For John Firth-Smith, "the role of the artist is to be independent and free" (J. Firth-Smith in G. Wilson, John Firth-Smith, Sydney, 2000, p.78). In the early 1970s, this independence of spirit enabled Firth-Smith to forge a career as a painter, going against the tide of avant-garde practices to which he had been exposed in 1971 during a visit to New York. "This is when I made the decision to remain a painter - I suppose in a more traditional classic way shunning the Warhol-Pop thing - the avant garde. I began trying to do something new and relevant with my paintings - getting influences from more esoteric sources. My decision was to keep painting relevant as painting." (Ibid, p.74).
Firth-Smith's painterly approach, and the referential nature of his works, marginalised the artist from the contemporary art scene during the 1960s. It was during this time that his preoccupation with line began. Continuing to explore his favoured theme, he moved away from the more complicated format evident in Around Careel Bay (1964, private collection) towards more sparse works, for example Joh (1969, private collection).
In 1972, on his return to Sydney after his visit to New York, Firth-Smith began his Diagonal series of paintings. In this series, vivid colour saturates each canvas, broken by a single diagonal line moving from right to left and anchored by a block placed either horizontally or vertically at the edge of the canvas. "The series is a dialogue about the way one can visually explore space and express mass and movement in the same exercise - yet, the pull of the painting is always downwards. The textured blocks act as anchoring agents in accordance with the law of gravity." (Ibid).
An aquamarine blue stripe bisects the vivid red saturating the canvas in To There. The juxtaposition of the strawberry red and aquamarine causes the line to resonate, subdued only in the lower right by a splash of white, and a block of paler red. For Firth-Smith, the placement of the line in these images was not a matter of chance or random placement. A conversation recounted by his friend, Garry Shead, explains the rationale behind the series. "I remember John trying to explain to me what the bars were about. They were very real. Those bars were like a plank in a room, he said. 'They can only be like that diagonal otherwise they wouldn't fit in the room. I realised those paintings were about something very tangible in his mind, they weren't just ideas. That's why John's painting is credible, convincing." (Ibid, p.76)."
To There was exhibited at the pivotally important Ten Australians exhibition in 1974. Curated by Patrick McCaughey, the exhibition travelled through Europe and included works by Fred Williams, Roger Kemp and David Aspden. In the foreword to the exhibition catalogue, Patrick McCaughey wrote "Firth-Smith achieves a remarkable balance between the abstract demands of the painting without letting the painting slip away entirely from its origins in nature. The optical spaciousness of the colour field is again tuned to a more tactile sense of particular natural phenomena, present in the anchoring corner blocks. Unifying the optical field of colour and the tactility of the blocks is the diagonal bar; it dramatizes the painting even as its character alters from displaced horizon line to abstract line." (P. McCaughey, "The Australian Experience" in Ten Australians, Canberra, 1974, unpag.).