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David Smith
Holdings (5)
3 sculptures, 1 drawing, 1 unique works on paper

essay David Smith, Walker Art Center Collections, 2005

It has been said of David Smith that “he came into the inheritance of all the modernist impulses of European art simultaneously and without having to commit himself to one over another.”1 The impulses in question are Constructivism, Surrealism, and Cubism, all of which deeply imprinted his sculptural work. After seeing Vladimir Tatlin’s Constructivist reliefs in the late 1920s, Smith—who began as a painter—added objects to the surfaces of his canvases, engaging the space in front of them as well as the flat plane of the wall. Surrealist interest in myth and legend suffused his early works, but Cubism was his most important discovery—especially the iron sculptures of Pablo Picasso and Julio González. He first saw such works in the early 1930s, in the French art journal Cahiers d’Art; by then, he was already familiar with steel, having worked as a welder at a Studebaker factory while he was a student. But he hadn’t thought to use it as a material for his work. “[Seeing] the Picasso-González iron constructions of 1931 … was the liberating factor which permitted me to start with steel, which before had been my trade, and had until now only meant labor and earning power for the study of painting.”2

Smith’s early welded sculptures—the first was made in 1933—were open, linear constructions that suggested animals, figures, and totems, all familiar Surrealist motifs. The Royal Bird (1947–1948), purchased for the Walker Art Center’s collection in 1952, the year the Walker organized a solo exhibition of his work, is based on the skeleton of Hesperornis regalis—the regal western bird, a prehistoric diving carnivore.3 When Smith made the piece, World War II had not been over for long, and his vehement antiwar views surely informed his rethinking of the bird’s body as an aggressive knot of spikes and talons. His decision to model it after a bird that kills in order to live may also be a specific indictment of profiteering through death—the particular variety of warfare he most abhorred.4

Smith made The Royal Bird at his studio in Bolton Landing, a town in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York. He had set up shop there permanently in 1940, naming it Terminal Iron Works for the Brooklyn business where he had previously rented studio space. There he planned and constructed his welded steel and iron objects, installing many of the finished pieces in the surrounding fields. Smith, the painter-turned-sculptor, worked his ideas out in two dimensions: he made hundreds of drawings that were studies for forms in the round, and he also used the floor of his work space to move fragments of scrap metal around until he had a composition he liked. His last series, the Cubis, were mostly mocked up using discarded cardboard cartons such as liquor and cigar boxes. The process of manipulating real materials to arrive at the meaning and structure of a work had been the basis of Picasso’s collage technique and, through him, became central to New York School artists, including Smith and his close friend Robert Motherwell.5

Cubi IX was made in October 1961, the first of twenty-eight works in this series created before Smith’s death in a car accident in 1965. A radical departure from the essentially flat or linear work he had made up until that time, the Cubis are composed of stacks of blocky shapes that seem both architectural and dynamic. As described by poet and curator Frank O’Hara, the Cubis are “stainless-steel volumes balancing one on another, signaling like semaphores, climbing into the air with the seeming effortlessness and spontaneity of a masterful drawing, while retaining the sobriety of their daring defiance of gravity.”6 Their stainless-steel surfaces were finished with an electric buffing machine fitted with a Carborundum disk, which left swirling patterns that shimmer and reflect the light and colors around them.7 Smith’s engagement with surface inflection dates from his beginnings as a painter and remained a lifelong concern—in fact, about a third of his sculptures are polychromed. “My sculpture grew from painting. My analogy and reference is with color,” he said simply.8

By the end of his prolific career, Smith had almost single-handedly imagined a new idiom for modernist sculpture. He refused to explain his work, only asserting time and again that it had been created out of necessity and as an expression of his identity. “I haven’t named this work nor thought where it would go. I haven’t thought what it is for, except that [it] is made to be seen. I’ve made it because it comes closer to who I am than any other method I can use. The work is my identity… . Why should you expect understanding when I do not?”9

  1. Hilton Kramer, quoted in Frank O’Hara, David Smith, exh. cat. (London: Arts Council of Great Britain, 1966), 9.

  2. Smith in Cleve Gray, ed., David Smith by David Smith (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1968), 68.

  3. Smith saw the specimen in the collection of the American Museum of Natural History, New York, and owned at least one photograph of it.

  4. See Robert S. Lubar, “Metaphor and Meaning in David Smith’s Jurassic Bird,” Arts 59 (September 1984): 78–86. Lubar also suggests that we might read in the sculpture’s title an allusion to monarchy and, by extension, to colonization and slave trade, brutalities that were motivated in large part by economics.

  5. This point was made by E. A. Carmean, Jr., in David Smith, exh. cat. (Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 1982), 36.

  6. Frank O’Hara, quoted in David Smith (London), 46.

  7. See Carmean, David Smith (Washington), 46. Smith intended the Cubis to be installed outdoors, but doing so has caused some to develop small rust pocks due to iron inclusions in the impure grade of stainless steel he used. In addition, the surfaces of the Cubis are easily scratched but difficult to restore because of their swirling patterns. See conservation documents on Cubi IX (Walker Art Center Archives).

  8. Smith, statement of 1960, quoted in David Smith (London), 13. His painted metal sculptures were not always well received—modernist critic Clement Greenberg, for example, considered the addition of paint to be an aesthetic mistake on the artist’s part. Greenberg, one of the executors of Smith’s estate, drew criticism in 1974 for his extraordinary decision to strip the paint from several sculptures that were still part of the estate. See Hilton Kramer, “Altering of Smith Work Stirs Dispute,” New York Times, September 13, 1974, 28.

  9. Smith, quoted in Gray, David Smith by David Smith, 164.

Rothfuss, Joan. “David Smith.” In Bits & Pieces Put Together to Present a Semblance of a Whole: Walker Art Center Collections, edited by Joan Rothfuss and Elizabeth Carpenter. Minneapolis, MN: Walker Art Center, 2005.

© 2005 Walker Art Center