George Smith earned a BFA degree in sculpture from the San Francisco Art Institute and an MA degree from Hunter College, CUNY where he studied with sculptor Tony Smith. Smith was awarded many fellowships and grants including a Guggenheim Fellowship, a National Endowment Individual Grant, a National Endowment Planning Grant, and two New York State Council on the Arts Creative Artist Public Service Grant (CAPS) and two Cultural Arts Council of Houston Grants.
His sculptures have been exhibited in galleries and museums throughout the United States including the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Studio Museum of Harlem. Among his many permanent sculptural commissions are Lubben Plaza for the A.H. Belo Foundation in Dallas, Texas, the Niagara Frontier Transit Authority in Buffalo New York, and the Metropolitan Rapid Transportation Authority in Atlanta, Georgia. His work is also represented in the permanent collections of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, the Houston Airport Authority Collection, and The Menil Collection, Houston, Texas.
In his own words, "The sculptural forms I produce are powerful, original, and immensely dignified. On one level, they reflect my intellectual and aesthetic orientation as well as experience with steel construction.
"On another level, they communicate my spiritual ambition. Stylistically, the artworks are unique and synthesize three fundamental sources: the sense of scale and the intuitive look of Abstract Expressionism, the flat-faced industrial geometry of Minimal Art, and the striations, expressive symbols and geometry are inspired by the Dogon peoples of West Africa. My interest in Abstract Expressionism began in high school when I was on a class trip to the Albright-Knox Gallery. There I discovered the bravado abstract painting of Franz Kline. Kline’s paintings were informal, intuitive, emotional, and expressed high energy and decisive movement. These same qualities are evident in the gritty blackness of the surfaces and in the vector-like movement and ambitious scale of my creations. The artworks also exhibit openness to accident and passion for the universality of form. At its best, the Abstract Expressionist approach, like the Jazz music that I admire, provides me with an arena in which to express my emotions and spiritual aspirations. This early influence persists in all of my works.
"After working my way through The San Francisco Art Institute, I went on to graduate school at Hunter College in New York City. There I first became a student and later the assistant of Tony Smith. Tony Smith, a progenitor of Minimal Art, created steel sculptures that bore a direct connection to Alexander Graham Bell’s tetrahedron kites and space frames. From this teacher and mentor, I learned the techniques of building monumental sculpture even as I looked elsewhere to find my own style. Having experienced both the West and East Coast art worlds, I became fully cognizant of the various directions that contemporary art was taking during the tumultuous late 1960s and 1970s. At that time, Minimal Art was the major contemporary influence on sculpture, and while I took it into account, I did not see it as an end in itself. Minimal artists were engaged in simplifying the vocabulary of form in sculpture through the use of industrial materials and clean geometric primary structures. The artists of this persuasion had their designs fabricated most of the time. Even though my sculpture was always hand-made, it expressed the structural clarity of the Minimal approach along with the baroque signature of Abstract Expressionism.
"Incidentally, the fact that my father was a worker in the steel mills in Buffalo, New York, may have been responsible for my choice of materials. However, it was to African art and architecture that Smith turned to find a geometry and spirituality which, unlike most contemporary American art, was not based on materialism. African American artists, such as Charles White and Jacob Lawrence, expressed their unique cultural experience from a Social Realist perspective. John Biggers and Loïs Mailou Jones went on to investigate their African roots from a similar perspective. This genre, Social Realism, was considered a minor movement by the art establishment. Younger artists like myself and James Little during that time who were well educated and had experienced the Civil Rights movement, now felt that we had earned the right to define ourselves and our art through a mainstream international approach to form and content. I, in particular, enriched sources and previous approaches to creativity through my focus on Dogon art and architecture.
"The Dogon, who hail from Mali in West Africa, have over the centuries developed a distinctive aesthetic and knowledge of astronomy that, along with their myths, are the unifying elements of their social and spiritual life. The Dogon believe that they came to earth from their original home on Sirius, the Dog Star, and consequently they orient their art and architecture to this star, resulting in a sense of scale and space that is almost limitless.
"In 1979, I went to West Africa with the funds I received from the sale of a sculpture to Houston arts patron Dominique De Menil. There I studied the Dogon first hand and over the following years, I integrated their geometry into my sculpture. This caused my work to undergo a major change. The sculpture now communicated a profound sense of spirituality whose essence is ritual forms that evoke the unity of the tribe and, by extension, the unity of all things. Early in the twentieth century, African art provided the dynamic and the juju that became central to the fundamental styles of Modernism. Fauvism, Cubism, Surrealism, and Abstract Expressionism were each in different ways vitalized by African art. By contrast, Pop Art and Minimal Art did not reference African Art. By going to the source tradition in Africa, I was able to rekindle this spirituality in my sculpture in a time of extreme darkness in the art world.
"Like so many African American artists, and because of the extreme bias, outright prejudice, or ignorance of the art establishment, I have not been given the attention my work deserves. Mainstream Anglo artists are being constantly exhibited and their work analyzed in the trade magazines, museum catalogs, and scholarly literature while African American artists are often only exhibited with other African American artists during Black History Month. My artwork merits being shown with such Anglo art stars as Michael Heizer and Richard Serra. With the exception of the Whitney Biennial of l970, I have exhibited this work more or less exclusively with major African American artists, such as Mel Edwards, Martin Puryear, and Sam Gilliam."