Prior to the creation of Black Box, Smith worked as an architect in the New Bauhaus school and then as a design instructor at in New York City, where he was exposed to the creative potential of industrial materials. Kenneth Baker comments on Smith and his contemporaries, “When these artists recognized that industry controlled the aesthetic physics of objects to a degree that no individual could, they resorted to industrial fabrication in order to avail themselves of that control” (Kenneth Baker, Minimalism, New York 1988, p. 9). Smith took a material central to the experience of modern, urban life—steel—and used it to new ends. While Smith made other cardboard models for this box by hand, this sculpture was a product of industrialization, executed by a steel fabricator. After the creation of this early Black Box, the artist went on to create larger-scale models of the sculpture, such as Die (1968), marking a shift in his methods which placed particular emphasis on conceptual design.
In an interview with Artforum in 1967, Smith revealed the psychological impetus behind the Black Box. He described a drive on the expansive, unfinished New Jersey turnpike as a transformative event, explaining, “There is no way you can frame it, you have to experience it” (Tony Smith quoted in Samuel J. Wagstaff Jr., “Talking with Tony Smith,” Artforum, Dec. 1966). Black Box is an attempt on the part of the artist to engender that kind of revelatory experience, without explicit representational dictation. The smooth surfaces and straight lines of the steel box do not easily lend themselves to interpretation. Michael Fried writes, “Here again the experience of being distanced by the work in question seems crucial: the beholder knows himself to stand in an indeterminate, open-ended—and unexacting—relation as subject to the impassive object” (Michael Fried, “Art and Objecthood (1967),” Art and Objecthood: Essays and Reviews, Chicago 1998, p. 155). Black Box does not represent anything, but rather, through its formal mechanisms, articulates the very limitless, frameless status of art, and the integral role of the viewer in determining meaning. The present work set the stage for an entire generation of artists, who sought to explore the revolutionary formal principles introduced by Black Box.
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