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Since 2001 he has been Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Contemporary Art History and Theory in the Department of the History of Art and Architecture at the "University of Pittsburgh. He also serves as a Board member of "The Andy Warhol Museum, "Pittsburgh.
Smith was a student at "Melbourne High School, where he won a General Exhibition in the 1962 Matriculation examinations. Between 1963 and 1967, he studied at the "University of Melbourne, where he studied art history under Professor Sir Joseph Burke, Franz Philipp and "Bernard Smith. When the "Power Institute was established at the "University of Sydney in 1968, he tutored to professors Bernard Smith, David Saunders and Donald Brook.
Winning a Harkness Fellowship in 1972, he studied at the "Institute of Fine Arts, New York, under professors Goldwater, Rubin and Rosenblum, and at "Columbia University under Professor "Meyer Schapiro. While in New York, he joined the "Art & Language group of conceptual artists, including "Joseph Kosuth, "Ian Burn, Mel Ramsden and "Michael Corris, and remained an active member 1972–1976.
Returning to Australia in 1975, he taught contemporary art and art "historical method in the Fine Arts Department at the University of Melbourne and at the Art School, Preston Institute of Technology. His Master of Arts thesis on "American Abstract Expressionism: ethical attitudes and moral function" received the University Medal in 1976 from the "University of Sydney.
Appointed a lecturer at the Power Institute of Fine Arts in 1976, Smith remained until 2001, becoming Power Professor of Contemporary Art and Director of the Power Institute, Foundation for Art and Visual Culture from 1994. During his tenure, the Institute became an international centre for the study of contemporary visual cultures. He was a founding board member of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, and remained on that Board until 2001.
When Ian Burn and Nigel Lendon returned to Australia in 1976, Smith joined with them to found Media Action Group, which soon was augmented by others, including Ian Milliss, and became Union Media Services (Sydney), an independent, artist-run organisation that provided graphic art services to the union movement and dissident groups. Smith wrote art criticism for the "Weekend Australian, "Nation Review, The Times on Sunday, as well a number of articles for local and international journals, now numbering over 100.
Smith's 1986 doctoral dissertation became Making the Modern: Industry, Art and Design in America (University of Chicago Press, 1993), winner of the inaugural Georgia O'Keeffe Museum Prize in 2009 for the best book on modern American art published in the past 25 years. The committee of jurors for the book prize they chose Smith's book because of its "excellence of writing and scholarship, its originality and its outstanding and multi-faceted exploration of the emergence and flourishing of modernism as a phenomenon in American art and culture."
Smith contributed three chapters to Bernard Smith's classic text Australian Painting 1788–1990 (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1991) and wrote lengthy studies of key works and themes in Australian art. These are collected in the two volumes Transformations in Australian Art, volume 1, The Nineteenth Century: Landscape, Colony and Nation, volume 2, The Twentieth Century: Modernism and Aboriginality (Craftsman House, Sydney, 2002; joint winner of the Power Institute/Art Association of Australia and New Zealand Book Prize, 2003).
He also edited many other books, including In Visible Touch: Modernism and Masculinity (Power Publications and the University of Chicago Press, 1997), First People, Second Chance: The Humanities and Aboriginal Australia (Australian Academy of the Humanities, 1999), Impossible Presence: Surface and Screen in the Photogenic Era (Power Publications and the University of Chicago Press, 2001), with Paul Patton, Jacques Derrida, Deconstruction Engaged: The Sydney Seminars (Power Publications, 2001; Japanese edition, Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 2005), and Contemporary Art + Philanthropy (University of NSW Press, 2007).
In 1996, Smith was elected a Fellow of the "Australian Academy of the Humanities and a Membre titulaire, "Comité International d'Histoire de l'Art, serving as the Australian representative and Vice-President of the latter 1999–2003. He has been a visiting professor at the "Universities of California, San Diego, "Chicago, "Duke University, "Pennsylvania, "Queensland, and is currently a Visiting Professor in the Faculty of Architecture, Design and Planning at the University of Sydney. Smith has also been awarded a number of prestigious research fellowships including, in recent years, being named a Getty Scholar at the Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles 2001-2; Fondation de France Chercheur Invité at the Institut national d'histoire de l'art, Paris, 2007; and GlaxoSmithKlein Senior Fellow at the National Humanities Center, Research Triangle Park, Raleigh-Durham, NC.
Smith's current work explores the relationships between contemporary art and its wider settings, within a world picture that he believes is characterised above all by its contemporaneity. His findings are being presented in a series of books. These include The Architecture of Aftermath (University of Chicago Press, 2006); Antinomies of Art and Culture: Modernity, postmodernity and contemporaneity (edited with Nancy Condee and Okwui Enwezor, and published by Duke University Press, 2008); and What is Contemporary Art? (University of Chicago Press, 2009). He is working on Contemporary Art of the World: Late Modern to Now (Laurence King and Pearson/Prentice-Hall, 2011).
Terry Smith is that rare art and social historian able to write criticism at once alert to the forces that contextualise art and sensitive to the elements and qualities that inhere to the works of art themselves. His most recent book, What Is Contemporary Art? (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009), contains a series of interrelated essays that unpack a vast range of topics and issues and take the reader on a theoretical tour through some of the world's most influential art museums, laying bare their conflicted missions and studying the heightening distinction, and dispute, between modern and contemporary art.