Menzies Art Brands

JOHN FIRTH-SMITH Winter Rounds 1982


In 1981 John Firth-Smith travelled to New York to experience the city, to paint there as a local and allow the powerful New York art scene to wash over him. It was a time in the city (that the writer experienced first-hand) when graffiti clogged West Broadway and adorned the walls of the cross-town subway platforms. The locals were producing abstract paintings that had active, brushy surfaces. The curator Barbara Rose, in 1979, produced a show of such work called American Painting: The Eighties that looked like Abstract Expressionism with a college education, and heralded the rise of art stars Susan Rothenberg (1945- ) and Elizabeth Murray (1940-2007). It was the perfect time and place for Firth-Smiths painterly surfaces to evolve.

From his studio on 20th Street, Firth-Smith could look down on the first winter snows in the city. In the early morning the snow appeared as a soft white blanket, a shroud that covered everything, but later in the day it was stained and marked by the black tracks of car tyres and the footfalls of passers-by. He became fascinated by the ethereal gothic nature of what he saw: steaming ventilators were often to be found in the middle of busy streets, their smoke stacks rising through the traffic, their warmth contradicting the presence of winter snow and sludge. Such is the sensibility that is vividly painted in Winter Rounds 1982, an attractively-proportioned canvas that effortlessly supports the New York dynamic.

Winter Rounds 1982, is ingrained with the gritty, wintry ambience of the city. Like schematised patterns taken from a subway map, or a diagram drawn in an attempt at directing a stranger, there is a frenetic congested intensity in the work that is broken by dots and splashes of colour.1

This painting shows Firth-Smiths familiar arabesque line, sweeping through the rising red veils of smoke and graffiti, to challenge the gridded infrastructure of the city. Notions of infrastructure usually revolve around trains, bridges, roads and buildings; however with a different kind of infrastructure in mind, the artist deploys a series of connected straight lines and dots to the heart of his picture. In his monograph on Firth-Smith, writer Gavin Wilson describes how the artist had become fascinated with the Victorian cast iron manhole covers found at street level. They often had elaborate decorative surfaces and had holes drilled through them. Firth-Smith tied small weights to the ends of strings, and dropped the weights down the holes making the strings pull tight between the holes; so the sequences of dots and connected lines were born. He later photographed these microcosms, and like an industrial espionage operative, these found their way into his painting process. Ironically, these patterns are reminiscent of stick charts from the Marshall Islands structures formed by tying small sticks in a gridded pattern to represent the sea, with shells knotted at the intersections to represent the locations of islands. The sea is never far away from the artists concerns.

Only in New York could Firth-Smith have had such fertile exposure to the early stages of neo-expressionism. He embraced many deterministic methods of applying paint with drawn lines and dots, then overpainting, then re-positioning more gridded lines and dots; but these methods always relied on chance and randomness. He painted and repainted layer upon layer. The effaced surfaces of the completed work were like a palimpsest, leaving only the faintest trace of his earlier marks. 2 It is the beauty of those effaced surfaces that captures the imagination with their daring trails of snow-lines, and the monochrome expanse of restless white.

1. Wilson, G., John Firth-Smith: A Voyage that Never Ends, Craftsman House, Sydney, 2000, p.107
2. ibid p.110

Professor Peter James Smith BSc (Hons);
MSc; M Stats; MFA; PhD

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