Conceived in 1962, the notion of Tony Smith's Duck dates from the very beginning of this influential artist's career. This sculpture demonstrates the sense of scale that he introduced to sculpture during the 1960s, seeking to find an aesthetic that was suited to the new age of industry, of skyscrapers and of Abstract Expressionists. Even before he had turned to art, he counted painters such as Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko and Clyfford Still among his friends, and it is a similar quest for a modern notion of the fundamental, essential and universal elements of our universe that he has captured in the sleek, geometric forms of Duck. He has done this in a manner that chimes perfectly with the search, in which all of these artists participated to one extent or another, for an American aesthetic, and indeed for a new American myth.
It was only in 1961, the year before Duck was created, that the then-architect found himself making small sculptures while recovering from a car crash. These harkened back to the sculptures of pueblo villages that he had made from medicine packages when, as a child, he had contracted tuberculosis. During that period, Smith had another formative epiphany. Kept sequestered in a room for a long period to avoid infecting others, his father brought him to the factory that his family then owned. The contrast between the confined space of his room and this vast, mechanical space had a profound impact on him. He later compared it to the difference between his pueblo village models and the large sculptures like Duck which he would later create. These were made based on models similar to those he made during his 1961 convalescence. His maquettes would later be transformed into large-scale steel works by a welding company.
Smith's training as an architect had its legacy in the reduced forms of Duck: one can perceive some reincarnation and evolution of the ideas of some of his teachers Archipenko and Moholy-Nagy, as well as the influence of Frank Lloyd Wright, for whom he had worked. It was in part through his extensive contact with the world of art, through his friendships with the Abstract Expressionists and his early training at the Art Students' League, that Smith managed to emerge as though fully formed as a sculptor in his late 40s. Both through his works and his teaching, he became a huge influence on the development of art during the following two decades. It is a mark of the near-immediate recognition of his importance that he was featured on the cover of Time magazine in 1967, and that he has enjoyed a range of retrospectives, while nearly every important museum in the United States and abroad count his sculptures among their collections.