The Highway Not Taken: Tony Smith and the Suburban Sublime

A minimalist’s epiphany on the New Jersey Turnpike.

New Jersey Turnpike, 1950s. [Courtesy of the New Jersey Department of Transportation]

“It seemed that there had been a reality there which had not had any expression in art.”
— Tony Smith, 1966

Tony Smith lived most of his adult life in a small, red-brick house on a tree-lined street in the suburban town of South Orange, New Jersey. He was married to the same women for 37 years. Tennessee Williams was his best man. They raised three daughters in that house, one named Kiki. An architect and teacher, he commuted to New York City, where he would sometimes hang out after work at the Cedar Tavern with his friends Jackson Pollock and Barnett Newman. Around the age of 50 he began making small-scale sculptural objects and larger mock-ups in paper and cardboard, often aided by his children, who staged “exhibitions” in the backyard. These formal experiments, along with a fortuitous act of trespassing on the New Jersey Turnpike, helped him to become one of the founders of Minimalism. His work can now be found in museums and cities all over the world.

We don’t often think of avant-garde art and suburbia as related. The artist’s urban studio — not the superhighway — is supposed to be where aesthetic inspiration takes place. However, from the late 1950s through the early 1970s, numerous American artists and artistic developments had their roots in the suburbs — specifically, in the roads, marshes, quarries and universities of North New Jersey. Robert Smithson grew up in Rutherford and Clifton, Dan Graham in Winfield Park and Westfield, and Donald Judd went to high school in Westwood, all within a 15-mile radius. Out of that place they forged new art forms and new sensibilities, providing an alternative to the status quo.

This “banal” landscape and aesthetic is one that until recently architecture chose usually to ignore. Even today, as many architects almost gleefully address the troubled state of suburbia, they do not always seem interested in learning anything about or from it. So many post-housing-bubble schemes ignore what is already there, and instead analyze and “solve” problems with pre-existing solutions. In this context, Tony Smith’s story is worth retelling.

A generation older than his Minimalist peers, Smith was born in 1912 and raised in South Orange, where his family ran a waterworks factory that manufactured, among other things, the distinctive O’Brien model fire hydrants that still can be found around the country. As a child he suffered from tuberculosis and was educated at home until high school. After a stint at Georgetown University, he returned to New Jersey and opened a bookstore in Newark. He commuted into Manhattan at night for classes at the Art Students League, where he met and befriended Pollock and the sculptor David Smith.

Tony Smith, sketch for Stamos House, 1955.

In 1937 he enrolled at the New Bauhaus school in Chicago to study architecture, where his teachers included László Moholy-Nagy. He left school after only a year and joined Frank Lloyd Wright’s practice, quickly becoming construction supervisor. Although untrained and unlicensed, he began his own architectural practice in New York in 1940, influenced by three figures who were well-known, but not often associated: Wright, Buckminster Fuller and Le Corbusier.

As a heavy-drinking, charismatic friend of a number of prominent artists, he was a fixture on the New York Art scene throughout the 1940s and ’50s. Many of his commissions were for people in the art world, including a number of studios and a house for the dealer Betty Parsons. In 1950 he designed a chapel in the Hamptons for which Pollock was to have provided murals and stained glass windows, but the project fell through.

One dark night in 1951, Smith found himself in a car with three students from the Cooper Union riding down the not-yet-opened New Jersey Turnpike. They made the illicit trip from the Meadowlands (Exit 16) to New Brunswick (Exit 9), with no street lamps, lane markers or guard rails, relying only on their headlights and the industrial glow of North Jersey.

In a now-famous Artforum interview conducted 15 years later, Smith described the drive as a revelation. To his mind, it seemed to challenge the conventional categories of artistic practice and raised questions about the division between art and everyday events. “The road and much of the landscape was artificial,” he said, “and yet it couldn’t be called a work of art. On the other hand, it did something for me that art had never done. At first I didn’t know what it was, but its effect was to liberate me from many of the views I had about art. It seemed that there had been a reality there that had not had any expression in art.” That reality could not be described, Smith said; it was something one had to “experience.”

New Jersey Turnpike, 1952, elevated above The Meadows (top left), at the Erie Railroad Bridge (top right) and at the Newark Airport Viaduct (bottom). [Photos courtesy of the Library of Congress]

The influence of that midnight ride would not be felt in Smith’s work for another decade. Nevertheless, it was an early example of how suburban experience shaped the development of new artistic sensibilities, techniques and forms. The artistic exchange between New Jersey and New York City was especially productive, fueling the early careers of Smithson, Graham, Judd, as well as many others. Refusing to dismiss suburbia as superficial or useless, they saw the serial repetition of bland, empty houses as representative of an attitude and aesthetic that could challenge the then-dominant practices of abstract expressionism and color field painting, which were more personal and psychological in nature.

Smith — whose full name was Anthony Peter Smith — used to say that his initials stood for “architect, painter, sculptor.” While it is true that he had the most success as a sculptor, his experience as an architect offers greater insight into his epiphany on the turnpike. Smith’s architecture was inspired, Robert Storr notes, by “geometric forms found in nature: molecular and crystalline structures, the hexagonal grid of a beehive, the closely packed formation of bubbles” 1 — abstract patterns and systems that must have seemed radically different from the linear modernity of the new superhighway.

Photos in Life Magazine of the New Jersey Turnpike shortly after it opened show a patch of cars streaming along the open highway. While today the bubbly cars look dated, the details of the roadway feel fresh. The sleek profile signaled a road ahead of its time, recalling the long, low, fast look of GM’s concept car, the 1951 Buick La Sabre, a look that would dominate car design for the next quarter century. Conceived as a conduit for commercial rather than commuter traffic, the turnpike was designed for maximum speed.

Top: Opening of the New Jersey Turnpike. [From Life Magazine, January 28, 1952] Bottom: New Jersey Turnpike, 1970. [Photo by Ike Vern, Environmental Protection Agency]

Although it has earned a reputation as a smelly, ugly, continuous strip, the turnpike was built, and can still be experienced, as a series of discrete sections, each with its own character — from flat forests and farms in the south, through the industrial zone around Newark, to the Meadowlands in the north. What is consistent along its 122-mile length is the roadway’s refusal to conform to the contours of the land. Drivers feel as though they are hovering just above the surface of the earth, whether they are suspended a few feet above a marsh or 110 feet above a river. This futuristic, floating sensation is especially true of the industrial section, “punctuated,” as Smith recalled, “by stacks, towers, fumes and colored lights.” Here the gentle curves and slight changes in elevation emphasize the presence of the oil tanks, refineries and power plants that line the road.

Why did that architectural encounter leave such a strong impression on Smith? The drive took place over time; it could not, like a painting (or architectural drawing) be taken in all at once. Nor could it be reduced to a specific form or location. Generating an overall impression of the event (as of a building) required one to sequentially (and simultaneously) use powers of attention, memory and imagination. However, it differed from conventional architectural experience in important ways. Smith was sitting down, engulfed by the architecture of the car, moving rapidly through a dark environment. And psychologically he was trespassing; not for material gain, but for the sake of his enjoyment. It was an event without clear function.

Most important, the conditions could never be repeated. After the road was opened and superhighway travel became commonplace, the strangeness and intensity of the experience would be diminished. For the next decade, Smith searched for a new mode of representation to describe and reproduce the event, something that architecture, and architectural practice, could not provide.

Not long after that drive, Smith took a break from architecture, spending two years painting in Germany, where he visited abandoned airstrips and other World War II ruins, “surrealist landscapes, something that had nothing to do with any function, created worlds without tradition.” They were the European analog to his experience on the turnpike, an “artificial landscape without cultural precedent” in the contemporary world. 2 Back home in New Jersey, postwar tract developments were another example of this type: large-scale, unprecedented interventions in the landscape that produced new physical, psychological and historical effects. In the early 1950s, many were in a state of construction, empty, on the verge of occupation — the foundational landscapes of Minimalism.

New Jersey Turnpike, 1950s. [Courtesy of the New Jersey Department of Transportation]

For Smithson these “desolate but exquisite” environments could only be “brought into focus by a strict condition of perception, rather than any expressive or emotive means.” 3 In other words, to understand, or make sense of such contexts required new ways of seeing and making. It did not require more “feeling” or more “reason,” but rather new, dispassionate attitudes and forms. For some artists this was achieved using serial and symmetric structures and methods rather than compositional or perspectival ones. For others it meant using perspective in unexpected and distorting ways. For still others, it meant working in and on long, low, flat sites in the desert, or writing, photographing and diagramming instead of drawing, painting or sculpting. For Tony Smith, it meant a shift from architecture to sculpture.

Despite increasing frustrations with clients and contractors, Smith maintained his architectural practice until 1961, when he developed a rare blood disease after a car accident. He decided to focus on teaching, and in his free time he began to do the exercises he assigned to students. The results were small paper and cardboard maquettes, like conventional architectural models, that could be scaled up to human size or larger. Among the first to be built “life size” was Die (1962), a six-foot cube based on the proportions of the Vitruvian man. Four years later, Free Ride (1966), a sculpture made of three 80-inch steel bars, was included in the seminal “Primary Structures” show at the Jewish Museum in New York, which helped establish Minimalism as a movement. The account of Smith’s drive on the New Jersey Turnpike was published in Artforum late that year.

Studying Die and Free Ride, it is at first difficult to find the connection to that midnight ride. The simple geometry and relatively small size of these works seem unlike Smith’s description of the sublime continuity between body, machine, space and time he encountered on the road. Indeed, it was the experience of integration and responsiveness more than the spare forms themselves that marked the goals of Minimalism as distinct from previous versions of modern art.

Tony Smith with sketch of Free Ride, 1962, and with his sculpture Smoke, on the cover of Time, 1967.

It was also what made these artists so interested in the context — architectural or natural — in which their “specific objects” (Smith called them “presences”) were situated. They often expressed a desire to include or implicate the space and the viewer into the work. In Smith’s case, the emphasis on experience and integration was specific to suburban environments. Or, as he later lamented, “what was plastic in suburbia became graphic in the city.” 4 He recognized the need for specific aesthetic responses to specific settings. What had been dynamic in the open spaces of New Jersey, contrasted with the “irregular patterns” of nature, became flat and static among the repeated forms and confined spaces of urban environments. What was architectural in suburbia was painterly in the city.

Architecture’s inherent plasticity and continuity — it is always experienced in space and over time — is conventionally experienced in a distracted state. As Smithson pointed out, this seemed especially true of the “bland and empty” buildings of the postwar suburbs. 5 Minimalism aspired to make the architectural encounter more explicit, if not more awkward and dangerous. It did so not by creating flamboyant objects, but by making even more banal ones.

It was precisely the strange, blank and barren qualities that Smithson, Judd and Graham found so beguiling in New Jersey’s quarries and subdivisions. Their work would subsequently engage the scalelessness and seriality they recognized in Smith’s account of the suburban sublime. Juxtaposing mute, abstract and cryptic objects with seemingly neutral urban and rural spaces, their work was motivated by a subtle politics of engagement. Their art revealed and reanimated the relationship between people and the environments they took for granted. So too did Smith’s work, especially in larger, pointedly titled pieces, such as Smoke (1967) and Smog (1970).

Suburbia seems hardly strange and empty today. The eerie power of the barren spaces, structures, objects and events that influenced early Minimalism was lost once they were jammed with cars, people and dreams. They acquired functions and histories, and they became less effective as the subject of art, at least for someone like Smithson, who maintained that “art is the pursuit of the useless.” 6

Still, one delights to imagine a Tony Smith sculpture suddenly appearing in the yard of some unsuspecting suburbanite, an untimely reminder of just how strange they both once were, and could be yet again. Perhaps a sculpture should be placed in front of that red-brick house in South Orange where the artist was, among so many other things, just another suburban dad.

  1. “Talking with Tony Smith,” interview with Samuel J. Wagstaff, Jr., Artforum, December, 1966.
  2. Robert Smithson, “Entropy and the New Monuments,” in Jack Flam, ed., Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), 14.
  3. Tony Smith, “Statements by Sculptors,” Art Journal 35.2 (Winter, 1975-1976), 128-129.
  4. Smithson, 13.
  5. Smithson, “What is a Museum?” in Jack Flam, ed., Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings, 47.
David Salomon, “The Highway Not Taken: Tony Smith and the Suburban Sublime,” Places Journal, September 2013. Accessed 03 Oct 2023.

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Past Discussions View
  • 09.19.2013 at 07:22

    Nice essay. You'll be pleased to learn that there's no need to imagine a Smith sculpture finding its way to his hometown of South Orange.