Tony Smith - 20th c. & Contemporary Art Day Sale, Morning Session New York Thursday, July 2, 2020 | Phillips

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  • In Short

    Tony Smith’s Spitball is a characteristic example of the American sculptor’s highly cerebral practice of minimalistic art making derived from his work as an architect. Smith conceived of this iconic work in 1961, creating an edition of three monumental Spitball sculptures that now reside in the permanent collections of the Sculpture Garden of the Baltimore Museum of Art, The Menil Collection, Houston, and Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland.


    The present work is the unique prototype for the smaller-scale granite edition the Detroit Institute of Arts commissioned of Spitball in 1970. Working with the Wolverine Marble Company in Detroit and Montecatini-Edison in Viareggio, Italy, Smith created the present work and, satisfied with the result, had the rest of the edition of 50 works  and three artist’s proofs fabricated.

  • Tony Smith in Context

    Spitball exemplifies Smith’s experimentations with complex geometries in abstract sculpture, specifically his exploration of complex, mathematical geometries derived from crystallographic structure.


    Though Smith had successfully worked as an architect since the 1940s, even spending time under the tutelage of Frank Lloyd Wright, Smith eventually became disillusioned by the impermanence of his work and the constant cycles of compromise necessary to dealing with clients. He abandoned his architectural practice around 1960 in order to focus his attention on art  making, enabling him to assume total creative control over his work. 


    Smith began to construct small sculptural maquettes based on tetrahedral and octahedral forms, bringing his work into larger, more grandiose proportions in the following years. Smith’s sculptures are explorations of scale and monumentality based on the concept of continuous three-dimensional space lattices derived from sophisticated geometry. 


    Spitball achieves an enrapturing presence through its dramatic economy of means, powerfully encapsulating how Smith pioneered the realm of sculpture: the work rises up out of itself, appearing to be at once work of art from an idealized future and a distant, forgotten past.

    • Provenance

      Gifted by the artist to the present owner in 1970

    • Exhibited

      New York, Fourcade Droll Inc., Tony Smith: Castings of Models and Small Pieces, March 16 - April 17, 1976 (editioned example exhibited)

    • Literature

      John Russel, "Three Shows With A Sense of Play", The New York Times, March 28, 1976, D33 (editioned example illustrated)



black granite
12 x 14 x 14 in. (30.5 x 35.6 x 35.6 cm)
Executed in 1970, this work is the prototype for the edition of 50 plus 3 artist's proofs.

Full Cataloguing

$50,000 - 70,000 

Contact Specialist

John McCord
Head of Day Sale, Morning Session
New York
+1 212 940 1261

20th c. & Contemporary Art Day Sale, Morning Session

New York Auction 2 July 2020