David Smith: Follow My Path
On ViewHauser & Wirth
April 27 – July 30, 2021
“Follow my path” comes from a talk by David Smith. On one level, it correctly indicates his advances during Abstract Expressionism, not known for the measure and, to some degree, the restraint so clearly shown in this excellent exhibition of drawings and sculptures and some photos. It is clear that Smith was a visionary artist ahead of his time, just as it is clear that his formal distance from the ecstatic liberties of his Ab Ex colleagues indicated a new vision that had a greater than usual attachment to the past (for example, there is a copy of Smith’s Greek dictionary in the show). Smith knew sculpture for what it was: an object in its own right, and, traditionally, a memorial to those who preceded those currently living, now gone. At the same time, his abstraction moved his art into a field of pure form, tending at times to reference nothing but itself. The tension between recognizable form and nonobjective insight develops beautifully in this show, whose offerings amount to a miniature retrospective of one of America’s best artists.
Part of Smith’s archaism led him to a warrior’s rhetoric. The Hero (1951–52) encapsulates a modern reading of what might have been a Greek figure: a tall, simplified steel and metal form painted a rust brown. The head is a wide, narrow oval, while the body is indicated simply by narrow metal tubing connected to the central rod serving as the backbone, with a largish rectangle extending outward. A classically inspired pedestal serves as the foundation of the sculpture. The combination of antique influence and the artist’s complete command of a modern visual idiom make the work outstanding. Study for ‘The Hero’ (1951), a watercolor and ink drawing on paper, quite closely projects the final form of the sculpture. It has the major form, with a reddish-brown version of the work on the left, while on the right side of the paper there are related studies done in ink. It is particularly interesting to study the relationship, so clearly defined, between the well-described drawing and the final three-dimensional work of art. One of the show’s strengths is its ample presentation of drawings closely connected to the sculptures we see.
The two related painted steel sculptures from 1961, Ninety Father and Ninety Son, are both frontally facing figures with simplified forms. Their heads are slightly concave, with the father’s form a bit more delineated, demonstrating a neck, a torso, and legs, with a pedestal. The son’s figure is simple in the extreme: the head is circular and quite large in relation to the single form, outwardly bulging in the lower middle part of the work. The pedestal is lower, just as the figure itself is shortened when compared to that of the father. Clearly, the figures are meant to demonstrate a family resemblance, and they do, despite or maybe because of the very simple planes their persons consist of. But close emotional ties are not evident; instead, they are joined through a similarity of form. A more abstract work, 17 h’s, from 1950, is made of rust-colored steel—the letters rise off of and sit on extended horizontal strips of metal. In a few cases the h’s orientation is reversed, lending the piece a slightly Greek, archaic geometry. An untitled ink drawing, done a year later, echoes the frontality of the individual column-like shapes, which also might be viewed as the capital letter I. Again, Smith cleverly and effectively merges readable meaning with abstract effect; he is outstanding in his ability to do so.
Smith’s drawings are passionate and often colorful, but this writer enjoyed his sprayed enamel-paint work the most. Two black-and-white pieces from 1959–60 use the black paint to outline geometric shapes; both seem to describe a warrior in action. Untitled (Arc) (1959–60) has an arc curving upward away from the figure, as if it were an extended sword. Smith liked hard-edge geometry, culminating in the great “Cubi” series of the early to mid-’60s. His work was not organic so much as tending toward a plane-based frontality, in the late work especially. This wonderful show evidences his formal tendencies extremely well. Smith was a hero for his time, an august proponent of Ab Ex, whose implications were public rather than personal, unlike his fellow painters in New York. Sometimes a sculptor will work against the grain—the achievements of Eva Hesse stand out in this way—and Smith accomplished a major body of work in doing so.