Small Piece, Big History: Last, by Tony Smith

Tony Smith, Last, installation view. Bob Perkoski, Photo


Gray’s Auctioneers will offer up a host of modern and contemporary art for its upcoming auction, including a unique little sculpture loaded with big local history.

In November 1979, Clevelanders watched on as a dynamic public art installation rose before the new Frank J. Lausche State Office Building on the corner of West 6th Street and Superior. While a familiar structure now, 42 years ago Tony Smith’s visionary “Last,” rendered in bright orange painted steel, evoked uneven responses from locals. The art set, perhaps predictably, lauded the addition.

“We are a step closer to having something of a contemporary public art scene in in Cleveland,” reported Plain Dealer Art Critic Helen Cullinan in December 1978 as the massive steel “Last” was being prefabricated in Newark, New Jersey.

She continued: “Among those who know how vital that can be are members of the city’s Society for Contemporary Art who recently, in the course of a New York art trip, took a walking tour of monumental sculpture in Lower Manhattan … It was living dazzling proof of what sculpture can do to humanize the drastically changing urban environment.”

Others weren’t so enthusiastic.

“If I had my way,” opined the PD’s George E. Condon in November 1978, “there would be a statue of Frank Lausche mounted a horse. I’d have him wearing a Roman tunic … Lausche is the sort of fellow who could wear a toga and get away with it,” said Condon, adding that he and other journalists referred to the former Cleveland mayor/Ohio governor/U.S. Senator as “Hon. Curleytop.”

Condon went on to suggest alternatives to fill the coveted spot in front of the new state office building designed by Fred Toguchi Associates, Ireland Associates, and Madison-Madison International. A section of the metal railing from the center strip of the West Memorial Shoreway, or perhaps a tangled pile of wrecked cars would aptly suffice, asserted Condon. “Properly mounted in front of the Lausche Building,” he said, “it should set the whole art world agog.”

Apparently another contingent suggested scrapping the concept of “contemporary” from the installation all together. From an Oct. 11, 1978 editorial in the PD: “Now there is a late-starting effort by State Sen. Anthony O. Calabrese, D-22, to plant a tall statue of Christopher Columbus on the plaza.” Thankfully, that idea was summarily dismissed, which left some dismayed—including Mr. Condon.

“Too bad,” said the Plain Dealer mainstay. “He was a great explorer in his day.”

All of this heretofore forgotten local lore is about to come tumbling back into relevance, however subtly. In order to push the monumental “Last” from consideration to fruition, Smith created a scaled model of the sculpture (known as a maquette) for display in front of a partial mockup of the Lausche Building to give supporters a strong visual representation of the finished installation.

The Cleveland Foundation, which provided matching funds for “Last,” (budgeted at $225,000), was key to the project’s approval, and after Smith got the green light, the maquette became part of the organization’s collection. There it languished—until now. The miniature sculpture will be up for auction at Gray’s on March 9, 2022.

For interested collectors, this piece of history is considerably more manageable than the original, which stands 35 feet high, spans 75 feet, and is constructed from 6-foot rhomboidal steel sections weighing up to six tons each. Conversely, the maquette, formed from acrylic sheet, measures about 2 by 4 feet and is mounted on a triangular base.

Tony Smith, Maquette for Last, goes up for auction. Collection of the Cleveland Foundation.

In addition to the Smith piece, the eclectic auction house will have a number of modern and contemporary selections on the block for next week’s event. Many have Cleveland connections, including pieces by Henry Cohen, Don Harvey, Andrea Hahn, Scott Miller, Clarence Van Duzer, Julio Le Parc, and a host of others.

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The opinions expressed on CAN Blog are those of the individual writers. Art is somewhat subjective. Well, somewhat. But yes, everybody's a critic.