Commentary Magazine


David Smith’s Vision

David Smith (1906-1965) is generally considered one of America's greatest sculptors; he was also one of the most influential American artists of the 20th century. On the occasion of the 100th anniversary of his birth, the Guggenheim Museum in New York City has organized a major retrospective.

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The exhibit, which includes more than a hundred sculptures from all periods of Smith's career, as well as a roomful of drawings, reconfirms both Smith's importance and the greatness of his finest work. But the show also raises questions about the various series of monumental pieces that he created in the last decade or so of his life, and in so doing points to two larger issues: the nature of Smith's originality, and the relationship between American and European modernism.

The standard view is that, like a number of American Abstract-Expressionist painters who were his friends and contemporaries, Smith was primarily influenced by Cubism and Surrealism—but that once these influences had been absorbed, he went on to develop a larger-scale, more powerful, and more fully “American” form of sculptural expression. In considerations of Smith's career, the “general tendency,” as Carmen Gimenez, the curator of the Guggenheim show, writes in the exhibition catalogue, “has been to concentrate on what he accomplished during his final fifteen years at most, and to consider the rest a more or less promising preamble.”

The show Gimenez has organized goes a long way toward redressing this imbalance. It presents many superb examples of Smith's work from the 1930's and 40's in iron, steel, bronze, and combinations of these materials. These clearly show the progression of his development, how he struggled to give coherent expression to the various impulses that animated his art, and how he synthesized modernist European influences into an original yet clearly derivative sculptural style—one that seems all the more remarkable in light of his modest, and apparently uninspiring, beginnings.

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Born on March 9, 1906, in Decatur, Indiana, Smith was raised in Ohio. His father was a telephone engineer and part-time inventor; his mother, a schoolteacher. While in high school he studied cartooning through a correspondence course offered by the Cleveland Art School. He attended Ohio University, but only for a year, and later Notre Dame, from which he dropped out after two weeks.

In 1925, Smith went to work at the Studebaker car factory in South Bend, Indiana, where he learned riveting, soldering, and welding—skills that would later prove critical in his decision to become a sculptor. In 1926 he took a job in Washington, D.C., studying art at night at George Washington University. Not long afterward he moved to New York City, taking another job and, on the advice of a woman he met in his apartment building—Dorothy Dehner, who would become his first wife—enrolling at the Art Students League. There he studied under the American “Ash Can” school painter John Sloan and with Jan Matulka, a Czech-born artist whom Smith would later credit as his most important mentor. As he put it in a statement quoted in the catalogue, “It was from [Matulka] that for the first time I learned of Cubism and Constructivism. Then the world kind of opened for me.”

Indeed it did. Having started out as a painter, Smith soon turned to making painted constructions as well as sculptures out of found objects. Several of the latter, including the charming Untitled (Coral Bird) (1933) and the highly expressive figure-like abstraction Untitled (Lyndham) (1932), are among the first objects one sees at the Guggenheim.

What is striking about these early works, as well as about some of Smith's Surrealist drawings of the early 1930's, is that, as if his instinct were unlocking his imagination, he seems to have just picked up from where some of the leading modernists were at that moment, among them the Spanish sculptor Julio González. To quote him again, “I also learned a lot at that time from just looking at reproductions, mostly in European magazines. I first saw Picasso—[and] then his iron construction in Cahiers d'art—and I realized that I too knew how to handle this material.”

This remarkable statement of self-recognition says a good deal about the primary sources of Smith's inspiration. It is also true that traditional ideas of sculpture (think, for example, of Auguste Rodin or Constantine Brancusi), which entail the modeling or carving of form out of a central mass, seem to have held no appeal for Smith. His sculpture of the 1930's and 40's, like that of Alberto Giacometti, which it most often recalls, was instead pictorial in nature, dependent on compositional elements of painting involving lines, points, and planes in the creation of a “transparent” object that is sometimes best viewed frontally rather than from all sides. Indeed, the term “drawing in space” has come to be almost synonymous with Smith's pre-mid-1950's oeuvre, whose linear character is often breathtakingly evident.

One can see this at the Guggenheim in the early and roughly fashioned iron-and-steel Reclining Figure (1933) and in the smoothly elegant and purely abstract Reclining Figure (1939-40), also of iron and steel but consisting not of bent and corroded metal but entirely of small rods, some straight, some bent, conjoined by small metal balls. The dynamism of this work is one of its chief attractions, just as a sense of flowing yet contained movement is one of the leading characteristics of Smith's art in general.

In Dancer (1935), Aerial Construction (1936), and Billiard Player Construction (1937), the jutting, thrusting, and curving metal shapes are given structural integrity, expressive force, and a certain Smithean élan by metal “lines” that unify the whole in a tightly conceived Cubist “armature,” imparting a feeling of more or less continuous multi-directional movement. The Cubist framework is even more explicit in Bathers (1940), which, like many of Smith's best works, seems both entirely abstract and yet clearly suggestive of the human figure. Looking at this piece (and others) from different angles reveals its many expressive manifestations, as one form emerges and takes momentary precedence while another temporarily recedes, or one shape suddenly changes its character before your eyes (and you see one, two, or perhaps four bathers in all).

In other works, the Surrealist element is dominant. Reclining Figure (1936) is clearly derived from Giacometti's Woman with her Throat Cut, and Interior (1937) and Interior for Exterior (1939) recall the master's The Palace at 4 AM. Yet there is no question that Interior is itself a small masterpiece, despite the fact that its antecedents are unmistakable. One can only marvel at its delicacy, its freshness, and the perfection of its mix of linear and figurative elements, which together suggest a fanciful scene or a narrative that, as is almost always the case with Smith, is left unexplained.

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This points to another important facet of Smith's art—namely, the personal, symbolic, or anecdotal content that is often suggested in his sculptures, even some of the most abstract. A fair amount of critical energy has been expended in musing about the precise nature of this content and how the art conveys it; the catalogue for the Guggenheim show includes a lengthy compilation of excerpts from reviews of Smith's work that offers plentiful examples. But very little of this critical labor of explication is helpful in appreciating Smith's art. It is not that the emotional or narrative content is not important; it clearly is. But knowing the supposed details of its meaning or source adds nothing to, and may in fact detract from, the pleasures of responding to his wonderfully inventive ways of shaping abstract forms out of down-to-earth materials.

Nowhere are these forms more compelling, or more purely and completely realized, than in the mature works in which his applications of Cubist and Surrealist aesthetics culminate, among them Helmholtzian Landscape (1946), Blackburn, Song of an Irish Blacksmith (1949-50), The Forest (1950), Star Cage (1951), Hudson River Landscape (1951), and Agricola IX (1952) and Agricola XIII (1953). Even the gloomily oppressive The Cathedral (1950) has a force and authority that are difficult to ignore, although its clear political meaning is somewhat clichéd.

On the whole, Smith's best works are characterized by an unfettered yet disciplined exuberance of feeling that one finds irresistible; these are creations of the utmost lightness and weight, delightfully free in composition, strong in expression, and often liberating in effect. They are full of artistic conviction and realized intention, rooted in the modernist traditions upon which Smith drew so heavily.

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The same, unfortunately, cannot be said of many of the pieces Smith produced in the 1950's and 60's. Australia (1951), widely regarded as one of his masterpieces, misses the mark, partly because the anthropomorphic element (the sculpture resembles a large insect) has come too much to the fore and partly because of its size. At nine feet long, it is much larger than Smith's earlier table-top-size sculptures.

As one critic has written, Australia “marks a major change in Smith's work and in many ways stands as a dividing line between two phases of his career . . . it foreshadows the monumental works of the 1950's and 60's.” The examples of these larger works on display at the Guggenheim are remarkable for their variety and experimental character, but one cannot help feeling that in embarking on the path of monumentalism, Smith began to lose his way.

At the risk of overgeneralizing, I would say that these later works look and feel as if the impulses behind their making have been inhibited or otherwise blocked. Smith's concept of overall form has become radically simplified, but also flaccid; consequently the pieces tend to suffer, to one degree or another, from either a lack of strength and rigor or a loss of energy and spirit—or both. To quote one of the few negative critical responses from the period in question (the mid- to late 50's), Smith had come to seem “flat, a far less interesting sculptor than in his vigorous early work. His giant, stainless steel figures are bigger, sharper, and more mechanistic but hardly more meaningful than Tinker Toy figures.”

This strikes me as an accurate assessment of the works from the Tanktotem series that are on view at the Guggenheim. Much bulkier and more serious are the sculptures in the Voltri series. They include Voltri VII (1962), five bent flat elongated steel shapes clearly suggestive of human figures in various poses of dejection or weariness standing atop the horizontal bar of a two-wheeled vehicle of some kind; and Voltri VIII (1962), a large piece consisting of an upright gourd-shaped sheet of steel “holding,” at a perpendicular angle, another sheet of steel folded over twice, the whole faintly suggesting an abstract human figure in a pose of some pathos.

These works, and others, seem rather lumbering attempts at personifying something no doubt intended to be important but unsuccessfully conveyed. One gets a similar impression from the Cubi series: very large, purely geometrical agglomerations of polished steel boxes, cylinders, and discs. Like the drawings for them, also on display, they seem static, lifeless, even arbitrary.

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According to one lonely critic, writing in 1980, Smith “was the first and best of American sculptors, but by no means the greatest sculptor of the century, and the large Cubi compositions of the early 60's, on which his public reputation mainly rests . . . , now seem ponderously self-important.”

This was not, however, the general view, let alone the view of Smith's most ardent champions, one of whom had written in 1965 that the Cubi sculptures were “possibly the greatest works Smith ever produced. . . . [evoking] that sense we have when an artist seems no longer content to ‘interpret’ reality but to want to compete with it in mastery.”

Yet, perhaps without realizing it, this critic may actually have put his finger on what went wrong with Smith's efforts to make monumental art in his later years. For is it any wonder that an artist seeking to “compete with” reality “in mastery” would end up creating objects that are “ponderously self-important”?

In pursuit of a grander vision, Smith seems to have produced works of an increasingly hermetic quality, as if he had turned his art inward and in so doing constricted his own once vital imagination. Or, to put this another way, he appears to have been most inspired and most complete when working more as a European modernist than as an American one. The more “original” his sculpture became in appearance, the less it had in it of the complex Smithean sensibility that so fully and freely infused his earlier work. His greatest formal accomplishments were also his most personal; as the sculpture got bigger, the personal element got lost.

To make truly great monumental art requires a certain kind of genius. To take an example from literature, The Iliad, as one scholar has remarked, may well be ten times longer than the usual ancient Greek song, yet its structure not only carries the weight of its length but distributes it in such a way as to renew continuously the work's own motion and spirit. Not all great artists can achieve that kind of monumentality.

But this hardly diminishes what they do achieve, even if it is of more modest proportions. The Guggenheim show has done much to clarify David Smith's achievement as well as the limitations of his art. Perhaps it will eventually contribute as well to clarifying the achievements and limitations of other artists in the era in which he played so important a part.

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Footnotes

1 David Smith: A Centennial will be on view at the Guggenheim through May 14, after which it can be seen at the Musée National d'Art Moderne in Paris ( June 14-September 11) and the Tate Modern in London (October 25-January 14, 2007).

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About the Author

Steven C. Munson’s contributions to COMMENTARY include “David Smith’s Vision” (May 2006) and “Inside the New MOMA” (February 2005).




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