PRINT November 1966

David Smith at the Tate

AT A TIME WHEN HIS LEGACY has be­come immensely relevant, and at a moment when the recentness of his death would naturally have encour­aged some acknowledgement of what he had done, we are given the long planned and well-installed retrospec­tive of David Smith’s sculpture at the Tate Gallery. Directed by Frank O’Hara, of the Museum of Modern Art (whose life, like Smith’s, was re­cently cut short at high tide by an automobile accident), it is congested with the memorable pieces, familiar and unfamiliar, of a long career. One had assimilated these works, or sculp­tures like them, oftentimes in the past, at separate shows, but now Smith’s whole development is concisely blocked out and sequenced for scrutiny. As for his achievement, it had no choice but to gleam brightly.

About the earlier, visceral, Cubo-­Surrealist images (1940s), the large calligraphies of the beginning fifties, and the tank totems of the mid-fifties, as well as the later buffed plates and blocks of the Cubi and Voltri-Bolton series, all steel and some of it painted, there exudes, of course, the well known directness and coherence. Each phase of the sculptor’s work issued naturally out of a few simple prem­ises: that a surprising equilibrium could be achieved with only two or three directional coordinates, that steel has its own unfussed rectitude, which is neither of the junk heap nor the chromed glamour mill and finally, that an impacted physical “gesturing” was possible, without resort to emo­tionalism. It will easily be seen now how Smith’s way was from dense, dark sheared or thonged traceries, to buoyant, light bouncing beams or boxes, tippling in arrested profiles. Additionally, one can note how he started (the very early, Gonzalez­inspired heads excepted) by wiring elliptical packets of space and then proceeded gradually to magnilo­quently scaled guardians (or, as he called a few of them, sentinels) of space: upright monoliths which stare down the spectator with a smile. How remarkable, too, was Smith’s path from a somewhat metaphorical ani­mal world (skeletonized, to be sure), to ever-increasing abstraction and high spirited grandeur. Expressiveness had shifted from episodic nodules which fined attention down to per­ceive some highly tensile pirouettes, to blunted, over-arching aggregations, sensed all at once.

And yet his direction was not so much from complexity to simplicity, as it was from analysis to synthesis. Of course the two processes occur simultaneously in any mature work of art. But the emphasis in the later Smith nevertheless rests on the secu­rity of his central ideas, upon which infinite variations could be played, rather than the working out of a vocabulary, or even the striving for identity.

In the beginning, he owed to Pi­casso roughly the same debt that Pollock did: that mythic, half-intellec­tual, tough-fibered humanism which was essentially draftsmanly in im­pulse. Towards the end, though, he was doing almost a public kind of sculpture (paralleled only by Calder’s stabiles), obliquely nourished by Cubism, but of an emblematic drama and distinction uniquely his own. It was this capacity to grow, which accel­erated so quickly it had no time for sensuous indulgence or illustrational nuance, that set Smith off from the whole generation of his American fellow sculptors.

Indeed, there is always something brittle and unidiomatic about him, a peculiar strength matched only by a self-contained energy of form that likewise kept the spectator at a cer­tain distance. That this detachment of Smith’s was embedded in the homely context of village blacksmithery only increased its power. Somehow, the nostalgia for the backyard garage and the timelessness of Egyptian dynastic sculpture blended fruitfully into a contemporary statement. For, it was not the outright look of either of these sources, but their underlying idea of constructive process that ap­pealed to a man who had rejected carving and modeling in favor of welding and joining. To an extent, imagery evolved in Smith’s career by a gradual modification and selectiv­ity, as in the way the Agricola series (1950s), with its diagrammatic arcs and bent spindles, succeeded the slightly earlier pieces like Banquet, with their schematic references to landscape or still-life. But he was just as able to proceed by deducing the converse of any given structure—say a concave motif as opposed to a con­vex accent—and arriving at a fresh configuration. His deepest loyalty, apparently, was to his own relational faculty, and its potential, rather than to a prescribed style. More arrogant and responsible than any “trademark,” this self-declaration of Smith’s was always effected in the most business like manner.

And yet one cannot absolve him of subtlety. With a stealth remarkable to behold, references to his own cre­ativity, his own environment, crop up at diverse points, as in Blackburn—Song of An Irish Blacksmith, 1949. Cam shafts, pliers, wrenches, tie rods, and tongs take on esthetic face, as it were, in compositions in which they perform integral functions. All these ironmongery tools and spare parts are insinuated with status equal to those which are pure inventions, without irony or presumption, in un­forced mimicry of each other. Ideas, that is, revolve around that which materializes them. Astonishing, in this respect, is Voltri XIX, 1962, a steel work-table doubling as a sculpture, or conceivably vice-versa, in which clamps, a welding shield, a small anvil, etc., foregather as a sculptural composition in the closest that Smith has ever come to trompe l’oeil. If the consonance between these im­ages and his own choice of motifs did not exist, one might accuse him of being an illusionist. And if there had ever been the slightest wisp of irony in his career, this piece might have fitted into the tradition of Cubist double-entendre. As it is, one has only the most straight-faced canni­balism that yet confuses the boundary line between “found”—in this case accessible object—and independent sculpture. This circularity of the con­cept is even boldly echoed by some bent tools that emphasize, or rather show forth, what the sculptor himself does as he gives form.

Some subsidiary, but interesting is­sues have come up in recent discussions of Smith’s relationship with painting, and the particular limits which he imposed upon his vision. The fact that he was initially a painter (and did endless drawings), that he had always shown himself sympa­thetically disposed towards that art, should not lead one to conclude that there is anything pictorial about his work. Optically, sensuously, the sculp­ture at the Tate shies away from tra­ditional painting effects. But in its stressed profiles, its planar flatness and shallowness, its insistence on be­ing viewed from one generally frontal vantage, it shows great affinity with painting syntax, particularly, and un­surprisingly, that of his contempo­raries. The pictographic Smiths clearly parallel work done during the same late forties by Gottlieb; the Cubi series links up with the more blocky Hof­manns; and the Zig pieces were partly influenced—and unfortunately, I think—by Noland. Through it all Smith oddly enough maintained a shape consciousness in which the two­dimensional was as accented as the sculptural, even while every change between junctures was as assertive as possible. It is as if his sculptures “acted out” the implied spatiality of modern flattened painting. However, when he painted some of his later work, the impression was noisy, alien, as of a chromatic skin grafted on. This curious modality of Smith’s sculp­ture, relating planes and curving screens far more than it molds vol­umes or tangles trajectories (some­thing with which the “hard” though more Baroque Nakians have in com­mon), was responsible for its rather conservative look. But simultaneously it afforded him the same opportunity to utilize a dedication to the modern tradition for his own ends, as was true of the ambitious painters of his time. Despite too rapid and indis­criminate a production rate, in which a disproportion of scaling intruded to spoil many a sculpture, Smith was the only sculptor of the Abstract Ex­pressionist generation in New York to have identified with, and yet vigor­ously extended its sensibility into the present. The larger than life stature and the mythic overtones of his sculp­ture were not the result of mere physical inflation. But the spirit which would have unlocked the secret of that presence is grasped only piece­meal and perversely by current sculp­tors who owe Smith an unalterable debt.

––Max Kozloff