When George Smith was growing up on Buffalo's East Side in the 1950s, he wasn't thinking about being an artist.
"My parents steered me towards something more practical, knowing that you couldn't make a living as an artist," Smith says by phone from his office at Rice University in Houston. "I was really interested in architecture, but I was willing to consider the building trade."
Practicality eventually lost out. Through his college years - first at the San Francisco Art Institute and later at Hunter College in New York City - Smith maintained his interest in architecture - especially in the revolutionary work of Buckminster Fuller. But by that time he was committed to abstract sculpture, come what may.
Today Smith is an art professor at Rice, where he continues an active career highlighted by a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1971 and important group exhibitions in such places as the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Dallas Museum of Art. His public sculptures can be seen in major cities, including Buffalo in the Utica station of the Metro Rail. Born in Buffalo in 1941, he returned here in 1972 to join the faculty of the University at Buffalo and stayed on until 1981, when he went to Rice.
The Burchfield-Penney Art Center is presenting an exhibition of Smith's recent work as part of UB's celebration of the 30th anniversary of the department of African American Studies. "George Smith" begins next Friday with a members' reception from 6 to 8 p.m. and continues through April 8.
When he was at Hunter, the young sculptor had the good fortune to have Tony Smith as one of his teachers. Tony Smith (1912-1980) was a sculptor of giant, simplified geometrical forms. His massive "Cigarette" has stood in front of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery for many years.
Besides being an influence, his famous teacher offered Smith first-hand experience in the production of large-scale sculpture.
"Unexpectedly, he called me up one day and asked me if I wanted to be his assistant," Smith recalls. "I went over to his house and his wife was there and Smith was still sleeping and after a while he came down in his robe, all groggy-eyed. He showed me these small maquettes and said that he wanted me to enlarge them into big plywood sculptures."
At about the same time, the young sculptor discovered the art of the Dogon people of the Republic of Mali in West Africa. At some point, someone at Hunter - it might have been Tony Smith himself - said one of his abstract sculptures resembled a Dogon crocodile. "At the time I knew little about African art," Smith says. ""Go look it up,' he said to me. So I did, and I became fascinated by Dogon myth and architecture."
Subsequently, Dogon architectural elements - a primary shape with another shape carved into it or cantilevered off of it - were incorporated into his work. Later, after a trip to Mali, he was struck by Dogon dyed fabrics called "mud cloths," and soon these designs were echoed in his work.
But Smith says that it was the artists around him - those who came to Hunter, like Robert Morris and Robert Motherwell - who formed him as much as African art. "Shapes in my work were derived from the Dogon, not copied," he explains. "For me it is a matter of reinvention. The expressive power of African geometry is always an inspiration, but it is not there, factually, in the art."
For Smith the designation "African American artist" has a double edge:
"I remember when I first started out, I had an exhibition at the Everson Museum (1972, Syracuse) and the sign read, "George Smith: American.' Before it was always "African American.' I've been asked to be in a lot of shows because I'm an African American and some were good, others bad. And then sometimes I've been left out of shows because people didn't happen to know I was black. But I've always tried to go my own way. I think I'd rather be known simply as a damned good artist."