WHITNEY MUSEUM OF AMERICAN ART
OCTOBER 6, 2011 – JANUARY 8, 2012
Born in Decatur, Indiana, David Smith (1906 – 1965), arguably one of America’s greatest 20th-century sculptors, came from a tradition of craftsmen; his great-grandfather was a blacksmith, and his father an engineer and inventor. As a result, he readily identified with left-wing causes and the working class, seeing himself as belonging to a proletarian lineage. His work in welding, therefore, can be read not only from a formal perspective, but politically as well. In his current retrospective exhibition at the Whitney, however, which tends to concentrate on his geometrical works and includes a sizable portion of drawings and sketchbooks, little of the artist’s political leanings are emphasized; instead, the exhibition explores Smith’s later work—brilliantly poised, geometrically balanced art that seems to emerge, fully formed, from the artist’s inimitable sensibility.
Working at a time when Abstract Expressionism, a painting movement by far, was predominant, Smith singlehandedly pushed the language of sculpture toward pure abstraction. His remarkable oeuvre developed a new conception of space, one in which a certain frontality was often maintained, but which spoke to the achievements of geometric modernism in its inexorable drive toward a basic repertoire of regular shapes with straight-lined edges.
Formally, the late work is all the more remarkable for its proximity to industrial processes (as a student, in the summer of 1925, Smith worked as a riveter and welder for the Studebaker car factory in Indiana). Smith viewed the pieces of the cars he worked on as abstract forms, writing: “The objects I worked with in the factory were abstract. They were always functional pieces having relationships, but were not objects of realism.” Smith’s mastery of abstraction resulted in a nearly classical simplicity and restraint, which would manifest again and again in several great series; Cubi, Zig, Voltri, and Tanktotem. While these groups of pieces sometimes feel as if they sprang directly from Smith’s head, without any apparent influence, it is more accurate to say that they were preceded by his early work, which silently acknowledged the art of the Russian Constructivists who worked abstractly and who were committed, like Smith himself, to progressive politics. The compelling piece about the work included in this retrospective resides in Smith’s creativity in handling his interest in Russian revolutionary art—“Suspended Cube” (1938), for example, conveying a real regard for the work of that period and locale. Consisting of a rectangular cube punctured by rectangular and circular holes, the sculpture is welded to a curving support by two elegantly curving steel rods. It is a small masterpiece in which Smith uses but then transcends the impact of the Russian movement.
Even in Smith’s later pieces, the planar aspect of their construction seems not to have come from American artistic influences but rather from outside of them. As time goes on, the sculptures’ facture begins to appear more and more classical—and classically modernist—in its essential frontality, which is sometimes capable of suggesting the presence of a figure in the vertically aligned pieces. This is not to make of Smith a figurative artist; rather, the point speaks to that condition of abstraction that is in contact with the intersection between its nonobjective bent and the figurative impact of the human body (we recall that another one of Smith’s series is titled “Sentinel,” a reference to human form). “The Hero” (1951-52), for one, looks a bit African in its inspiration; it is clearly a depiction of the human body—a horizontal ellipse for a head, a long column for the torso and small triangles for the chest, a rectangle intimating the hero’s arms, and a Brancusian pedestal that functions as the legs and feet of the sculpture. The work’s totemic aura, fully intact some 60 years after it was made, might well stand for the artist himself, whose visual sensibility was consistently innovative to the point of being visionary.
Although the early work does oscillate between the abstract and the figurative, the purely abstract is taken up in Smith’s Cubi series, one of the more inspired modernist sequences in 20th-century sculpture. “Cubi I” (1963) consists of a steel rectangular box, narrow in width and posed on a point so that it looks like a diamond. It supports five smaller pieces: four cubes and another rectangular box on the top. Finally, a small circle rests against the main steel rectangle. In the Cubi works, Smith found a language capable of nearly infinite variation, whose forms are used both as separate components and reiterated shapes, building the sculpture’s gestalt with extraordinary facility. The surfaces of the ground steel have been abraded with the marks of a steel grinder, adding a painterly interest to Smith’s facades. This can be seen in “Cubi XXVIII” (1965), which is composed of perfectly poised geometric elements—rectangles, columns, and beams—that present themselves in beautiful equilibrium. Given the untamed emotion we experience in the paintings of Smith’s colleagues Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, it seems as if, in contrast, Smith deliberately mapped a path nearly rational in its control.
Like the Constructivists, Smith took pains to join his interest in ideal geometries with industrial methods. “Steel Drawing” (1945) shows that even early on in the artist’s career, Smith took an interest in marking the exterior of geometric planes. The work consists of two rectangles that overlap each other a bit, each one bearing scored lines, both bent and curved, that end in holes penetrating the narrow width of the bronze-colored panels. A stunning piece, “Steel Drawing” gives us the best of both worlds: drawing and sculpture.
Additionally, here and throughout his career, Smith meant to draw attention to the surface of his works in nature. He particularly liked placing his pieces outside, in a large meadow at his workshop at Bolton Landing in upstate New York, where they could be seen in conjunction with their natural surroundings.
The drawings and sketchbooks on view offer a different path into Smith’s thinking, which remained sculptural even as the artist worked two-dimensionally. Individual drawings keep our interest not so much because they are autonomous works in their own right; rather, they fascinate because of their closeness to the sculptures Smith made. We also recognize that a number of Smith’s sculptural works can be conceived of as drawings in space, as, for example, the work “Tanktotem VII”(1960), a remarkable three-dimensional draft of bent and straight lines, as well as a circle that holds the piece together. “Zig IV” (c. 1961), painted a brushy orange, reads not only as a stunning introduction to the sculptor’s late work, but also speaks to the future, for its forms—flat planes and rounded curves—must have had an impact on the British sculptor Anthony Caro, whom Smith mentored and befriended. Even now, more than 50 years after his last works were made, Smith manages to look insightful and oriented toward the new.
Jonathan Goodman is a teacher and author specializing in Asian art, about which he has been writing for more than twenty years.