David Smith David Smith with Australia (1951), outside his home in Bolton Landing.
He became an avid admirer of Picasso from 1929, two years after enrolling as an art student in New York. And, like Picasso, he absorbed the history of sculpture from the earliest times, and incorporated it into his own production in an entirely fresh way. “My understanding of art started with Cubism,” Smith told critic Frank O’Hara. He goes on to reveal an intimate grasp of the exact nature of Picasso and Braque’s pictorial revolution and their new concept of space.
Australia. 1951. Painted steel on cinder block base, 6' 7 1/2" x 8' 11 7/8" x 16 1/8" (202 x 274 x 41 cm), on cinder block base
The Letter 1950 Welded steel 37 5/8 x 22 7/8 x 9 1/4 in.
<ul><li>As this new age of mechanisation took hold, Smith believed that artists should also embrace industrial materials and techniques. Discussing steel as a medium, he said: ‘What it can do in arriving at form economically, no other material can do. The metal itself possesses little art history. What associations it possesses are those of this century: power, structure, movement, progress, suspension, destruction and brutality.’ </li></ul>
Big Rooster, 1945 Forged and welded steel Smith’s trajectory as an artist is inseparable from the social and political changes in American culture and more widely, the impact of events in Europe. His evolution was part of the coming of age of American art in the mid 20th century, a phenomenon that has provoked an endless stream of political controversy, especially in relation to the Abstract Expressionist movement.
In Australia Smith uses thin rods and plates of steel, simultaneously delicate and strong, to draw in space. Sculpture has traditionally gained power from solidity and mass, but Australia is linear, a skeleton. The Constructivists were the first to explore this kind of penetration of sculpture by empty space.
<ul><li>In his post-war evolution, it may appear that Smith abandoned the anti-capitalist themes of the late 1930s. But in his notebooks it is evident that he wanted his sculpture to have a powerful message, an Arcadian vision of a world free of capitalism and class society: </li></ul><ul><li>this sculpture will not be the mystical abode </li></ul><ul><li>of power of wealth of religion </li></ul><ul><li>Its existence will be its statement </li></ul><ul><li>It will not be a scorned ornament on a money changer’s temple </li></ul><ul><li>Or a house of fear </li></ul><ul><li>It will not be a tower of elevators and plumbing with every </li></ul><ul><li>Room rented, deductions, taxes, allowing for depreciation </li></ul><ul><li>amortization yielding a percentage in dividends </li></ul>
David Smith was born in Decatur, Indiana. Between 1927 and 1932, he studied painting at the Art Student League in New York City. Although he was never formally trained as a sculptor, he learned welding in an automobile plant in 1925. In the early 1930s, he became interested in Picasso's welded-steel sculptures of 1928-29. Smith started experimenting with constructed sculpture (as opposed to the more traditional ways of creating sculpture by casting in bronze or carving in stone). While traditional materials and techniques were still used in the early twentieth century, sculptors such as Smith often turned to new materials and methods of construction that they thought were more relevant to the industrial and scientific age.
Circles and Diamonds, 1951, oil on welded steel, 30 3/4 x 32 x 6 1/2 inches, Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, Kansas City, MO. "I do not recognize the limits where painting ends and sculpture begins."
Hudson River Landscape 1951 Welded painted steel and stainless steel 49 15/16 x 75 x 16 3/4 in. Smith said that it was inspired by a train journey from Albany to Poughkeepsie. It was a route he must have travelled hundreds of times, as it leads from his home and studio at Bolton Landing along the 220 miles south to New York City. “Is Hudson River Landscape the Hudson River,” he wrote, “or is it the travel, the vision; or does it matter? The sculpture exists on its own, it is an entity… I want you to travel, by perception, the path I travelled in creating it.”
Voltri XVII, 1962, steel, 95 x 31 5/8 x 30 3/4 in. A short spell in Italy in 1962, sponsored by the Italian government, gave Smith his first opportunity to make monumental welded pieces on a grand scale. In an abandoned factory he made the Voltri series. They hark back to archaic Roman and Etruscan themes like chariots, and ploughs, their pared-down shapes moving towards a greater freedom and abstraction. But while the circles, squares, wedges and curves are increasingly geometric, there is still a narrative, sometimes mischievous approach.
Voltri XV 1962 Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden
At the time of his untimely death in a car crash in 1964, Smith was making his Cubi series, 28 stainless steel pieces, which show him still extending the possibilities of Cubism in a grand architectural spirit. Cubi XXVII, one of his last works, is outstandingly graceful even while being made up of heavy steel blocks. The structure of this Cubi is reminiscent of Mark Rothko’s great series of the late 1950s, especially Red on Maroon which is in the Tate’s own collection.
"CUBI XXVIII" sold for $23.8 million.