I purchased my first artwork in, I believe, 1972. I’m not talking here about an Athena poster, but rather a print that I could just about imagine encountering in what was then London’s only Tate Gallery. Not that I dared enter a fancy Cork Street emporium; rather this artwork came by post, ordered from a Habitat catalogue and arriving rolled up in a sturdy cardboard tube. It cost just a few pounds, although I recall that whatever the price it felt like a fortune to me. I don’t remember its name, nor even exactly what it looked like, but I am certain that the artist was Richard Smith, who died recently at the age of 84.
Tate curator Chris Stephens has written an immaculate Guardian obituary for Richard Smith. A life of commitment and achievement is recorded there, but also the sense that, at least after the 1960s, the art world never really recognised the true worth of Smith’s exceptionally fine, life-enhancing abstractions. I have looked at and admired Richard Smith’s shaped and sculpted canvases over the years, at Tate, at the Flowers Gallery (for a brief online tribute go here), and on occasions when they have appeared in surveys of Pop Art or on the walls of museums around the country. I have always enjoyed them, often been thrilled by them, and have long waited, so far in vain, for a major retrospective (I missed the 1975 Tate show). For me, however, what remains most important is that Habitat print from more than 40 years ago.
I don’t even really remember what the print looked like, although I know it was a field of orange, created perhaps from slanting lines of vivid pencil. Cutting through this and hanging just in front were two strips of a contrasting colour – perhaps they were green, perhaps a shade of blue. I had just started to become interested in what I thought of as “modern” art, and to discover that a chic store like Habitat had commissioned from Smith, whose work I had seen in the Tate, along with three others (quite who escapes me, although perhaps Robyn Denny was one), a sophisticated yet affordable (just) print was exciting beyond belief. Who cared if the edition was unlimited.
When it arrived I mounted it on hardboard and “framed” it with silver-coloured paper tape (sorry, Richard). And I hung it in my bedroom in the Suffolk house where my father Ron lived with my recently arrived step-mother, Marie. This was when I was studying for my A’ levels, I only went there in school holidays, and home life was uneasy. Marie was far from sympathetic to my interests, and I remember her slighting the Richard Smith print as well as other things, like Penguin Classics and subtitled movies on television, that meant a great deal to me. So in part because of this moderate antipathy, this artwork was hugely significant. It was a strand of who I was, and more importantly it was a strand of who I aspired to be. Like those I saw on television and in colour supplements, I could be a collector, I could be invited to private views, and my thoughts about contemporary culture might be listened to rather than laughed at.
I have no idea what happened to my Richard Smith, and although on occasions I have looked for a record of the print, I have never found one. If anyone reading this knows anything about the Habitat edition (and especially if they have a reproduction) I would be hugely grateful to learn more. Many years later, when I shot an interview with Richard Smith, he could recall nothing about the commission. But a trace of it is in my memory locked, and I am grateful for that.
When we were making the series of artist interviews called theEye, nearly ten years or so ago, Ian Serfontein and I filmed with Richard Smith one morning in Manhattan. He was still recovering from a stroke, but he spoke lucidly and engagingly about his work. He was delightful that morning, generous with his time and his thoughts, and of course I regret that we never completed the profile. Partly this was to do with the difficulty of filming his rarely-displayed works from the 1960s (it was a principle of the project that we only filmed actual artworks, and did not rely on transparencies). Partly too it was because the energy was draining out of the collective project as the likes of Tate Shots took over the documentation of contemporary art that, from earlier in the decade, we had felt was important.
As also for that silver tape “frame”, my apologies are due to Richard Smith for not finishing the film. But perhaps this tiny expression of why “my” Richard Smith was so valuable to me back in 1972 can begin in the most modest of ways to make up for both failings.
Image: Untitled, 1971-72, by Richard Smith; photograph: Richard Smith/Flowers Gallery London and New York.