Summary of David Smith
Among the greatest American sculptors of the 20th century, David Smith was the first to work with welded metal. He wove a rich mythology around this rugged work, often talking of the formative experiences he had in his youth while working in a car body workshop. Yet this only disguised a brilliant mind that fruitfully combined a range of influences from European modernism including Cubism, Surrealism, and Constructivism. It also concealed the motivations of a somewhat private man whose art was marked by expressions of trauma. Smith was close to painters such as Robert Motherwell, and in many respects he translated the painterly concerns of the Abstract Expressionists into sculpture. But far from being a follower, his achievement in sculpture was distinctive and influential. He brought qualities of industrial manufacturing into the language of art and proved to be an important influence on Minimalism.
- Collage was an important influence on Smith, and it shaped his work in various ways. It inspired him to see that a sculpture, just like a paper collage, could be made up of various existing elements. It also encouraged him to combine found objects like tools into his sculptures; it later influenced the way he contrasted figurative motifs and informed the way he assembled the large-scale geometric abstract sculptures of his last days.
- One of Smith's most important formal innovations was to abandon the idea of a "core" in sculpture. This notion was pervasive in modern sculpture, fostering an approach that saw sculptural form springing from a center that was almost imagined to be organic and alive. But Smith replaced it with the idea of "drawing in space." He would use thin wire to produce linear, transparent sculptures with figurative motifs at their edges. Later he would use large geometric forms to create structures reminiscent of the vigorous gestures of the Abstract Expressionists.
- The idea of the totem, a tribal art form that represents a group of related people, was an inspiration to Smith, and something for which he tried to find a modern form. Freud's ideas about totems led him to think of them as a fitting symbol for a world driven by violence, but it also suggested the idea that the sculptural object might keep the viewer at a distance, that it might almost be an object of fear and reverence.
- One of the means by which Smith sought to keep the viewer at a distance from his sculptures - emotionally and intellectually - was to devise innovative approaches to composition. These were aimed at making it difficult for the viewer to perceive or imagine the entirety of the object at once, forcing us to consider it part by part. One method he used was to disperse pictorial motifs around the edge of the sculpture, so that our eyes have to move from one element to another. Another was to make the sculptures look and seem very different from the front than they do from the side.
- David Smith's career encompasses a range of styles, from the figurative expressionism of his early relief sculptures, to the organic abstraction of his Surrealist-influenced work, to the geometric constructions of his later years. In this respect, he drew on many of the same European modernist influences as his peers, the Abstract Expressionists. And, like them, one of his most important advances lay in adapting the language of Surrealism to post-war concerns.
Biography of David Smith
David Smith was born in Decatur, Indiana, in 1906 and moved with his family to Paulding, Ohio, in 1921. Smith's mother was a schoolteacher, while the artist's father managed a telephone company and was an amateur inventor. Smith was the great-grandson of a blacksmith, and of his childhood, the artist recalls, "we used to play on trains and around factories. I played there just as I played in nature, on hills and creeks." Smith left college after only one year and, in 1925, began working at the Studebaker automobile factory in South Bend, Indiana. There, Smith learned soldering and spot-welding techniques that he would use throughout his artistic career.
Important Art by David Smith
Smith titled the early and relatively small-scale sculpture Helmholtzian Landscape in reference to a 19th-century German scientist who studied perception. Here, Smith draws on Cubist and Surrealist painting, translating these precedents - replete with color - into three dimensions, to create a tableau that suggests a figure standing amid foliage. Works such as this were important in shaping Smith's idea of "drawing in space," and they have also encouraged critics to liken his work to that of the Abstract Expressionist painters.
Hudson River Landscape offers an abstract representation of the area around Smith's Bolton Landing home. It relates to a number of works he produced in this period with pastoral themes. It can be read as translating the expressive, gestural style and automatist principles of Abstract Expressionist painting into sculptural form. Despite its materials, it achieves a surprising weightlessness, due to the sculpture's arcing lines and open construction. Moreover, this work has often been seen as a breakthrough piece for Smith, because its inspiration was a landscape, and not a figure (the monumental figure being the oldest and most traditional form of sculpture).
Tanktotem I is the first piece in Smith's eponymous series of welded-steel sculptures that he worked on from 1952 until 1960. In this piece, he combined found metal objects into an anthropomorphic, totemic form, a symbol of universal humanity. As the critic Rosalind Krauss has argued, the totem, and the idea of totemism, was an important symbol for Smith. He believed, following Freud, that totemism operated in primitive societies as a means to discourage incest. Members of the tribe were encouraged to identify with different totems, often representing animals, and the laws which applied to those animals - perhaps not to eat them, or approach them - applied also to those other members of the tribe associated with the animals. Hence, for Smith, the totem suggested an art object that might strike fear into humanity and prevent conflict. But the idea of the totem pole also answered to his formal interest in collage. Tanktotem I has been read as representing two human figures, or two birds, joined at the neck, one looking left, the other right.
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on David Smith
- The Fields of David SmithOur PickBy Alexander Liberman, Kenneth Noland, Dan Budnik, Irving Sandler, Peter H. Stern
- David SmithOur PickBy Karen Wilkin
- David Smith: The Sculptor and His WorkBy Stanley E. Marcus
- David Smith by David Smith: Sculpture and Writings (Painters & Sculptors)By Cleve Gray
- David Smith: Cubes and AnarchyBy Carol S. Eliel, Christopher Bedford, Alex Potts, Anne M. Wagner
- David Smith InventsBy Susan Behrends Frank, Sarah Hamill, Peter Stevens
- Sorting Out the Many Sides of a SculptorBy Karen Rosenberg / The New York Times / October 13, 2011
- David SmithBy Michael Fried / Artforum / Summer 2006
- Other DimensionsBy Peter Schjeldahl / The New Yorker / March 6, 2006
- Mr. Smith Goes to New YorkBy Mark Stevens / New York Magazine / February 5, 2006
- Palooka DelicacyOur PickBy Holland Cotter / The New York Times / February 3, 2006