was realized in early 2016 one can see that the orthogonality has dissolved and the colours are distributed in a more autonomous way. The colour stains are smaller in proportion and secondary colours are added. In the more recent painting “Glory Days” (2016) we see colour stains dispersed primarily at the upper and the left edge of the painting. It seems as if a strong wind blows away the leaves from the trees. Most of the painted surface seems blurred, vacated, or maybe ready to write a new story. Confounded traces of life, new stages of life, significance of time and history is paramount. This significance in the context of the staged chair is transferred to us via our role as beholders. It´s about our life, our stages of life, era, blurred traces, memorabilia – everything our past consists of. Future now has its own space to begin.


In respect of this painting it might be added, that Smyth even in the past painted in a similar way or used chairs, but never as one total artwork.






Objects installed in unusual ways: Snapshots of objects projecting through and into the space


Objects from beyond



Smyth´s oeuvre in general can be characterized by creating sculptures consisting of chairs, tables and ladders. They are either presented in primary colours, they are striped or collages have been applied on the surface. They frequently are staged in unusual positions. For example the piece “Chain Saw” from the year 2007, where a deposit table has been fixed diagonally within space, bringing in the laws of physics which would not allow the chair to assume such a position. To achieve this, Smyth stages the tables and chairs either as being leaning on each other or he fixes them to the wall. The objects thus look like snapshots. On the one hand they create the illusion of projecting from the neighboring room into the space of the viewer. The snapshot of a process has been captured. But it is also alluding to the other side of the room or the living space in general. What is hidden in the room next to us, what is hidden in the room of our neighbor or any other room we have not entered yet.


The seating furniture and objects of Smyth are sometimes staged in a peculiar way, for instance in the center of the room. They are self-designed and self-constructed by the artist. Their surface structure has been worked on in a very detailed manner. Works of art are created which depict the notes of famous pieces of music, or alienate them, or which show geometrical structures, cut into the material (“Molecular Breakdown”, “Emmentaler Chair”) This way, David Smyth creates new order through geometrical simplicity (lines, circles and rectangles) cut out of the chairs. Smyth questions normality as we know it from everyday experience when he repositions objects in the real world in impossible positions. He plays with paradoxes to demonstrate that there is always room for new, universal order and there always exists the possibility to break accustomed orders, to question the rules.


Rearranging is a term which also plays a major role in other works of art of David Smyth. In his work “Musical Bars” visitors are invited to rearrange long bars inside the exhibition room.






Random principle and interaction with the audience: creating your own composition



In the piece “Musical Bars” he shows an arrangement created almost by chance. What emerges is a work of art which is rearranged anew time and again by interaction with the visitors. The artist himself constantly stages it anew in exhibitions. For example, he creates elongated compositions or he compacts the bars by arranging them on top of each other. In contrast to happenings, the bars may be moved at any time during the exhibition. The artist himself motivates the visitors during the exhibition to move the bars and to create new combinations.


The random principle was already known from works of art of Max Ernst (from the 30s). Ernst used a random procedure to spray paint on the canvas. This procedure was taken over by the painter Jackson Pollock and became known internationally. In parallel with fine arts, the random principle is also used in music, where John Cage’s compositions are regarded as being most essential. Equally, the random principle is known from many works of computer art, in particular those from the 60s, when computer art pioneers such as Herbert W. Franke und Frieder Nake used it in their artistic work.


The work “Musical Bars” resembles a Mikado-game. Mikado - an old game known from Japanese culture, where a number of sticks are thrown and piled up randomly - here in a large dimension has been arranged on the floor. The sculptures, shaped as bars and coated with musical notes, convey the invitation to the visitors to compose new musical pieces, to rearrange the musical notes. This produces the impression that it is the visitors who conceive the creations. Similar to the piece “Glory Days” the spectator becomes part of the work of art, his presence and activity is called for to complete the work or rather to create ever new variations. The Artist communicates with the audience via this work of art. Moreover, the visitors communicate with each other as well, since they can move the different bars either at the same time or subsequently. Together they create a work of art or contribute to the creation of ever new compositions.




In conclusion it can be stated that the sculptures and paintings in Smyth’s oeuvre are characterized by the fact that they integrate the spectator. They request his participation. The viewer also communicates intensively with the artist. Smyth’s works of art combine different spaces and time sequences in one work of art. These works override obstacles, they oppose fundamental physical laws. But they are also works of art in their own right, as we could see for instance with regard to the abstract corner paintings. With such innovative elements Smyth’s works of art assume an outstanding role within the contemporary art scene. Not only the content and its background but also the sophisticated techniques and their composition, ever balancing to get de-balanced again, are of great importance for the perfection they represent.






Dr. Phil. Penesta Dika