PRINT Summer 1967

David Smith

WHEN DAVID SMITH DIED, one was made to realize the extent to which a single man had carried and extended the tradition of non-monolithic sculpture that derives ultimately from Cubist collage. His career spanned over thirty years, during which time he produced well over five hundred sculptures. His work from first to last is as distinctively and recognizably his as that of, say, Giacometti. Yet, while Smith’s terms are his own and his work deeply personal, at times to the point of mute quirkiness, there is the paradoxical realization in coming to know the scope of his oeuvre, that until the late fifties Smith’s work virtually overarched the combined achievements of sculptors in this country and in Europe.

What makes it so hard to discuss Smith’s sculpture other than in generalized, semi-relevant terms, is precisely that its beauty and enduring greatness is dependent upon the accumulation of disparate, sometimes freakish styles with which he worked during his lifetime. The profound formal innovations and distinctions that he made came about so specifically in response to his personal vision and the demands of a particular moment, that they seem inalienably his. Most critics, with the notable exceptions of Clement Greenberg and Hilton Kramer, have coped with Smith by placing him historically, outlining his obvious antecedents and pointing to his obvious followers, thereby conveniently boxing in the awkward disarray and diversity of Smith’s lifework and relegating what is profound and powerfully original within it to a kind of deathly predictability.

There is predictableness to Smith’s sculpture—this is undeniable—in part because the ingenuousness and also the artfulness that is deeply characteristic of much of Smith’s work, today seems naked and familiar; but more important, because the way in which Smith put together a sculpture was indelibly marked by his Cubist beginnings. Yet if anything concrete can be said about the source of what is deeply affecting and fecund within Smith’s sculpture, it lies here, in the tension between his Cubist principles of composition and the absolute integrity with which he pursued his personal vision. The way in which Smith forced the constraints of his fundamentally Cubist mode of composition in order to accommodate his vision, can be said to have made possible, or at least to have inspired, the work of the best sculptors working within this tradition today. By the same token, Smith’s use of found forms, and how he actually cut shapes, joined them, and set them in space, has inspired an enormous amount of accomplished but fatally derivative sculpture.

Clement Greenberg, in his invaluable writings on Smith and on modernist sculpture in general, has gone further to define the terms of Smith’s work than any other critic. The critic who undertakes to engage with Smith’s greatness rather than simply acknowledge it, is faced with the breadth and acuteness of Greenberg’s generalizations (I’m thinking particularly of his essays The New Sculpture and Modernist Sculpture, Its Pictorial Past1) and the ineluctable fact not only of the specificity of Smith’s terms but the strangeness and multivalence of the relationship his sculpture bears to Cubism and to painting in general. Strange in the sense of unforeseen, not obvious. Because, though there are obvious analogies between the growth of Smith’s work from painting to sculpture, and that of the evolution of Picasso’s Cubist collage, which led ultimately to Picasso’s remarkable welded iron sculpture, the course of Smith’s sculpture from the late thirties on was absolutely unchartered. It has the vagaries, floundering and dead ends of a growing art that had no significant sculptural norm, either against which to gage itself or to reject.

This is not to say that Smith was not influenced by other sculptors; he was, crucially so in his early work. But Smith’s norm was that of painting. There was almost a truculence to the way in which he refused to acknowledge any clear distinctions between the aims of painting and sculpture. He said of himself: “I never conceived of myself as anything other than a painter because my work came right through the raw surface and color and object supplied the surface . . .”2 This was said in an interview in 1964 and therefore very much after the fact, but statements similar to this recur throughout his career. The strangeness of Smith’s sculpture—perhaps singularity is a better word—its beauty and also its limitations have to be seen within this context, the context of an artist who was manifestly and superbly a sculptor yet whose impulse was that of a painter. My phrase is vague and begs many questions but it will have to serve for the moment. In this essay I do not attempt to put forward a rationale to explain this dualism. What I intend is to isolate and discuss certain of the profound results that arose from it, in the hopes of giving some definition to the kind of sculptural norm that Smith’s work provides today.

Several facts about Smith bear repeating. He did not start out as a carver, this is well known. He was trained as a painter; the act of carving was not, so to speak, in his blood. Very early in his career he mastered the techniques of cutting and welding, yet it was not simply that he quickly went beyond the devastatingly seductive visual effects inherent in this new technique but—Greenberg was the first to draw attention to this—Smith was one of the very few constructor-sculptors who saw his way to creating a kind of sculptural form that was not merely a skeletal reconstruction of monolithic form.

It is in Smith’s work more than that of any other sculptor where this distinction is revealed and defined, because in fact Smith throughout his career not only worked within the terms of monolithic form (I mean this in a particular sense: I am thinking of his Tank Totem and Voltri-Bolton Landing series, and many of his vertically oriented sculptures, which are free-standing and exist within the terms, or understandableness of monolithic form; their expressive identity is imbued with the rhythms and presence of a single human or animal form), but he created what Greenberg has termed “a kind of sculptural collage without precedent in either Picasso or Gonzalez.”3 In other words, a composite sculptural imagery which insistently demanded to be seen and understood in terms other than that of monolithic form.

Smith’s earliest work was directly influenced by the welded iron sculpture of both Picasso and Gonzalez.4 But after the early forties, when the spread of Smith’s exploratory styles began to coalesce into several fairly distinct branches, his work became, to an extraordinary extent, self-referential. The kind of sculptural influences one finds thereafter are fragmentary and exclusively visual, that is to say that there was no single sculptor whose work in any significant way challenged or stimulated Smith conceptually.

The ongoing development of Smith’s work, however, bears a tangential but crucial relationship to the development of abstract painting in this country during the past twenty years. His sculpture very literally did grow out of the strongly Cubist-influenced paintings that he made during his period at the Art Students League in New York around the late twenties and early thirties; he himself has often referred to an innate and persistent tendency to build outwards from the surface of his canvas. He seems to have fully recognized this tendency after seeing reproductions of Picasso’s welded iron sculpture around 1930. Time and again Smith wrote of his shock and excitement on seeing these illustrations in Cahiers d’art. Some years earlier he had acquired a practical knowledge of cutting and welding techniques while working during the summer of 1925 in the Studebaker plant at South Bend, Indiana, so that he was from a technical point of view at least, somewhat prepared for the radicalness of Picasso’s sculpture. Around 1932 he broke with painting altogether and, using borrowed equipment, began to make his first welded sculptures.

On one level then, Smith’s Cubist principles of composition which are grounded in his paintings from this period, carried over into sculptural form. He had in his hands, as it were, the feel for flattened, schematized forms ranked across a surface, the discontinuous rhythms and balance of discrete forms played off against each other and held by the format of the canvas. But on another, much less directly perceptible level, the degree and quality of abstractness that he obtained within his sculptures over the ensuing years to a certain extent parallels the development of abstract painting in this country from the forties onward. The intransigence of Smith’s vision enabled him to adopt a radically new technique and make it serve, yet, and I have stressed this earlier, the only truly felt and valid criteria available to Smith—especially in the early years of his career—were those of painting. To put it in another way, what challenged Smith was the kind of imagery and the particular quality and degree of abstractness accessible to a painter.

In his writings about his work, Smith stressed the importance of an imagery which denied the very substantiality of sculptural form; dream image, after-image, color image, eidetic and subconscious image, are words he repeatedly used to convey the kind of content he sought to express. The importance of Surrealism as a formative influence in Smith’s development should not be underestimated, even though he himself professed little or no real interest in the movement. While Smith may or may not have been stimulated by what he saw of Surrealist paintings, the ideas relating to Surrealism which were so much in the air in New York at this period, almost certainly acted as a liberating force for Smith. The notion of automatism, the expressive potential inherent in creating a work of art directly in response to subconscious impulses and fantasies, undoubtedly made a deep impression on Smith and helped give definition to his own innate tendency toward a sculptural expressiveness which could be free-flowing and evocative.5

From a technical point of view, Smith demanded the kind of flexibility of handling and the freedom accessible to a painter or draftsman, the freedom to sketch out ideas in sculptural form, to improvise within a given sculpture despite the unwieldiness of the techniques employed. It is significant that throughout his life Smith drew incessantly. The lapse between one series of sculptures and the next, and between each single sculpture, was bridged by a flow of tersely sketched ideas. Although his drawings served many purposes they were as much to keep his mind and senses open and receptive to flash ideas, as to work out the ideas in detail.

Frequently the impulse of the painter in Smith asserted itself very literally, resulting in strange hybrid works—I am thinking particularly of certain of his landscape sculptures from the forties and early fifties, and also a number of the painted sheet-metal pieces from the early sixties—where he seems to have striven to make material the fugitive images in the painter’s mind. Yet it was Smith’s instinctual feel for the actual materials with which he worked that counterbalanced the wilder reaches of his imagination and provided the continuity within his work. By this I mean that to an important extent Smith allowed the materials, the scrap iron, disused machine parts, sheet-metal, to suggest the particular articulation of each of the series that he created. Smith wrote: “I cannot conceive of a work and buy materials—I need a truckload before I can work on one. To look at it every day—let it soften—to let it break in segments, planes, lines, etc.—wrap itself in hazy shapes.”6 The dead-ends that are scattered over Smith’s oeuvre tend to be those sculptures in which Smith violated the actual stuff of the sculpture, stretching the meal, eking it out, pinching and twisting it to meet the explicitness of his emotions, and thereby exhausting the potential within the sculpture to suggest others.

UP UNTIL THE LATE FORTIES, the scale of Smith’s sculptures remained relatively small, rarely standing much higher than three feet. The intimacy of the scale identified his Landscape and Interiors directly with the scale of the small easel painting. The rightness of the internal scale of many of these sculptures stems from Smith’s unique gift for combining explicit detail and more purely abstract passages within a single sculpture—thus avoiding the sense of a specifically diminutive scale, like that of an interior of a doll’s house, for instance. Moreover the internal scale is given a further point of reference, and a further convincingness as well, by the closeness with which it echoes the easel painting scale.

Around 1947 Smith began to experiment with an altogether different scale. The sculptures from the next three or four years illustrate most clearly what I have so far vaguely described as the constraints of Smith’s Cubist principles of composition. To put it flatly, Smith’s move away from a hitherto physically small scale—the definition of which depended almost exclusively on the internal spatial relationships of the sculptural detail—seriously threatened the autonomy and the unique expressiveness of the sculptural form. Whereas in Smith’s smaller sculptures his use of a “ground-line,” which relates directly to the lower edge of the canvas, was integral to the composition and natural to the content of the sculpture, on a larger scale the ground-line—or rather Smith’s instinctual demands for a ground-line—became deeply problematical. The ground-line on a larger scale loses its native “imaginary” function and begins perilously to imitate the ground on which the viewer stands.8

Oculus from 1947 seems to me to represent an important transitional piece in Smith’s oeuvre in that the actual imagery attains a new degree of abstractness, a new quality of expansiveness, almost, one could say, because Smith enlisted the functional supporting role of the chunky pedestal. The ground-line across which the sculptural elements are disposed, thus set up in space becomes in itself a single lithe form. Yet the literalness of the pedestal on which the ground-line rests renders the sculptural identity of the whole extremely equivocal; the staccato rhythms set up between the vertical images are, in a sense, parodied by the stolid inertia of the pedestal.9

With Oculus Smith created a blatant visual anomaly which in itself was richly suggestive; I am tempted to think that it was Smith’s shotgun marriage of a laterally-oriented sculptural imagery, with a vertical support, that heralded two major formal developments within his oeuvre. For, around 1947, Smith began to explore the possibilities for a single, continuous image (as opposed to a composite imagery) on an altogether larger scale; in sculptures like The Royal Bird, 1947–8, Portrait of the Eagle’s Keeper, 1949, The Fish, 1950, the internal flow of rhythms has a natural vertical or lateral orientation (which I earlier described as existing within the terms of the understandableness of monolithic form). While Smith was working on these sculptures he created several radically schematized, linear sculptures, for instance The Letter, Seventeen H’s, 24 Creek Y’s, all from 1950. It is as though in these sculptures the allusive images of Smith’s earlier work are distilled and formalized; the strict frontality of these pieces and the hieroglyphic quality of the images recall paintings by Torrés Garcia or Gottlieb’s Pictographs from this period; these are the only antecedents one can think of for the absolutely unprecedented formal qualities of these sculptures.

In the case of The Letter, the actual sculpture becomes the physical embodiment of both the continuous framing edge and also the imagery within the frame—the lower framing edge lying flush with the ground. The same is true of Banquet from the following year. In order to set up a composite imagery in space Smith resorted very literally not only to the planarity of a canvas, but also to the circumscribing and scale-defining function of a frame. As a result, the scale of these sculptures is rigidly dictated by the overall rectilinearity of the composition and becomes in a sense too explicit, too stated. It was characteristic of Smith’s inventiveness, and also his temerity, to follow an impulse to an extreme, learn from the results and move on. The rectilinearity of these pieces is transformed in Hudson River Landscape and the superb Australia into continuous sweeping lines. Lines that curve back on themselves, loop, stop abruptly and merge into sudden thickenings and attenuations. The sheer momentum of the curves, their continuousness, gives these sculptures, especially Australia, an astonishing sense of freedom and expansiveness.10

By the early fifties then, Smith had evolved two quite distinct modes of composition. One which obliquely expressed the rhythms and verticality of the human form; the other, much less easily described, aspired to the spatial qualities, the illusionism and immateriality of a drawing or a painting. The latter description is inadequate in the sense that it implies a degree of intentionality that is only partially true of Smith; in a sculpture like Australia, which has so convincingly the qualities of a “drawing in space,” Smith has not only wrung from the raw materials a potent expressiveness, but he created an image which has the compelling quality of being almost a visual metaphor, a metaphor that suggests endlessly, yet stands only for itself. It is this quality, which I feel holds true for Smith’s best works from this period, that is lacking in so much of the work of his near contemporaries, like, Ferber, Hare, Lassaw, Lipton, and also the Danish sculptor Jacobson. Smith’s sculpture runs a perilous course between the stated and savored materiality of the raw materials, and the expressive identity and meaning that the materials carry beyond themselves. Often in Smith’s work, and recurrently in the work of the artists just mentioned, the raw materials seem no more than an inert scaffolding for a content that is inaccessible and private.

One could say that in Australia, which is almost exclusively linear, Smith discovered in the continuous curving line a new rhythm, one that was absolutely counter to the staccato rhythmicality of discrete forms played off against each other and, in this sense, counter to the discontinuity inherent in the actual process of constructing or building up a form. It was Smith’s technical prowess which enabled him to realize on this scale (Australia stands nearly seven feet high) his feel for line in its purity and give no sense of contrivance; yet Smith never again used the spanning, unmodulated curves that we find in Australia in quite the same way.

Continuous vertical lines, running straight or cutting sharp angles and shallow curves, worked for Smith in the Tank Totem series with aptness and beauty. The lines carried the sculpture, as it were, in that the lines described the “legs” on which the sculpture stood, just as lines elliptically describe a neck or shoulder. The same is true of the planar elements that Smith introduced into this series, in this case circular or sliced-through boiler heads which were absorbed into the upright rhythmicality of these sculptures.

Yet whereas continuous line is natural to the verticality of Smith’s Tank Totem series—inasmuch as it describes elliptically—when it is deployed horizontally, as in many of the more abstract sculptures like the Agricola series, or the Steel Drawings from this period, it often assumes a meandering arbitrariness. There are several reasons for this, the most fundamental being, I think, that horizontal lines deprived of their descriptive function and deprived of a “real matrix,” continue to express the galvanic properties of a sketch, but futilely; the abruptness of a steel line that stops, does not inherently express in the way that a stopped line expresses in an actual drawing. What frequently happens, and this applies to the vast majority of open, linear sculpture today, is that the very abstractness of the line expresses only its attenuated and meagre materiality. Furthermore, and here we get back to Smith’s fundamental compositional dilemma, steel line cannot literally float, it must stem from somewhere and support itself, must have a beginning and an end. With Australia and Hudson River Landscape, for instance, Smith used the rhythms of the curving lines, gathering them and bleeding them into the pedestal on which the pieces stand—or float—for Australia especially, gives the illusion of floating. Yet however unobtrusive the pedestal might be, it had to be there, it had to support the sculpture and this was Smith’s dilemma, that he so often was forced to resort to a contrivance, with varying degrees of success, to reinforce the subtle spatial illusionism of these linear sculptures.

Smith’s contrivances sometimes have the provisional quality of something invented as an afterthought to keep pace with the urgency of his vision. At times too they have a kind of flourish to them, as though Smith decided in advance what he would use as a base, and having done so, decided he liked it and continued to use it until he stopped liking it. (I am thinking for instance of the little cart-like supports on which several of his Sentinel and Zig sculptures stand.) Usually his solutions as to how to set up a configuration of forms in space succeed because they are unobtrusive, but at the same time, they also underscore the fundamental issue that he himself had raised—almost, one could say, incidentally.

A series of sculptures from 1955 that Smith titles the Forgings, represent, I feel, his tentative explorations into an altogether new way of setting form in space. There are eleven of these sculptures; each consists of a single, vertical line, approximately six inches wide and standing about eight feet high. The quality of line in these sculptures moves away from the implications of continuous drawn line with the hesitations and emphases of the wrist and hand; these sculptures give the impression of being a “representation” of a line. Smith said of them: “. . . I don’t think I could ever make a sculpture like that without making three hundred or four hundred drawings a year—I think it has to develop that way. If you are interested in making a vertical, a simple vertical with the development of a drawing concept.” The single form of each of these pieces hovers between that of a thickened, spread line or a gently modeled, slender plane and they stand in space and support themselves by virtue of their compressed materiality.

Following the Forging series, Smith began increasingly to work with planar surfaces and I want to suggest that the rhythmical and expressive distinctions that Smith learned from line, were transfused into his use of planes. This may sound obvious, but I mean it in many ways that I hope to explain in the remainder of this essay.

His sculptures from the late fifties move away from the qualities of a hand-drawn, described imagery. The forms which make up the sculptures become in themselves more anonymous and geometrical—slats, strips and discs of steel—and these in turn engendered a new sense of rhythm, a steadier, measured rhythmicality.11 Smith seemed more and more to have attempted to make rhythm carry image—though by now the word image is not a useful one to describe the abstractness of his work from the late fifties—for instance, a series of stainless steel sculptures which derived their titles from the number of planes which went to make them up, 25 Planes, 8 Planes, 7 Bars, etc. In a sense these sculptures celebrate what I have earlier described as the discontinuous rhythms inherent in the act of building up a form. They build from the ground and circle in space in a succession of uniform visual emphases, some pieces standing as high as twelve feet.

Smith’s merging of line with plane does, I believe, bring the development of the formal qualities in his work almost full circle. By this I mean that Smith in his later work strove to find a way of exacting from continuous surfaces the spanning and connecting properties of line. (This quality, which is peculiar and fundamental to Smith’s later works has, I think, informed the work of sculptors as disparate as Anthony Caro and Robert Murray.) We see this at an exploratory level in the stainless steel sculptures just described, and increasingly so in his Cubi series from the early sixties. The burnished reflecting surfaces of these sculptures reinforce their quality of weightlessness and opticality, of forms held in space by the slow build or fall of rhythms. This is not to say that all Smith’s Cubi sculptures succeeded, they did not, many of them failed, yet to a greater or lesser degree they have instinct within them the quality of slow, expanding rhythms, rhythms which are themselves the structural means.

There is another sense in which the development of the formal qualities in Smith’s sculpture comes full circle, in that the planar projection of many of Smith’s open linear works from the fifties is given physical embodiment, so to speak, in many of Smith’s later works, for instance sculptures like Stainless Steel Planes and Zig IV from 1961. In these sculptures Smith created an actual matrix, a flat rectangular support, the surface of which is accented by a series of jutting projections—slanted discs and squares, and lines running contiguous to the surface. Smith seems to have striven to give physical, three-dimensional expression to the illusory and fluctuating visual ambiguities accessible to a painter. As one moves around the sculptures, the sculptural identity of each reveals itself, shifting from something like an illusion of two-dimensionality to actual stated three-dimensionality. These sculptures seem to me to embody the superbly original statement of a man who loved the materiality of sculptural form and whose indomitable mastery over it was made to serve a vision that was also that of a painter.

These very general observations on Smith’s later sculptures in no way encompass their diversity. What I have hoped to show is that Smith, especially in his Zig and Cubi series, was exploring and finding new ways to project material forms in space, make them inhabit space by means solely of their structural rhythms and the opticality of their surfaces. Inasmuch as Smith retained in his hands, as it were, a sense for rhythmicality which stemmed from the balancing and juxtaposing of forms set one against another, his sculptures declare their Cubist origins. Yet Smith was always reaching beyond his own motor impulses and his sculptures from the last years of his life, both the conspicuous masterpieces and the failures, are revelatory because they evidence so clearly his search for an expressiveness that could transcend even the rhythmical dictates of material structure.

Jane Harrison Cone



1. Clement Greenberg, in Art and Culture, Beacon Press, Boston, 1961.

2. “David Smith Interviewed by David Sylvester,” Living Arts, vol. 7, no. 3, April 1964.

3. Clement Greenberg, “David Smith,” op. cit., p. 204.

4. For a more detailed discussion of Smith’s formative years see J. Harrison Cone, David Smith 1906–1965, Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University, Cambridge, 1966.

5. Smith’s sculpture Interior for Exterior clearly shows the influence of Giacometti’s The Palace at 4 a.m., which the Museum of Modern Art acquired in 1936, and which was exhibited in the Museum’s exhibition “Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism” in that year. Giacometti was unquestionably an important formative influence for Smith’s work.

6. David Smith, “Notes on My Work,” Arts Magazine, Vol. 34, No. 5, 1960, p. 44.

7. I want to draw attention to an extraordinarily perceptive review written by Clement Greenberg in Nation, vol. 156, no. 4, January 23, 1943, in which he discusses an Interior by David Smith.

8. I owe this observation to Michael Fried.

9. Clement Greenberg first raised and discussed this fundamental question in such essays as “David Smith” and “Modernist Sculpture Its Pictorial Past,” op. cit.

10. I am here presuming the chronological ordering of Banquet, Hudson River Landscape, and Australia, which are all from the same year, 1951. But although I have no factual evidence that Smith made these sculptures in this order, it seems inconceivable to me that Australia, anyway, could have preceded the other two.

11. The development of Smith’s work from this period brings to mind—too easily I think—the development of the more purely optical, less descriptive kind of painting which comes out of Abstract Expressionism. There is a parallelism but, as I stress in my essay, a tangential one and, when stated flatly, it does not mean a great deal. Smith’s sculptures from the early sixties were, in some cases, directly influenced by the paintings of his close friend Kenneth Noland. Noland’s influence is also discernible in Smith’s use of color from this period, a question that I have not touched on at all in this essay. For a short discussion of Smith’s use of color see my essay in David Smith 1906–65, op. cit.