PRINT April 1969

The Essential David Smith, Part II

IF DAVID SMITH’S CAREER VIBRATES with the emotional tone of a battle campaign, this was at least partly justified. Smith was looking for formal alternatives to the whole of 20th-century sculpture, and his ambition would allow him to stop at nothing less than a complete restructuring of the relationship between the solitary sculpture and its viewers. The character this career takes on is one of a quest—a quest which committed itself, moreover, to a kind of total originality. Paradoxically, the very recognition of Smith’s self-imposed demands raises certain obstacles for an historical understanding of Smith’s art. For it implies that one cannot necessarily see Smith’s work in terms of a range of beliefs which he shared with his contemporaries; it implies that his historical situation tells one not so much about his membership within a community of ideas but about his revolt from it. In short, it implies that the meaning of Smith’s work must be sought outside the limits of a theory of style. And this may seem puzzling in the case of David Smith, who more than almost any other American painter or sculptor, is thought to have predicated his work first on the transformations of European art which preceded his own development; and then on the dominant styles of American abstract painting.

Typical of this notion, which pervades the critical and interpretive writing on Smith, is the remark: “From Cubism, and from the Constructivism which grew out of it, [Smith] drew his formal syntax; from Surrealism, a vein of fantasy that permitted a free range of symbolic and imagistic invention; and from Expressionism, a gestural freedom that allowed an unflagging energy to penetrate and animate these elements of fantasy and construction, and carry them into new expressive arrangements.”1

The first section of this essay maintained that Smith confronted the formal—and ultimately ideological—principles that animate Cubist and Constructivist sculpture on their deepest level . . . and launched his art on a course of conscious opposition.2 However, one could argue that Smith was not alone in opposing the Cubist-Constructivist entente. Surrealism, which dominated the ’30s and ’40s like a glittering and eccentric diva, also turned its back on those formal ideals. And Smith’s knowledge of Surrealism can be amply documented: whether at the trivial level of his occasional biomorphism, or at the deeper, more critical level of a formal language which depended on found objects and addressed itself to the idea of the totem. Thus a question may have been growing in the reader’s mind—at first provoked by knowledge of Smith’s work during the 1940s and now fully articulated in view of Smith’s engagement with the issue of totemism. And that question—the nature of Smith’s contact with Surrealism—raises once again the problem of his dependency on major events external to his own work.

During the ’40s, Smith was not the only American to adopt the totem image. In 1945 Jackson Pollock titled a narrow vertical canvas Totem II; and the names of other works of the same time referred obliquely to this theme as well (e.g., Night Ceremony, Moon Woman Cuts the Circle). While of the better known American sculptors, only Seymour Lipton actually constructed a specific totem (1957), the titles of pieces by Herbert Ferber and David Hare during the 1940s invoke ideas of occultism and magic.

The presence of Surrealism in any purportedly advanced art object of the ’40s or ’50s has almost become a test of its authenticity. So unshakable is the faith that Surrealism was fundamental to the growth of American post-war painting and sculpture that every writer who touches on anything to do with the first two-thirds of Smith’s career speaks of the role one or another aspect of Surrealism played in shaping his mature sculpture.3 At first there seems to be plenty of evidence for this. After all, the corpus of this art during the 1940s is filled with the phantom dream territories of the “landscapes,” the apparitions of the “spectres,” and finally the appearance of the “totems.” Was it not a tenet of Surrealism that art should “give form to the anatomy of intangible reality—the substance of feelings, of automatic responses and associations, dreams, totem, myth and fable, of the intimate nature of things and the nature of the intimate relations of things”?4 What is the meaning of the morphological relationship between some of the forms of Smith in the mid-’40s and those of Ernst, Tanguy, and the Boisegeloup Picasso if it does not attest to Smith’s journey toward the irrational as a source of creative power? And finally there is his putative acceptance of automatism in the early 50s, with its attendant incorporation of ready-made and found objects into the body of the sculpture. Is this not all irrefutable evidence for Smith’s dependence upon and development by means of the Surrealist experiment?

When one associates a particular artist with phenomena that occur outside his work it is because one hopes thereby to explain something about the artist or body of work in question. The naked fact of a shared image or body of images does not in itself explain anything more about Smith’s art than, say, the naked fact that van Gogh in his portraits of empty chairs and cast-off shoes drew on the body of images common to the sentimental calendar art of the Second Empire. The correspondence in and of itself is neither a reason nor a cause. It alone cannot constitute the meaning of those images within the work of a serious painter or sculptor. In the case of van Gogh, there has never really been a confusion between the meaning of the source and the meaning of the image as it finally appears in his canvases. This may be due to both the low esteem we have for popular imagery, and to the strength of the van Gogh legend which interposes his personality somewhere between us and the work of art. It is like a sentinel, reminding us of the powerful transformations to which sentimental themes of hope or despair had to submit. But this clear separation no longer seems to be present in the historical picture of the symbiosis between modern American art and the contemporaneous European movements we most esteem.

The commonly-held picture of Smith during the ’40s and early ’50s as a Surrealist-influenced sculptor is not therefore neutral, but has its own meaning, in that it tends to imply both shared values and shared attitudes toward form. And this operates not only for Smith’s work during the ’40s, but for his entire career. In denying the picture of Smith as a participant in the Surrealist experiment two issues need to be examined—the first is formal, the second, moral.

Speaking of Smith’s rejection of a central spine to make sculpture intellectually possessible, I have already implied the absolute formal distinction between Smith’s sculpture and Surrealism.5 For I have said that the projection of objects in terms of such a core was characteristic not only of all Cubist-influenced and Constructivist sculpture but of Surrealist work as well. Whereas the Constructivist core addressed itself to the possibility of absolute knowledge and judgment—there is a discoverable and correct shape for every geometrical figure—the Surrealist core posited knowledge without judgment: the essence of the object is knowable but ineffable.

The standard repertory of Surrealist sculptural forms involved cages in which objects were mysteriously trapped, hollow objects with strangely empty cores (like the bottles of Magritte or the pierced forms of Moore, Hepworth or Arp), or skeletal structures often tremendously bloated to become themselves volumes or containers for some more interior secret presence.

All of this symbolism for holding, containing, trapping, enclosing is ultimately a set of metaphors for possession, and it was possession which was at the heart of the Surrealist view of objects. Seeing each object as the locus of unconscious desires, André Breton regarded the presence of the object as the provocation for expression of the will to possess and ultimately to violate, or what has been termed “Surrealism’s basic belief in the omnipotence of desire.”6 For Breton the first principle of beauty was to be the convulsive quality of érotique-voilée: provoking in the spectator a physical sensation that differs from erotic pleasure in degree only.7 Because one happened upon it by chance, and because it could satisfy the compulsion to possess, the objet trouvé was for Breton the supreme expression of the Surrealist law: “To each according to his desire.” Compressed into that little aphorism is the bond that Surrealism programmatically forged between the image of possession and the idea of a total laissez-faire.

It must be fairly clear by now that Smith concerted his entire sculptural power against possession. His substitution of surface for core as the primary datum of the sculpture, his refusal to draw, his insistence on illusion, all speak of his will to defeat possession. But these aspects of his work do not really become ascendant until the early 1950s. And it is the work of the 1940s that is insistently characterized as Surrealist. What of the 1945 spectres, and bronze figures or the 1946 landscapes?

Of the five spectres executed during the 1940s, four of them are directly addressed—at least in part—to Smith’s political convictions and to the war. The political message of Spectre of War, False Peace Spectre, Jurrasic Bird and Spectre of Profit (Race for Survival) is quite simple and direct. Smith accepts an analysis of the war, with its senseless brutality and victimization, as the capitalist solution to the human species’ problem of survival. As Smith himself noted with regard to Spectre of Profit, for the “capitalist conception of man—war [becomes the] natural condition of selection.” And in that sculpture the image he uses to portray the strong devouring the weak is one of “tied people carried in a spoon,”8 held in the mechanical paws of the spectre. Elsewhere, next to notations of books like Biology and Marxism, he writes “it is the dialectic of survival.”9

As in his earlier Medals for Dishonor, a persistent feature of the spectres is the cannon-phallus as a symbol of violation. But these works with their tone of overt Marxism widen the question of war to include the viciousness of class struggle. Smith’s title “Spectre” has less to do with the dream phantoms of Surrealism than with a play on Marx’s image from the Communist Manifesto of the spectre of Communism haunting Europe. This is not to say that these works operate only on a didactic level, removed from impulses and motives Smith could recognize as his own. As elsewhere in Smith’s art, the cannon operates as a mask for Smith himself acknowledging his own capacity for violence.10 Thus, in the construction of these sculptures there are the overtones of a mea culpa. For Smith uses detail, much of it sensual, to arrest the viewer’s attention, to slow down the pace of one’s perception by fragmenting the forms and working against the grain of the thrusting gestures of the sculptures. In the peculiar level of delectation this provokes, the spectres are reminiscent of Goya’s Disasters of War and what the late 19th-century critic Elie Faure wrote of them: “. . . one cannot deny that a constant sadism prevails, that Goya takes pleasure in display amidst the odour of corpses and blood, the bellies of women . . . their fleshy thighs, their pointed breasts and beautiful opulent necks and thrown-back chins.” Sharp contrasts of light and dark pick out details of mutilation and violence which harrow the viewer with the realizations that Goya’s “righteous anger is mingled with and perhaps even augmented by sensuality.” So in Smith’s Spectres, the cannon-birds seem to fuse terror with eroticism, thus challenging the viewer with a knowledge of his own impulses, with his own desires. If the violence portrayed in the spectres has a double-edged meaning in that it is applicable to one’s self as well as to others, it is to that extent doubly moral. It results in one’s recognizing not only an analysis of an external, political situation, but in accepting a self-revelation, the meaning of which is insistently ethical in character. The revelation of, and coming to grips with guilt results in Smith’s work as the prohibition against touching, as the institution of the act of seeing countered by an act of self-knowledge which is moral in kind. As we have seen this is the role of the totemic image within Smith’s later sculpture; and with regard to Surrealism, it is significant that Smith followed Freud and not Breton in his interpretation of the totem. Levi-Strauss, whose disagreement with Breton’s interpretation of totem-ism was published in L’art magique,11 characterized totemism as a primitive morality rather than, as Breton saw it, the ritualized confusion of desire with reality.

Although the argument between Levi-Strauss and Breton over the meaning and significance of totemism may seem like a minor issue, it really touches on the doctrine of Surrealism that became increasingly specious and repugnant to Breton’s contemporaries. In doing so it puts pressure on one of the most central arguments of the movement: the nature of Surreality itself. To Breton this was a primordial coherence that existed before a puritanical Reason was erected to institute the false distinctions between good and evil, perception and idea, reality and desire. Breton’s need for proof that such a coherence had existed, exists, and in the future could exist for everyone led him to claim a precedent for Surreality in the totemistic and fetishistic practices of primitive cultures and in what he thought was the absolute confusion between subjective and objective experience in the hallucinations of the insane. Just as Levi-Strauss could show that Breton seriously misinterpreted anthropological material in his search for the Surreal, perceptual psychologists could demonstrate that the notion that mental patients cannot perceive the difference between hallucination and reality is also a fiction.12 So on a factual level Breton’s instances of Surreality are suspect. But it was against the moral implications of the Surreal that the major attack came. For the Surreal posits a level of experience that is “outside of all esthetic or moral preoccupations” and indeed that very phrase was the one the First Surrealist Manifesto used to define Surrealist behavior itself. As early as 1925, Naville characterized the movement as anti-Marxist, and as a self-indulgent adventure which was fundamentally anti-revolutionary. Under the pressures of the Communist Party’s hostility to Surrealism throughout the 1920s, Breton shifted his definition of Surrealism to behavior “outside of all conscious preoccupations.” But this was simply conjuring with words since Breton saw the unconscious as the seat of irrational and amoral forces: it was the realm of the uncontrolled and cannibalistic primitive id.

The charges of immoral escapism were leveled again and again during the ’30s and ’40s, until in Qu’est-ce que la littérature?, the impressive voice of Sartre spelled out the rules by which Surrealism had defaulted into an escape from freedom.13

There was no way for Breton to reconcile his own systematic confounding of the powers of consciousness with the Marxist demand for analysis; in the eyes of a Sartrian imperative for self-knowledge and self-revelation, he was seen as guilty. It could of course be argued that Breton had indeed proceeded toward self-analysis in works like Les Vases Communicantes and L’amour fou, where the author combed through dreams, automatic texts and waking experience, analyzing them for their autobiographic and prophetic meaning. And thus, though analysis was not an evident characteristic of Surrealist art as a whole, Breton himself employed it. But within the context of Surrealism analysis was totally gratuitous. Analysis simply became a prod for driving the unconscious to further, more elaborate gestures of possession, prolonging the endlessly vagabond search for objects of desire.

It may have been that David Smith’s political commitment to Marxism in the late 1930s and early 1940s helped him come to a critical assessment of Surrealism. Whatever one accepts as the cause, his work of the ’40s undeniably mounts an attack on its basic premises. The landscape series of sculpture which began in 1945 and continued until 1951—often offered as evidence for Smith’s absorption into the Surrealist symbology of dreamscape and fantasy—seems more intelligible as a concerted negation of Surrealism’s first principles. Because in direct opposition to Breton’s postulation of “desire as representation,”14 Smith inaugurated a sculptural situation which would reveal desire as illusion.

Now, for sculpture illusion does not raise, as it does in painting, the question of a third dimension which the painting does not really possess: a space into which we cannot actually enter. The sculpture is as real as our bodies and occupies space as they do. The illusion in sculpture turns on the question of possession itself: either actual physical possession, or in a more sublimated form, intellectual possession distilled into the viewer’s ability to comprehend.

From the evidence amassed so far, one can hypothesize that there were several levels on which Smith saw that to use a sculptural language to extol and convey possession was both to contaminate it, and to strip it of any possibility of being serious. There was a personal level at which Smith recognized his own destructiveness. The second was a more public level on which he saw his personal desires magnified into the mass destructiveness of a capitalistic society geared to consumption and waste. The cannibalistic imagery of Spectre of Profit thus addresses to society as a whole what Smith saw as true for himself and others as individuals—that the image of a free man is not that of an amoeba-like id moving over the face of the earth and extending pseudo-podia of willfulness to engulf and incorporate the objects of desire. Freedom is instead unequivocally tied to the recognition of the autonomy and freedom of others. Insofar as it is tied to this deep sense of reciprocity, freedom itself depends on admitting that the willful realization of one’s desires is an illusion of freedom, not, as Surrealism preached, an access to it.

This was, then, the deepest level on which the fundamental opposition rested between the graspable, incorporable object of Surrealism and the formally distanced, unpossessable object of Smith. If it is a level which is ultimately moral in kind, then the fact that David Smith resolved every formal question which sculpture could pose with reference to it suggests what the stakes were, both in his criticism of Surrealism and in his implied criticism of the whole corpus of “modern” sculpture.

Smith’s analysis and rejection of the furtive maintenance of the monolith in all of the previous sculpture of the century was therefore not a rejection out of hand. It was rather a function of his will to defeat possession. In the first section of this essay we saw how this operates in Smith’s decision to adopt flatness—or what seems to me more exact: surfaceness—as his medium.15 We saw how the ex-vertebrate character of his objects dispelled as a false problem the issues raised by invertebrate sculpture with its implicit acceptance of the monolith.

In the landscape sculptures of the mid-’40s Smith started formulating a tactic by which a kind of parody of the monolith could be used to attack its basic premises. Blackburn: Song of an Irish Blacksmith, a work from 1949–50, is the first great piece to establish this tactic as a clear working principle. Here Smith dismantles the internal coherence one ordinarily feels between the various aspects of any free-standing object. Assembling Blackburn through the simple, structural logic of two intersecting planes or faces, Smith deprives these planes of the sense of their inter relatedness, silting up any felt transparency between them. From one view Blackburn is all open silhouette. Small clusters of cotter pins and pipe section punctuate the joints of its apparent hieratic torso. From this prospect Blackburn offers no resistance to the eye which passes through the interior, reveling in an unparalleled sense of freedom. From another view, Blackburn fans out in precarious balance across the observer’s plane of vision as a sensuously clothed, irregular gesture. By moving 90 degrees around the work one thus confronts not only a new aspect of Blackburn, but the powerful sense of seeing a different work.

The entirely flat, entirely frontal arrangement of sculptures from the succeeding few years, like Hudson River Landscape and The Banquet (both 1951), might appear to be a logical extension of the strategy one finds in Blackburn. For it might seem that nothing could defeat the coherence of the three-dimensional object as much as a sculpture which tended to disappear as one moved around it. However, in the landscapes of the early ’50s this seems not to have been so. As we saw earlier, as soon as Smith established a roughly rectangular format and drew in steel rod within it, he found himself invoking the muse of painting. And this was like opening the door to all the inhabitants of the traditional illusionistic picture. Ironically, “drawing in space” simply affixed to steel line the same sense of vestigial weight and density which adheres to even the most stripped-down or schematic drawing as long as it appears within a traditional pictorial field. It seems fairly clear that this was why Smith stopped working with extruded and bent steel rod and, turning instead to the cursive shapes of tools and fragmented farm implements, began to “draw” with found objects. But right away he faced a new danger; for the found object—was rightly—one of the prime weapons in the Surrealist arsenal.

For Breton, the importance of the found object lay in its function as a metaphor for the way the solitary id incorporates and absorbs objects from the outside world. Dropped as though from nowhere into the stream of the finder’s life history, the object seemed able to spread on the surface of that life rings of association and memory. Although by definition its discovery had to be fortuitous, at the same time it had to be a long time in preparation. One of Breton’s favorite instances of discovery of such an object was the spoon that he and Giacometti happened upon while at the Flea Market. The object’s significance lay in the fact that it was not just any spoon: it was linked backward in time to Breton’s request for a particular sculpture which he had put to Giacometti several months before. As well it elicited associations with specific sexual fantasies Breton had about his future. Therefore in Breton’s eyes it became uniquely his spoon, for his dream life and his past somehow entitled him to it.16

Obviously the Surrealist sculptor could not operate on the assumption that the objects which spoke with this kind of immediacy to his own unconscious needs and desires would elicit the same responsiveness in another viewer. In fact, the logic of Breton’s thinking about the found object would pretty much guarantee that they could not. But the Surrealist sculptor could use the found object to simulate a sense of discovery and possession by introducing the object into the context of the viewer’s already developed understanding of the human body and its structure. In this kind of sculpture either the entire object becomes the focus of a visual pun on the correspondence of its shape to that of either a human or animal body, or the object locates the double entendre in a section of the body—dinner forks serving as hands, household screws as claws, or toy automobile as cranium. Whether the pun is to work upon the whole body or simply on its parts, the sculptor asks the spectator to grant the resemblance between the shape and structure of a real body and the shape and structure of this object. The hitherto unforeseen correspondence between it and the body is then a source of the same sort of conceptual surprise as that of a play on words or a particularly outlandish simile. Caught at the center of the circular visual logic of found-object-as-sculpture, the viewer often feels that he is witness to the very act of creation, as the object and the image to which it is being compared continue to shift in and out of focus—now he sees the motor car as head, now the head as motor car. Since the context in which this operates is one of an already given, conventionally fixed idea of the structure of the body and of its parts, the play with the found object is a play on the notion of representation. Its basic conventionality resides in the fact that it is simply an elaborately fanciful way of depicting an already established and therefore recognizable shape.

As long as the found object operates in the context of this game it is unusable for Smith. For the context is still another variation on the 19th-century idealist point of view. The game once more assumes that the viewer is omniscient and the found object serves as the key to the transcendent reality which he is empowered to fill out and onto which he confers life, as long as he continues to play the game.

One may then see Smith in the early ’50s trying to maneuver within an extremely tight situation: caught between the pitfalls of “drawing in space” and the natural allusiveness of the found object. As long as the intractably figurative quality of bent and extruded steel rod reads pictorially, it continues to point to a distinction between the inside and the outside of the object. But, on the other hand, almost any use of a found object tends to insist upon a metaphorical relation to the structure of the human body as it was already known, leaving nothing to the sculptor but the exploration of ever more ingenious depictions of it. In the grip of this representational mode everything sculptural about the work becomes ornamental overlay against the a priori background, or flesh, of the given form.

Smith’s response came in the series of nine Agricolas which absorbed the major part of his energy in 1951 and ’52. Like his solution to the problem of transparency, Smith resolved the question of drawing through a programmatic arbitrariness. He began to use shapes—a combination of machine parts, dismantled tools and forged steel rod—which bore no analogy to parts of the human anatomy. There were two major devices which he employed to deprive these shapes of the power to function as metaphors for a preconceived idea of the body. The first was to concentrate them at the outside edge of the sculpture so that, as in the case of Australia, they could not be read as either forming a skeleton or issuing from a structural core. The second was to dismantle the tools so that the viewer could not interpret them as mechanistic references to organic motion. This he did either by so fragmenting the machine elements or tools that their original function as tongs or calipers or wrenches was no longer legible, or by connecting them in such a way as to render their moving parts non-functional.

Deprived in this way of the role of organic metaphor, the tools unequivocally state themselves as pure line: but only as a special form of line. Too segmented and disparate to function as a coherent, enclosing contour, the profiles of Smith’s objects register only as the constituents of pictorial representation—as the emblems rather than the substance of depiction. The double edge formed by the two curved rods at the right side of Agricola VIII seems more like the parallel, hatched lines of calligraphic shading than the definitive contour of an object. The repetition of ellipses along the top of Agricola IX reads like modeling for a volume which is otherwise absent. In Agricola VII, the bunched and incoherent links of chain which comprise one side of the sculpture seem like patches of illusionistic shading rather than the firm outline of a depicted shape. Similarly the ratchets of seven machine elements form the major visual event of Tanktotem II by surrounding the central disc of the boiler head with a sputtering corona of crosshatching. In the Agricolas, we see Smith continually stripping line of its power to designate a whole form and making it act instead as a disembodied device of pictorial illusionism.

At the end of his career Smith’s use of the found object had not changed. Throughout the Voltri-Bolton Landing series he continued to stress its functional arbitrariness and to express it as a means toward depiction. In Voltron XVIII, for example, the sense one has of the heavy sheet that arches across its upper quadrant is that far from being the substantial contour of the work, it is only the shadow cast by the phantom circle that paradoxically seems to occupy the sculpture’s center. Thus even while confronting the observer with a new-found weight and massiveness in the over life sized sculpture of this series, Smith continued to absorb the found object into the pictorial language of illusion.

We have seen this transmutation of cast shadow before. In his 1914 constructions Picasso had wrenched cast shadow from the role it had played in 19th-century relief sculpture. Under his tutelage shadows no longer gestured toward the unknowable aspects of objects. Instead Picasso materialized them, treating them as a kind of primary datum which was altogether known since it coincided completely with the splayed surface of the construction. One of these objectified shadows—from Instrument de Musique, a construction of 1914—strikingly resembles the shadow in Voltron XVIII, for it, too, is a rectangular sheet from which a circular fragment has been cut. In the Picasso, as in the Smith, this absent half-disc takes over one’s perception of the work as the major visual element.

Picasso’s absent shape reads as the ghost of a stringed instrument—perhaps a mandolin; Smith’s, on the other hand, is completely abstract. This is not because Smith refers to a purely geometrical shape rather than an object of sensuous experience. It is because Smith has moved his point of reference back to the conventions themselves which makes any perception—and with it any meaning—possible: the convention of a ground against which meanings appear as in relief. What becomes manifest in Smith’s work for the first time is the perception that this ground is something that all objects carry with them, not as an “essence” buried in their hearts, but rather, so to speak, on their faces. In this piece one sees and is moved by the seamless co-existence of object and meaning. The convention of relief—relief in its deepest sense—finds its most abstract expression as it stands on its own without need of or recourse to the backdrop of the actual ground plane that Picasso had still to employ in 1914.

In his later work, when Smith occasionally reverts to a ground against which to set drawn elements, the sculptures seem both less radical and less successful. This happens in March Sentinel and Two Circle Sentinel (both from 1961). In both cases the ground appears once again as a core of the object from which the affixed figuration seems to grow. But if March Sentinel looks like conventional relief, it is only because of standards set by Smith himself, elsewhere in his sculpture.

The two kinds of drawing which Smith explored in his mature work, drawing silhouetted against the support of a ground and the self-sustaining drawing with found objects, unexpectedly coalesce in the last, and for many, the greatest series of Smith’s career.

Huge stainless steel cubes, discs, cylinders and bars come together to form the sculptures Smith called Cubi. Insofar as Smith regarded these tectonic elements as “found objects” they issue from his thinking in the Agricolas and the Voltri-Bolton Landing sculptures. As well, each face of each element supports a luminous calligraphy applied by Smith to the stainless surfaces with a carborundum disc. Although Smith was willing to concede that the color which he applied to the surfaces of his earlier work was largely arbitrary and almost never really successful,17 he was pleased with the burnishing on the Cubis. It is the one place in Smith’s art where surface texture and what I have been calling surfaceness seem to coincide.

The Cubis not only culminate Smith’s experience with drawing, they summarize and expand his thinking about the question of aspects as well. In that sense they feel like the grand summa of Smith’s career—although clearly they were not meant by him to be its conclusion.

No other series of Smith’s has attracted as much attention from both contemporary sculptors and critics as the Cubis, and yet no other series has elicited such diverse and mutually contradictory interpretation. Some writers treat the Cubis as abstract gestures or rhythms—as allusions to the stretching, striding, turning movements of a heroically scaled figure. Others, moving with striking symmetry to the opposite point of view, think of them as colossal constructions—the first wave of sculpture’s migration into the realm of architecture. Those in the first group generally describe their formal experience of the works as colored by a sense of anti-materiality; they speak of the illusion of masslessness and weightlessness, of light so captured and reflected that the sculptures dissolve into “dazzling emblems,” and create “an energy that is purely optical.”18 As we would expect, the second group’s perception of the works is the reverse of this. The excitement the Cubis hold for them resides in what they see as the unalloyed massiveness of the individual elements, in the sculpture’s presentation of corporealized solid geometries. Representing this second position, the critic-sculptor Donald Judd described Cubi XIX as an inventory of shapes that are also objects. Because each massive box or drum or beam presented its front face to him as a huge plane or an enormously thickened line, Judd saw the work as a drawing. And yet the elements of the drawing were irrevocably attached to declarative, three dimensional volumes. For Judd the satisfaction in the work issued from his sense of it as drawing wrenched off the page and congealed into a freestanding object. He saw it as drawing rescued from its customary hell of ambiguous pictorial illusionism and liberated into an unambivalent objecthood. In the light of this objecthood all of the questions one normally has about the spatial positions of any plane could suddenly and absolutely be resolved. In his eyes Cubi XIX became, at one and the same time, the apotheosis and the defeat of the drawing tradition. The apotheosis because drawing was pushed to its logical conclusion, and the defeat because such a conclusion “gets rid of the problem of illusionism and of literal space, space in and around marks and colors—which is riddance of one of the salient and most objectionable relics of European art.”19

It seems to me accurate to see the Cubis as the culmination of Smith’s experience with drawing. And further, the Cubis should be related to the whole question of drawing with found objects, for Smith thought of geometrical entities as being as much “found” elements as togs or wheels or wrenches were. (He said, speaking of the Cubis, that they all had “a basic geometric form that is already ‘found’ . . . Are triangles, circles and spheres ‘found’? They have always been there.”) As were the Agricolas, the Tanktotems and the Voltri-Bolton Landing pieces, the Cubis are images drawn across a continuous plane. In them, either lines seem to span the plane (Cubis XXII and XXVI share this with Agricola IX) or shapes edge out toward an enclosing boundary though they never seem to really define it (Cubis XXIV and XXVII); or, like cast shadows, a series of surrounding shapes throw into relief a tautly empty expanse of space (Voltron XVIII and Cubi XII). And like the three earlier groups, the Cubis’ drawing continues to allude to the totem figure––upright, hieratic, and aloof (Cubi VI). Again, as in the case of the earlier sculpture, Smith raises the question of the spectator’s desire for possession. For both the added sensuousness of the burnished material and the order and rationality of the shapes themselves, pointing as they do to the idea of an underlying geometric logic, tantalizingly hold out the promise of a comprehensible, graspable form.

But here, as before, Smith interposes, between the sculptural object and the viewer, a sense of the work’s elusiveness. Never so blatant as here, Smith’s structural arbitrariness deprives the Cubis of the logic of weight and support, of skeletal cohesiveness or a coherent center of gravity, of the sense of completeness which adheres to depictions of previously known things. Combined with this collapse of a structural logic, the resolute frontality of the works makes it clear that no real knowledge of them will come from a change in the spectator’s point of view—everything to be known is given, as in a drawing or painting, from the front. But it is also true that we continue to feel the planes that face us as the front surfaces of three-dimensional objects, so that never before has this enforced frontality seemed so in conflict with the apparent full-blown nature of the sculptures or, indeed, with the nature of sculpture itself.

Through this conflict we are made to feel the distinction between frontality as a property of objects and frontality as a convention. As a property of objects in the world, frontality refers to one of the many possible aspects which any three-dimensional entity necessarily or logically has. Just as we can have an aerial view or a side or back view of an object, we can have a frontal view of it. The grammar of the word frontal points to both the partialness of our vision of objects and the fact that objects have multiple faces, only some of which are turned towards us while others must be turned away. On the other hand, as a convention, frontality becomes a way of delimiting or defining a mode of experience which is essentially discrete from other forms of experience. Within painting, it operates to set definite limits on the way one can approach the canvas; by ruling out the relevance of the fact that the painting, like any object, has a back or sides, it sets the conditions which are normative for one’s experience. And by doing so it excludes other means one might have of knowing an object—such as moving around it, walking through it, exploring it by touch, dissecting it, picking it up—and limits one’s knowledge of painting exclusively to sight.

As long as sculpture involves itself with frontality as one of many aspects of an object, and therefore as a physical condition of objects, frontality is tied to the question of knowledge, and knowledge which is not limited in any way––knowledge for which any kind of information might be relevant. Since, as we have seen, most Cubist or Constructivist sculptors saw both painting and sculpture as a branch of natural science and therefore tied to questions of knowledge about things in the world, most of them gravitated toward a frontal arrangement of forms. Boccioni’s Development of a Bottle in Space is primarily frontal; most of Lipchitz’s and Laurens’ still-life or figural compositions are frontal; and early Constructivism likewise tended toward frontality. Their frontality was a way of presenting or displaying knowledge of the object collected over time. It sought to collapse into one view intimations of, or information about all possible views. Their frontality refers simultaneously to the existence of the sculpture as an object (which therefore has multiple aspects of which at a given moment the perceiver sees only one) and to the problem this poses for knowledge. Implicit in the statement of this problem is the idea that any strategy one might have for solving it is relevant as is any experience one might choose to have of the object.

Now for Smith it became increasingly important to distinguish between the natural conditions of objects and the natural conditions of sculpture. Which is to say that he felt compelled to exclude from the experience of sculpture itself the question of how we might know any object in the world. It is obvious that to do this he looked to frontality as a convention, for within a convention distinctions become possible, and through distinctions articulateness or meaning also becomes possible.

The Cubis present a face to the viewer. The very fact that one can speak of a face attests to the fact that they are objects. But unlike other objects it is the only face they meaningfully have––and so the face itself expresses the disjunction between their condition as physical entities and their condition as sculpture.

So in a sense Judd is right to see the Cubis as objects, as drawing become a monolithic possession of the third dimension. But he is wrong to think that they are thereby purged of a sense of illusion. The Cubis become “monoliths" in the sense that Sartre used the term at the beginning of Qu’est-ce que la littérature? when he demonstrates how a poet’s treatment of words transforms them into objects. There he distinguishes between words in the context of a prose sentence which fade into the transparent instruments for communicating meaning, and words in a poem which maintain a certain thickness or substance. To explain what he means, he quotes two lines from Mallarmé’s Brises marines: “Fuir, là-bas fuir, je sens que des oiseaux sont ivres/Mais ô mon coeur entends le chant des matelots.” (To flee, to flee there, I feel that birds are drunk. But, oh, my heart, hear the song of the sailors.)

And then Sartre says:

This “but” which rises like a monolith at the threshold of the sentence does not tie the second [line] to the preceding one. It colors it with a certain reserved nuance, with “private associations” which penetrate it completely. In the same way, certain poems begin with “and.” This conjunction no longer indicates to the mind an operation which is to be carried out; it extends throughout the paragraph to give it the absolute quality of a sequel. For the poet, the sentence has a tonality, a taste; by means of it he tastes for their own sake the irritating flavors of objection, of reserve, of disjunction. He carries them to the absolute. He makes them real properties of the sentence, which becomes an utter objection without being an objection to anything precise . . . the ensemble of the words chosen functions as an image of the interrogative or restrictive nuance.20

The Cubis are monoliths in, and only in, the same sense as Mallarmé’s “but”. At the focal point of our line of vision Smith places a sculpture whose formal meaning reads as disjunctiveness itself, as the absolute separation of modes of experience. To understand the image is to understand at the same time the almost exquisite fact of the distance that separates the viewer from the object. That this meaning may be provoked by the glimpsed remnant of the human figure renders the absolute quality of disjunction no less abstract.

Rosalind Krauss


1. Hilton Kramer, David Smith, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1966, p. 3.

2. See Part One in the February, 1969 issue of this magazine.

3. For example, Jane Harrison Cone stressed that:

The importance of Surrealism as a formative influence in Smith’s development should not be underestimated . . . 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 . . . (“David Smith,” Artforum, Summer 1967, p. 74.)

Hilton Kramer also makes this point again and again. Most recently Sheldon Nodelman speaks of a “vocabulary of shapes derived from Synthetic Cubism . . . with heavy admixtures of the Surrealist avatars of these forms and their attendant iconography of the visceral, the invertebrate, the subconscious and the mythic-archaic.” (“David Smith,” Art News, Feb. 1969, p. 56.)

4. See, First Papers of Surrealism, New York, 1942.

5. In Part One of this essay.

6. Clifford Browder, André Breton: Arbiter of Surrealism, Geneva, 1967, p. 61.

7. See L’amour fou, Paris, 1937, pp. 12-26.

8. In Smith’s notebooks in the Archives of American Art. Smith Microfilm Reel III/880.

9. Smith Microfilm Reel III/937.

10. The documentation for this claim will be included in my essay in the forthcoming monograph on Smith to be published by the Museum of Modern Art.

11. André Breton, L’art magique, Paris, 1957. Levi-Strauss’s objections appear in the section entitled “Enquête,” p. 56.

12. See, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, London, 1962, pp. 334ff.

13. This argument is made throughout Qu’est-ce que la littérature, first published in 1947. See particularly the passage from “The Situation of the Writer in 1947,” What is Literature?, New York, 1965, pp. 185ff.

14. In 1935 Aragon called for an end to “la sexualité comme système et le délire comme représentation.” (Pour un réalisme socialite, quoted in Browder’s André Breton, cited above, p. 127.)

15. See Michael Fried’s characterization of surfaceness in “Art and Objecthood,” Artforum, Summer, 1967, p. 21. My own discussion of surfaceness depends heavily on the insights in that article.

16. See L’amour fou, pp. 41-59. In 1936 in a review of the “Exposition d’objets surréalistes,“ Breton wrote, “Tout épave à portée de nos mains doit être considérée comme un précipité de noire désir.” (Reprinted in Breton, Le surrealisme et la peinture, Paris, 1965, p. 283.)

17. In an interview held in 1964, Smith confessed, “I’ve only made two sculptures in tune properly between color and shape.” This is the way the typescript now in the Smith archive reads; when the interview was published, the “only” was omitted. (David Smith, Marlborough-Gerson, New York, 1964.)

18. Kramer in catalog essay, cited above, n. 1.

19. “Specific Objects,” Arts Yearbook 8, 1965, p. 78. Judd’s review of Cubi XIX appears in Arts, December 1964, p. 62.

20. What Is Literature?, p. 20.