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David Smith, The “Father” Of American Sculpture.

December 20, 2008

When N and I first got together a few years ago, one of the big “tests” for me, regarding him, was whether he (a totally “non-art” person) could handle my being a sculptor and mixed media artist. We flew to New York for a wonderful, long weekend visit, where we took in some plays in the evenings and during the day went to MOMA, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, many galleries and, my favorite, The Guggenheim. The latter was a special treat for me but also my testing ground for N, because there was a retrospective of David Smith’s going on at the time, and it would be his first exposure to Smith’s work.

Being thrilled at the prospect of seeing for the first time (121 pieces, I believe), many works of Smith’s all together, was an understatement, but it was overshadowed by my anxiety as to what kind of reaction N would have regarding this sculpture exhibit. Would no reaction bother me; would a negative one do the same? A positive one would put me over the moon. I held my breath as we entered the elevator to ride to the top of the museum for a very slow walk down the Guggenheim’s spiral gallery. I found myself looking at Smith’s work while watching N out of the corner of my eye. He was pretty absorbed, walking around each sculpture as we wound our way down to the ground floor, commenting now and then on the many different phases of Smith’s work.

He loved the work. He marveled at the fact that despite his, heretofore, lack of exposure to 20th century sculpture, he really got it.  And then he got me.

From The Tate London Collection:

Sawhead, 1933. Bronze and painted iron. 18.5″x 11.8″ x 8.25″

David Smith Sawhead 1933

In the above sculpture one can see that Smith was inspired by the welded metal sculptures of Pablo Picasso and Julio González in the early 1930s. He had worked in a car factory and decided to introduce mechanical parts and found objects into his art, creating a new language of sculpture out of everyday, industrial materials. This head has been created by combining tools and machine parts, such as a sieve and metal shears, welded onto the flat blade of a circular saw. The technical exploration can also be taken as an acknowledgement of the  fragmented experience of modern life. Tate London.

From Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden site:

Medal for Dishonor: Propaganda for War. 1939-1940. Bronze.

9 1/2 ” x 11 7/8″ x 1″

Propaganda for War

In 1940 he exhibited Medals for Dishonor, 15 reliefs with a strong element of social commentary. During World War II, Smith worked in a locomotive factory, acquiring a lifelong interest in machinery and in large-scale constructions. Many of his sculptures of the 1940s, such as Royal Bird (1948, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, Minnesota), are grim metaphors for human violence and greed—gaunt skeletal works in which metal rods twisted around central cores assume suggestively organic shapes. MSN Encarta.

From the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden site:

Ring-Tooth Woman, 1945. Bronze on steel base. 10 3/8″ x 2 1/2″ x 6 3/8 “

Ring-Tooth Woman

A review of the 2006 retrospective we saw at the Guggenheim from Artnet: WEEKEND UPDATE by Walter Robinson:

For most of his career, Smith favored pictorial sculpture, making freestanding pictures-in-space that resemble all manner of things, whether hieroglyphics in a cartouche (The Letter, 1950), Atom Age illustrations (Star Cage, 1950) or even a moon peeking through the clouds (Voltri XV, 1962).

Walking down the Guggenheim ramp, it becomes clear that Smith’s old-fashioned formal perfection is based on nature, with its elegant syncopation and grace. More interesting now are the handful of works that represent not the ideal of the human figure but its collapse into age, sloth and disability — like in the “Tanktotems” from the early 1950s, with their pot bellies, curved spines and spindly legs.

Also interesting is the “Voltri” series of sculptures, made in a masterly 30-day burst of creativity in 1962 in the eponymous small town in Italy, apparently from odds and ends of metal left behind in the welding factory that Smith was given as a studio. The Voltri sculptures have the spur-of-the-moment verve of Ab-Ex painting, and also reflect the economic reality — emptied out industrial spaces in a shifting global workforce — that would give birth to Minimalism, Post-minimalism and the rest of the SoHo-spawned art movements.

The show includes four shiny, stainless-steel works from the “Cubi” series, including Cubi I(1965), which holds pride of place on the floor in the center of the museum rotunda, and up in the tower gallery the Guggenheim’s own Cubi XXVII, made two months before Smith’s death in a car accident in 1965 and obtained by the museum in a trade only two years later. These icons of 20th-century art, Smith’s “breakthrough” into a purer form of abstraction, have a lot of power. And, curiously, as with many such icons, they have a low-culture counterpart, notably, a child’s tower of toy blocks.


Australia, 1951. Painted steel on cinder block base.

6′ 7 1/2″ x 8′ 11 7/8″ x 16 1/8″

See it at:

David Smith. Australia. 1951

Smith was born in Decatur, Indiana on March 9, 1906, and grew up in Paulding, Ohio. He briefly attended college at Ohio University, the University of Notre Dame, and George Washington University, before moving to New York in 1926. There he studied painting full-time at the Art Students League. It was during the 1930s that he began to focus on sculpture, creating welded constructions using found objects and forged metal.

When he entered the Art Students League in New York City in 1927, he studied painting with John Sloan; that same year he married Dorothy Dehner.

In 1928 he studied privately with the Czech painter Jan Matulka, who introduced him to modern painting and sculpture. To support himself, Smith worked part time as a taxi driver, seaman, carpenter, and salesman. In 1929 he bought an old farm in Bolton Landing, N.Y., and set up the studio he used for the rest of his life.

In 1940 when Smith moved permanently to Bolton Landing,  he “created” the studio that he called  The Terminal Iron Works.

In 1952 Smith divorced his first wife, and the following year married Jean Treas, with whom he had two daughters, Becca and Candida. That second marriage was dissolved in 1961.

From the David Smith Estate site:

The Hero (Eyehead of a Hero), 1951-52. Steel, painted.

73 5/8″ x 251/2″ x 11 3/4″

Smith came to sculpture through painting, having trained at the Art Students League from 1927 to 1932. Like many of his fellow artists, he then worked in the WPA Federal Art Project. Significant friendships—and aesthetic affinities—with John Graham, Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, and many of the Abstract Expressionist painters contributed to his development. But skills learned in his youth in Indiana, where he had summer jobs working in a Studebaker car factory, eventually came to the fore in his art making. When he saw magazine illustrations of welded sculpture by Pablo Picasso and Julio González, he himself began welding metal constructions. Smith found a way to bridge seemingly irreconcilable worlds. There is often in the artist’s sculptural work a decidedly frontal orientation (almost two-dimensional), and a feel for the calligraphic (series of works from the 1940s and ’50s were open “drawings in metal”). Metropolitan Museum of Art.

From the National Gallery  of Art site:

Sentinel I, 1956. Welded Steel. 89 5/8″ x 16 7/8″ x 22 5/8″

Later in his career, Smith would note the overwhelming potency of steel as a medium: “What it can do in arriving at a form economically, no other medium can do. What associations it possesses are those of this century: power, structure, movement, progress, suspension, brutality.” Metropolitan Museum of Art.

From the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden site:

Raven IV, 1957. Welded Steel. 28 1/8″ X 32 3/8″ X 13 1/4″

Raven IV

During the last fifteen years of his life, Smith’s sculpture was characterized by overlapping rectangular plates of highly polished steel. Becca, named after one of Smith’s two daughters, is monumental in scale but at the same time buoyant and graceful. Pristine geometric components have been assembled in a massive yet elegant configuration, all compressed into a relatively flat plane. The surface is exuberant, wire brushed in elaborate scribblings resembling brushstrokes. The sense of touch and gesturalism is preeminent on these dazzling, burnished surfaces. Metropolitan Museum of Art.

From the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden site:

White Egg with Pink, 1958. Oil and metallic paint on canvas. 98 3/8″ x  52 “

White Egg with PinkSmith once stated that: Art is made from dreams, and visions and things not known, and least of all from things that can be said. It comes from the inside of who you are when you face yourself. It is an inner declaration of purpose; it is a factor which determines artist identity.

From the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden site:

Voltri XXI, 1962. Welded Steel. 51 1/8″ x 27 3/4″ x 26 7/8″

Voltri XXI

From Jacob Weisberg at

In 1962, Smith was invited to Italy for the Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto. With a crew of Italian workmen, he constructed in one month not one sculpture, as commissioned, but 27. These pieces were made from the tongs, wheels, wrenches, and other industrial detritus Smith found on the floor of an abandoned factory in Voltri. Displayed in Spoleto’s Roman amphitheater, they created a wonderful modern-ancient contrast paralleling the industrial-agrarian one on view at Bolton Landing.

From the

Cubi XXVII, 1965. Stainless steel. 111 1/4″ x 87 1/4″ x 34 1/8″

Large view of Cubi XXVII

“It was after his return from Italy that the fields began to burgeon at an amazing rate,” Candida Smith writes in the exhibition catalog. “It was as if the creative explosion and the resulting enormous installation in Spoleto ignited a fire that did not burn out.” David Smith used the term “work stream” to describe the flow of art that poured from his shop and into the fields. The profusion included “Bolton-Voltris,” made with salvage from Italy, white-painted “primo pianos, “wagons,” “circles,” “cubis,” and “zigs.”

From The Metropolitan Museum of Art site:

Becca, 1965. Stainless steel. 113 1/4″ x 123″ x 30 1/2″

Becca was made at the height of Smith’s career in 1965, the year he died in a car accident near Bennington, Vermont. Even though his life was cut short, the artist’s output was prodigious and his many innovations were unparalleled; Smith’s legacy of influence is unmatched in American sculpture.

Watch this Robert Hughes video- American Visions – 7th episode, part 2 of 5. Smith is talked about after Pollock and Rothko; some of his contemporaries.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Walker Ryan permalink
    December 2, 2009 5:02 pm

    There is a film about Davis Smith that a saw a bit of a while ago. I know it wasn’t Robert Hughes piece, and that it had interviews with his children. Do you know about this film? Can you send me details if you do?

  2. Wauneata Waller permalink
    December 7, 2009 8:21 pm

    You should contact – they would know about the film.


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