Jack Smith


Cascade No. 3 1996
Oil on canvas
91 x 91 cm
AFG 31000

Abstraction, even today, provides a daunting obstacle in many people's appreciation of twentieth century art. The idea of a painting not depicting a recognisable form is often met with bemusement, even scorn.

There is, of course, no similar onus upon music to describe the real world. No one expects to listen only to recreations of familiar sounds when they attend a concert or listen to a record, even if music occasionally refers to reality in the form of birdsong or cannon fire. Music is perhaps the purest form of abstract art.

One of the first artists to realise that painting could function in a similar way to music was Kandinsky. He made this link clear both in his writings and in the titles he used, which explicitly borrowed musical terms such as 'improvisation' and 'composition'.

In recent years this parallel relationship has been the fascination of Jack Smith, the eminent seventy-two year old painter from Sheffield, who has shown his extraordinary abstract paintings with Flowers East since 1990. Like Kandinsky, Smith sometimes uses musical titles: Summer Song, Musical Sensation and Ta Ra Ra are a few of them. There is, however, more than simply an analogous association with music in his work. This is evidenced by another of his titles, Sound and Light. Smith's paintings actually take the parallel between painting and music a step further by making music the very subject of his art. Sound and light are thus combined.

The works yearn to be read, to be understood, and hence to be heard - yet their 'music' is purely visual, and emphatically silent. The dots and shapes have an apparent equivalence to musical notation, but they refer in fact only to themselves; and in that sense the paintings actually mirror music in a quite unique way. Just as music has a vocabulary and syntax which designates nothing outside itself, so too do Smith's paintings create an entirely self-sufficient language in which symbol and meaning are one and the same. His paintings invite, but defy translation. They embody the paradox of a language which has no sense, but also of a music which makes no sound. His work challenges the viewer to fill the silence, but also to hear it, to feel it, to see it.