The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2023

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SEPT 2023 Issue

Songs of the Horizon:
David Smith, Music and Dance

David Smith, <em>Boaz Dancing School</em>, 1945. Steel, 16 1/2 x 14 x 14 inches. © 2023 The Estate of David Smith / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.
David Smith, Boaz Dancing School, 1945. Steel, 16 1/2 x 14 x 14 inches. © 2023 The Estate of David Smith / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.
On View
The Hyde Collection
Songs of the Horizon: David Smith, Music and Dance
June 24–September 17, 2023
Glens Falls, NY

A 1963 photograph shows David Smith on a snow-covered stone bench at his property in Bolton Landing, New York. Alone, his back to the camera, he contemplates the distant Adirondacks and a sweeping field populated with dozens of his metal sculptures.

Once he found his defining large-scale, abstract style in the 1950s, Smith would, famously, arrange his work in the landscape around his home and studio. Periodically, he took sculptures to Lake George, as if on a holiday. Vertical, off-kilter, extending from foot- or leglike supports, the sculptures are undeniably humanlike. Smith called them “personages” and “girls.” In the photo, they resemble performers for Smith’s gaze or guests at a winter lawn party. It’s an image heroic and melancholy: the great artist, his two marriages wrecked by his mercurial behavior, immersed in the natural world that nourished his practice with only his sculptures for company.

Yet Smith’s engagement with place, in particular, this place, in Upstate New York, meant involvement with a community. An exhibition at the Hyde Collection, in Glen Falls, New York—about 20 miles from Smith’s residence—is the first to focus on how music and dance influenced his maturation. In the process, it complicates the cliché, indelibly attached to Smith’s generation, of the artist as isolated genius. “Songs of the Horizon” highlights discoveries of the mid-1940s leading to the artist’s breakthrough from figuration into abstraction, while smartly situating this transition within his Bolton Landing neighborhood and a circle of artists including his first wife, Dorothy Dehner. Her work punctuates the exhibition to sharp effect.

Dehner is alongside Smith at the beginning with regional landscapes, his, rather traditional, painted in 1930 when they purchased their 86-acre farm, hers, more idiosyncratic, from the 1940s. After setting the rural scene, the exhibition expands into rich, thematic sections—dance, then music. Each probes Smith’s formal investigations around subject matter and individual artists: choreographer and percussionist Franziska Boas, who opened a radical dance school in Bolton Landing; Ukraine-born cellist Gregor Piatigorsky, who lived briefly in the Adirondacks; and harpsichordist Sylvia Marlowe, who captured Smith’s imagination through photographs and recordings of her performances.

The exhibition gathers thirty pieces from the Hyde, the David Smith estate, and museum and private collections to explore the artist’s development via depictions of complimentary content in different media. Curator Jennifer Field, director of the Smith estate, places seven early sculptures against a backdrop of works on paper and canvas, spotlighting Smith’s start as a painter and the enduring importance of drawing to his practice. Angular drawings from photographs of Martha Graham inform the small bronze Adagio Dancer (1945). Sketches from visits to Boas’s classes find playful realization in the steel Boaz Dancing School (1945), a sculptural translation of drawing in perspective. On a tilted studio floor, Smith puts a supersize figure at the lower end and progressively smaller figures toward the top, as if dancers are receding in space.

In his works about music, two-dimensional ideas continue to feed three-dimensional innovation, though this subject matter pointedly shows Smith under the sway of Cubism and Surrealism. Within the canon of Abstract Expressionism, this would be his “automatic” phase of representing mythological motifs from the collective unconscious before, through great struggle, attaining his “autographic” signature style and the status of myth in himself. The underlying sexism of Surrealism—and the AbEx midcentury moment—surfaces in works such as the objectifying (Picasso-influenced) drawing Woman Music (1944) and the sculpture Ancient Household (1945) a paean to that archetypically supportive wife, Penelope, in which steel cords become harp, loom, and hair.

David Smith, Untitled, 1944. Oil on canvas, 10 3/4 x 15 3/4 inches. © 2023 The Estate of David Smith / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.
David Smith, Untitled, 1944. Oil on canvas, 10 3/4 x 15 3/4 inches. © 2023 The Estate of David Smith / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.

Especially startling, compared to more straightforward representations of cellists including Piatigorsky, are Smith’s depictions of Marlowe at her harpsichord. He gives her the body of a praying mantis, with filaments spewing from her mouth to attack the keyboard alongside clawlike fingers. Is this a Surrealist-inspired tribute to the intensity of Marlowe’s playing? A manifestation of Smith’s fraught attitudes toward women? Rooted in his relationships, the exhibition, to its credit, seems open to multiple readings.

Such questions fade when Smith gets down to essentials of object, sound and movement. In a series from 1946–47 titled for the muses Euterpe and Terpsichore, bold colorful paintings on paper combine a harpsichord, its player and a dancer into a single geometric form. Responding to these studies, two bronze sculptures come closest yet to full abstraction. And in a gesture toward things to come, the seven-by-nine-inch painting Untitled (Terpsichore and Euterpe in Landscape) (1947) positions a sculpture in front of black-and-white stripes that suggest harpsichord keys and also farmland furrows. It’s an energetic gem.

Songs of the Horizon concludes as it began with Dehner and Smith—no longer side by side, as they separated in 1950. The exhibition gives us Smith’s Egyptian Landscape (1951) and Dehner’s Low Landscape, Sideways (1962) sculptures different in their geometry yet alike in being bronze, horizontal and a similar size. We see the mutual influence from their marriage, despite her background role. But the show has two codas.

The first draws visitors into the Hyde Collection’s house museum of Old Masters and period rooms. Smith’s tall, yellow Lunar Arcs on One Leg (1956–62) stands in the courtyard, anchoring him in the institution’s history. Smith had a long relationship with the Hyde, and Songs of the Horizon commemorates its sixtieth anniversary. Yet Dehner also kept ties, having shows at the Hyde and works in its collection. One of these—Sanctum with Window II (1990–51) is a black aluminum geometric behemoth outside the Hyde entrance. This is the second coda: for the exhibition, this example of her mature practice is joined by one of his, Smith’s 1959 steel Sentinel V. Together again, and stylistically individual, here they are equals (though her piece is bigger).


Anne Thompson

Anne Thompson is Director and Curator of Suzanne Lemberg Usdan Gallery, Bennington College.


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2023

All Issues