PRINT January 1966

A Memorial Exhibition: David Smith at the LA County Museum

TEN-FOOT SCULPTOR AMONG INCHLINGS, David Smith was a votary of size. “I’m going to make them so big that they can’t even be moved,” he said. And not only size. The story of his 1962 experience in Voltri, Italy, where, in one month at an abandoned iron works, he constructed twenty-six large sculptures for the Spoleto Festival (“I never made so much, so good, so easy in such condensed time as in my 30 day Italian phase”) reads like an episode in a tall tale. In an epoch when sculptors have been unlikely candidates for laurels and the art itself ranked as underdeveloped nation, his work was all the more startling in its prodigality, variety, and innovational vision. In the ’30s, he was one of the first Americans to learn from Picasso and Gonzalez a fertile method for the direct manipulation of iron, and used their welding techniques to become our prime exponent of open-form, “drawn-in-air” sculpture; he was also early to explore the expressive and formal possibilities of objets trouves in metal sculpture, absorbing machine parts, huge tools, and pre-fabricated units into large metal constructs; furthermore, he experimented with painted steel long before doing so had become the fashionable gambit. But probably the most astonishing aspect of Smith’s highly productive career was his ability to work continuously and concurrently in several distinctive manners, developing seemingly antipathetic sculptural ideas in separate but coeval series. If not for the depth in which he developed each of his contradictory impulses, he might be accused of a shameless eclecticism.

His diverse stylistic manners drew inspiration from the same range of European sources as Abstract Expressionism, the movement with which his sculpture was most obviously allied. To the bones of a formal order derived from Cubist painting, collage, and Constructivist sculpture, he variously added an idiomorphic imagery which blended Picassoid figurations, Surrealist-inspired anecdote, and geometry, but all treated in a freely improvisational method and with expressionist bravura. When in the ’50s and the ’60s Smith’s earlier Surrealist-symbolic imagery was superseded by a more abstract mode and an increasingly emphatic geometry, he never sacrificed the racy flavor of improvisation.

Because of Smith’s seminal position in American sculpture, the announcement last spring of a forthcoming show of his most recent work in stainless steel as the Los Angeles County Museum’s second in its program of outdoor sculpture exhibits seemed both a propitious and notable event for the West Coast. The works were chosen by the sculptor himself and Curator Maurice Tuchman; the exhibit was scheduled. The subsequent news of Smith’s death in an auto accident last May tragically converted the present occasion from eulogy into elegy, and what should have been excerpts from a remarkable oeuvre-in-progress became, instead, a memorial exhibit for the artist.

The show consists of twelve stainless steel works from Smith’s epic “Cubi” series as well as two painted steel sculptures of the “Zig” (“just an affectionate name for Ziggurat”) group––the fourteen pieces spanning the period 1961 to 1965, but not, of course, encompassing all of Smith’s diverse styles during this especially energetic period of production. Six of the glittering “Cubi” sculptures are royally poised in the pools surrounding the Museum, a dramatically successful installation; they are isolate, lyric, and vivid. Another one of the three recently completed archways or gate-like structures, is solidly placed on the entrance path, where it suffers somewhat from concrete and high walls. The remaining seven sculptures, bereft of nature (ipse dixit: “They are not designed for modern buildings”), sit like deposed nobles on the drama-less Sculpture Plaza.

The “Cubi” sculptures, though constructed of the simplest geometrical units (hollow stainless steel cubes, cylinders, bars and flat boxes), make only that initial concession to the mathematical spirit. Smith’s animating principle in most of these works is brinksmanship; a piece such as Cubi I teeters excitingly on the very verge of imbalance, the baroque movement of the entire ascending structure of boxes casually caught in place by a thin disk at the base. Even relatively static works with decided frontal planes, such as the three arches or the long, lean Cubi II have a rakish asymmetry and depend on the final balancing of aliquant parts. The improvisational nature of Smith’s geometry is further underlined by rough weldings and his characteristic irregular polishing of the stainless steel surface (done with an electric buffing machine); the resulting pattern is a sufficiently close mimicry of the painterly brush stroke to suggest the presence of non-puristic sentiments. The polished surface, however, has the more important function of controlling the reflective capacity of the steel. In the terse style of these “Cubi” sculptures, light is the one remaining gaudery, and Smith consciously manipulates it as an element of rhetoric. Most moving are those works which angle open to light, such as the splendid Cubi XXII. The polished steel reflects surrounding colors and absorbs weather; the irregular surfaces permit a wide spectrum of possible outdoor effects, from ornate tracery in bright sunshine to neon flicker by night. Hilton Kramer, who wrote the introduction for the fine catalog accompanying the show, discusses the structural effects of light in the “Cubi” pieces: “. . . at certain moments, it seems as if these sculptures are actually constructions of light itself, not so much occupying as illuminating the space that contains them. Far from conserving the sculptural monolith, Smith’s use of it seems to dissolve it, to disarm its materiality, and endow it with an energy that is purely optical”—which, of course, serves to group at least some of Smith’s last work neatly in the P.P.A., “modernist,” anti-haptic camp. Yet the protean Smith was anything but a producer of doctrinaire art; just a few weeks before his death, in a lecture at Bennington, he is quoted as having said: “There are a lot of things yet to be done. Nothing is closed––everything is open.”

––Nancy Marmer