David Smith (sculptor)
|Birth name||Roland David Smith|
March 9, 1906|
|Died||May 23, 1965
South Shaftsbury, Vermont
|Movement||Abstract expressionism, Modernist|
Roland David Smith was born on March 9, 1906 in Decatur, Indiana and moved to Paulding, Ohio in 1921, where he attended high school. From 1924-25, he attended Ohio University in Athens (one year) and the University of Notre Dame, which he left after two weeks because there were no art courses. In between, Smith took a summer job working on the assembly line of an automobile factory.
Moving to New York in 1926, he met Dorothy Dehner (to whom he was married from 1927 to 1952) and joined her painting studies at the Art Students League of New York. Among his teachers were the American painter John Sloan and the Czech modernist painter Jan Matulka, who had studied with Hans Hofmann. Matulka introduced Smith to the work of Picasso, Mondrian, Kandinsky, and the Russian Constructivists.
Through the Russian émigré artist John Graham, Smith met avant-garde artists such as Stuart Davis, Arshile Gorky and Willem de Kooning. He also discovered the welded sculptures of Julio González and Picasso, which led to an increasing interest in combining painting and construction. In 1932, he installed a forge and anvil in his studio at the farm in Bolton Landing that he and Dehner had bought a few years earlier. Smith started by making three-dimensional objects from wood, wire, coral, soldered metal and other found materials but soon graduated to using an oxyacetylene torch to weld metal heads, which are probably the first welded metal sculptures ever made in the United States.
In 1940, the Smiths distanced themselves from the New York art scene and moved permanently to Bolton Landing, NY near Lake George. Just a year later, Smith sculptures were included in two traveling exhibitions organized by the Museum of Modern Art and were shown at the Whitney Museum of American Art's Annual exhibition in New York.
After the war, with the additional skills that he had acquired, Smith released his pent-up energy and ideas in a burst of creation between 1945 and 1946. His output soared and he went about perfecting his own, very personal symbolism.
Traditionally, metal sculpture meant bronze casts, which artisans produced using a mold made by the artist. Smith, however, made his sculptures from scratch, welding together pieces of steel and other metals with his torch, in much the same way that a painter applied paint to a canvas; his sculptures are almost always unique works.
Smith, who often said, "I belong with the painters," made sculptures of subjects that had never before been shown in three dimensions. He made sculptural landscapes (e. g. Hudson River Landscape), still life sculptures (e. g. Head as Still Life) and even a sculpture of a page of writing (The Letter). Perhaps his most revolutionary concept was that the only difference between painting and sculpture was the addition of a third dimension; he declared that the sculptor's "conception is as free as a that of the painter. His wealth of response is as great as his draftsmanship."
Smith was awarded the prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship in 1950, which was renewed the following year. Freed from financial constraints, he made more and larger pieces, and for the first time was able to afford to make whole sculptures in stainless steel. He also began his practice of making sculptures in series, the first of which were the Agricolas of 1951-59. He separated from Dehner in 1950, with divorce in 1952.
David Smith represented the United States in the 1951 International Biennale in Sao Paulo, Brazil, and at the Venice Biennale in 1954 and 1958. He steadily gained recognition, lecturing at universities and participating in symposia; six of his sculptures were included in an exhibition organized by the Museum of Modern Art, New York, that traveled to Paris, Zurich, Düsseldorf, Stockholm, Helsinki, and Oslo in 1953-54; he was given a retrospective exhibition by MoMA in 1957.
Beginning in the mid-1950s, Smith explored the technique of burnishing his stainless steel sculptures with a sander, a technique that would find its fullest expression in his Cubi series (1961–65). The scale of his works continued to increase – Tanktotem III of 1953 is 7’ tall; Zig I from 1961 is 8’; and 5 Ciarcs from 1963 is almost 13’ tall.
Smith’s family was also getting bigger, Smith re-married and had two daughters, Rebecca (born 1954) and Candida (born 1955). He named quite a few of his later works in honor of his children (e.g., Bec-Dida Day, 1963, Rebecca Circle, 1961, Hi Candida, 1965).
The February 1960 issue of Arts magazine was devoted to Smith’s work and later that year he had his first West Coast exhibition, a solo show at the Everett Ellin Gallery in Los Angeles. The following year he rejected a third place award at the Carnegie International, saying “the awards system in our day is archaic.” Also in 1961, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, organized an exhibition of fifty Smith sculptures that traveled throughout the United States until the spring of 1963.
In 1962, the Italian government invited Smith to make sculptures for the Festival dei Due Mondi in Spoleto. Given open access to an abandoned steel mill and provided with a group of assistants, he produced an amazing 27 pieces in 30 days. Not yet finished with the themes he developed, he had tons of steel shipped from Italy to Bolton Landing and over the next 18 months he made another 25 sculptures known as the Voltri-Bolton series.
In 1964 he received a Creative Arts Award from Brandeis University and in February 1965 was appointed by Lyndon B. Johnson to the National Council on the Arts. He died in a car crash on May 23 of that year. He was 59 years old.
Smith is perhaps best known for the Cubis, which were among the last pieces he completed before his death. The sculptures in this series are made of stainless steel with a hand-brushed finish reminiscent of the gestural strokes of Abstract Expressionist painting. The Cubi works consist of arrangements of geometric shapes, which highlight his interest in balance and the contrast between positive and negative space.
Prior to the Cubis, Smith gained widespread attention for his sculptures often described as “drawings in space.” Originally trained as a painter and draftsman, Smith’s sculptures, such as Hudson River Landscape (1950) and The Letter (1950), blurred the distinctions between sculpture and painting. These works make use of delicate tracery rather than solid form, with a two-dimensional appearance that contradicts the traditional idea of sculpture in the round.
As with many artists from the Modernist period, including Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, much of Smith’s early work was heavily influenced by Surrealism. Some of the best examples are seen in the Medals for Dishonor, a series of bronze reliefs that speak out against the atrocities of war. Images from these medals are strange, nightmarish, and often violent. His own descriptions give a vivid picture of the medals and strongly express condemnation of these acts, such as this statement about Propaganda for War (1939–40):
The rape of the mind by machines of death – the Hand of God points to atrocities. Atop the curly bull the red cross nurse blows the clarinet. The horse is dead in this bullfight arena – the bull is docile, can be ridden.
Recent Solo Exhibitions (Selection)
- 2011–2012: Touring exhibition David Smith: Cubes and Anarchy
- February–May 28, 2011: David Smith: Paintings and Works on Paper from the 1950s, American Contemporary Art Gallery, Munich, Germany.
- February 12–May 15, 2011: David Smith Invents, The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.
- Everyday Art Quarterly 23 (1952)
- Cleve Gray, David Smith by David Smith (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1968), 40
- David Smith: Medals for Dishonor, (New York: Independent Curators Incorporated, 1996), 48.
- David Smith's Current, Future, and Recent Exhibitions on The Estate of David Smith website
- Gimenez, Carmen, ed. David Smith; A Centennial. New York: Guggenheim Museum, 2006.
- David Smith: Medals for Dishonor. New York: Independent Curators Incorporated, 1996.
- Smith, Candida N. The Fields of David Smith. New York, London: Thames & Hudson, 1999.
- Wilkin, Karen. David Smith. New York: Abbeville Press, 1984.
- Gray, Cleve, ed. Sculpture and Writings. New York, London: Thames & Hudson, 1968, rpt. 1989. ISBN 978-0-500-27520-7
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