SCULPTURE IN AMERICA
David Smith (1906-1965)
The sculptor and painter David Smith, was one of the most innovative of twentieth century sculptors in America. Indeed, due to his influence on abstract sculpture, numerous art critics see him as the most important figure in American plastic art of the 20th century. Clement Greenberg, for instance, rated David Smith's sculpture as superior to that of major European sculptors like Henry Moore (1898-1986), and Constantin Brancusi (1876-1957). Others have identified early elements of minimalism and Land art in Smith's work. His most famous pieces include his early relief plaques called Medals for Dishonor (1937-40), his two series of assemblages called Agricola (1952-1957) and Tanktotem (1952-1960), his large-scale metal series of sculptures called Cubi (started 1961) and his Voltri-Bolton series (started 1962). Individual works include Head (1938, Museum of Modern Art New York), Home of the Welder (1945, Tate London), Hudson River Landscape (1951, Whitney Museum of American Art), and Cubi XXVIII (1965, Private Collection). His early death in a car crash cut short the life of one of the great figures in American art.
MODERN PLASTIC ARTISTS
EVOLUTION OF SCULPTURE
Smith was born in Indiana in 1906, but grew up in Ohio where his father ran his own telephone company. He studied at Ohio University and the University of Notre Dame, but dropped out to become a welder with a car manufacturer. This engineering experience would become fundamental to his sculpture in future years. In 1927, Smith moved to New York, meeting his first wife, the sculptor Dorothy Dehner. He enrolled in the Arts Student League in New York, and focused on the fundamentals of painting and drawing. Smith never actually received formal sculptural training, although he was encouraged to add 3-dimensional elements to his painting.
At the League, he discovered the works of the Cubists, Picasso and Juan Gris; and the Blue Rider Group which was founded by Wassily Kandinsky. He became friends with exponents of Russian Constructivism, and the abstract expressionist painters Arshile Gorky, Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock. Smith also became friends with the art collector John Graham, who acted as a mentor, introducing him to the latest modern art movements from Europe were not yet known in America. Smith was particularly influenced by the welded sculptures of Picasso and Julio Gonzalez. Gonzalez had also worked as a welder in a car manufacturing company, and he employed these techniques to sculpture. Gonzalez worked closely with Picasso between 1928 and 1932, showing Picasso how to use oxy-fuel to weld and cut metal.
From the late 1920s, Smith decided to devote himself entirely to the creation of metal sculptures. As with many 20th century sculptors, Smith found inspiration and liberation in African Art. In 1929, he was awarded the Logan Medal of the Arts. In 1932 he rented a studio space in Brooklyn and bought welding equipment, and started using an oxyacetylene torch to weld his works. He experimented in smaller scale metal works, creating relief plaques such as his series of bronze medals called Medals for Dishonour (1937), and small-scale abstract sculptures which incorporated found objects, stone and aluminum rod. These works displayed influences of Cubism and Surrealism. In 1935 Smith travelled to Europe for the first time and saw the great collection at the Museum of Modern Western Art, including works by Matisse, Picasso and Cezanne. In 1937 the sculptor joined the American Abstract Artist Group, and exhibited with them in 1938 and 1939. The AAA is one of the few artist organisations to survive from the Great Depression and continue into the 21st century. In 1938, Smith received his first solo exhibition, featuring drawings and welded metal sculptures, at the East River Gallery.
Note About Sculpture Appreciation
In 1940 Smith moved with his wife to Bolton Landing in upstate New York. He named his larger studio Terminal Iron Works, after his Brooklyn Studio. The extra space enabled him to create larger scale works, moving to installations which increasingly grew in size as time progressed. On Americas entry to World War II, metal became in short supply, as did commissions for abstract sculpture - so Smith returned to drawing and painting, he continued to paint prolifically in fact throughout his career. During this period he painted landscapes and Cubist abstractions. However, when the war was over, Smith returned with a vengeance to sculpture. He worked through the influence of Surrealism to arrive at his own unique sculptural style: metamorphic forms which were flattened Cubist spaces. He emphasised the act of viewing, presenting his works from one fixed vantage point. In this way he tricked the eye into flattening a 3-D object into a 2-D object - in the way a painter tries to create the illusion that a 2-D object is a 3-D object.
The intersection of sculpture and painting was an ongoing theme in Smith's work. In 1940 he gave his first recorded lecture 'On Abstract Art in America' at a gathering of the United American Artists Group. He spoke in favour of abstract art, and against the more fashionable Social Realism movement. The same year he had a one-man exhibition at the Neumann-Willard Gallery, New York, which received a popular review from The Nation magazine: 'If [he] is able to maintain the level set in the work he has already done, he has a chance of becoming the greatest of all American Artists'. To celebrate, the Museum of Modern Art bought its first Smith sculpture, Head (1938).
Large Scale Sculptures
In 1950, the Guggenheim Foundation awarded Smith a fellowship, which provided him with the financial security to devote his attention to his art. The extra funds allowed him to spend more time on individual sculptures. He created Hudson River Landscape in 1951, a welded-steel sculpture that looked like a drawing in space. With open flowing lines, this work displayed Smith's formal training as welder, but also as a draughtsman and painter. In 1952 he started work on his series Agricola (1952-1957) and Tanktotem (1952-1960). These works, took nearly a decade to complete, and consist mainly of improvisational assemblage art, using found objects like old farm equipment and industrial components. The resulting sculptures had a vaguely human-like, totemic form. Although Smith strove to represent universal themes with his works, the roughly welded joints and imperfect surfaces of his sculptures gave his work a personal nature. In 1952 he held an exhibition at the Willard-Kleeman Gallery, which was recognised as one of the best 10 shows of the year by Art News. His success was capped in 1957 when the Museum of Modern Art held a retrospective of his work; and in 1961 when the Museum organised a travelling exhibition of his work.
In 1961 Smith began work on his Cubi series of sculptures, which are his best known works. These sculptures are composed of geometric forms, made from stainless steel, which are welded together and roughly resemble parts of the human body. Like many of his earlier works, these are created to be viewed from one vantage point, exploring the theme of sculptures existing on a flat pictorial space. The works remain unpainted, but show heavy burnished surfaces which recall expressionist brush strokes on a canvas. Smith in fact also created a series of paintings, using a new stencil technique to make spray enamel work on paper, based on his Cubi Series. These paintings further connected his life theme of painting and drawing and sculpture being inter-connected. In 2005, Cubi XXVIII (1965), formerly housed at the Guggenheim Museum New York, was sold at public auction to a private collector for $23.8 million - one of the most expensive pieces of contemporary sculpture ever sold. In 1958 Smith showed at the Venice Biennale and the Bienal of Sao Paulo in 1959. (See also: Junk Art.)
Voltron Series of Sculptures
In 1962 Smith was invited to Italy to create two works for a festival. He was given free access to an abandoned welding studio in a small town called Voltri. At the studio he discovered a stockpile of materials, which made him switch his plans from stainless steel to steel. In just 30 days he made 27 sculptures. He was so taken with the town, that he had large quantities of the steel shipped back to his studio in New York. There he continued to work on a new group of sculptures, which became known as the Voltri-Bolton, or Voltron series.
In 1965, in recognition of his position as one of the leading abstract sculptors in America, Smith was appointed to the National Council on the Arts. He was at the peak of his influence as an artist. Tragically, in May of the same year, he died in a car accident in May 1965. David Smith is considered one of the most important American sculptors of his generation. A huge influence on the development of modern art in America, he was the first to work in metal, and his synthesis of Cubism and Surrealism into a highly personal style bought a new dimension to Abstract Expressionism. Smith's works also heralded minimalism, notably the work of Minimalist sculptors such as Donald Judd (1928-94), Robert Morris (b.1931), Agnes Martin (1912-2004) and Frank Stella (b.1936).
Sculpture by David Smith can be seen in the world's best art museums, including:
- Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts
(San Francisco, California)
- British Museum (London)
For more about the history and styles of plastic art, see: Homepage.
ENCYCLOPEDIA OF SCULPTURE