PRINT October 1969


David Smith by David Smith

David Smith by David Smith, ed. Cleve Cray (Holt, Rinehart, N.Y., 1968), 176 pages, illustrated.

As a compilation of statements by the artist, accompanied by many color photographs of Smith and his work, David Smith by David Smith cannot easily be categorized. There is not enough information to consider the book either biography or documentary, nor is is sufficiently systematic to be considered scholarly. Another approach might have been philosophical—an attempt to establish the artists as a speculative or analytical thinker after the fashion of Kandinsky or Sir Joshua Reynolds—but here the book is troubled by the fact that Smith didn’t really break any new ground as a thinker, as well as by the fact that Smith’s longer, more thoroughgoing statements are inexplicably fragmented. Sometimes the reproductions appear to correspond to the texts—as in the section on color—but at other times there seems to be no relation. This is a pity, because a coherent selection of Smith’s writings would certainly be of more than routine interest.

I believe that my time is the most important time in the world. That the art of my time is the most important art. That the art before my time has no immediate contribution to my aesthetics since that art is history explaining past behavior, but not necessarily offering solutions to my problems. Art is not divorced from life. It is dialectic. It is ever changing and in revolt from the past. It has existed from the minds of free men for less than a century. Prior to this the direction of art was dictated by minds other than the artist for exploitation and commercial use. That the freedom of man’s mind to celebrate his own feeling by a work of art parallels his social revolt from bondage. I believe that art is yet to be born and that freedom and equality are yet to be born.

This statement, from a catalog introduction to his exhibition at the Willard Gallery in 1950 and reprinted in the chapter on “History and Tradition,” is probably the single most self-contained exposition of David Smith’s position as an artist. Implicit in it are his attitude to his materials, his concept of identity and his Americanism. Smith, it seems, was an incorrigible American, or at least an incorrigible exponent of the American Dream—something of a latter-day Mark Twain. This, linked with a Marxist (and Hegelian) cast of thought which he probably inherited during the thirties, gave a strong revolutionary turn to his ideas as well as his life style. This is illustrated b.y what appear to me to be the two outstanding characteristics of his disposition: his need for freedom and his propensity to reconcile opposites.

These characteristics seemed to have been of a piece in his mind; freedom for the artist was a freedom from rules and precepts, a freedom from the past and from Europe—in effect the American Dream. It was on this point in particular that Smith’s mind was, fortunately, divided. As a result he was able to indulge his Americanism without blinding himself to the past. He was too much of an artist, too open to experience, to cut himself off. In 1959 he wrote: “I have spoken against tradition, but only the tradition of others who would hold art from moving forward. Tradition holding us to the perfection of others. . . . Art has its tradition, but it is a visual heritage. The artist’s language is the memory from sight.” Smith, in fact, seemed to work towards a reconciliation of America and Europe, to wed the vitality of America (“A wealthy nation with a narrow culture”) to the culture of Europe, to make high art out of “raw” materials—junk and industrial steel.

His sense of opposites went deeper than this, though, and points to a deeply Hegelian nature. It is reflected, above all, in his establishment of the Terminal Iron Works at Bolton Landing. The chapter of “Poems and Dreams” records his tendency to synthesize art and nature, country and city, Europe and America—in fact everything he encountered. I suspect that it had a good deal to do with his tendency to assimilate open and closed aspects of single sculptures, as Rosalind Krauss has demonstrated in her recent essays on Smith.

Smith probably had something vaguely Hegelian in mind when he spoke of the relationship of art to life as being “dialectic.” That part of the statement reveals Smith at his weakest, in an attempt to display himself as a profound thinker. “It is dialectic” tells us nothing about the relationship between art and life other than that a relationship does exist. It also reveals that Smith is not really a systematic thinker. While Smith does appear to have a system, that system seems to have been shaped primarily by his nature, by his identity or, if you will, his prejudice. I don’t mean to suggest that this is a bad thing, at least not for Smith. Artists aren’t expected to be philosophers, nor are they expected to develop ideas logically, except, perhaps, in their art. A prejudice is probably of the utmost importance to an artist, but its importance rests not upon its truth, but upon its ability to produce art.

For the most part, Smith’s “system” seems to have been a quasi-political form of modernism. He felt, for instance, that art had freed itself from any utilitarian obligations to society in the past hundred years. For this freedom the artist had to pay the price of social neglect and unemployment. The price, however, was worthwhile in that it enabled artists, for the first time, to “decide the course of art.” To Smith, this had everything to do with “concept”: sculpture was, above all, concept, and freedom of concept was what really mattered. (Despite his economic difficulties, Smith believed in keeping a lot of materials on hand in order to maintain the freedom of realizing concepts. He also refused to edition sculptures because they cut into the time needed for the realization of concepts.) “Concept” had a good deal to do with Smith’s choice of materials as well; if “concept” was all important, materials were secondary—steel was cheap, available and, above all, had no “fine art” attributes. Although Smith never really defines “concept,” I take it that he felt it was not logical, but imaginative. It seems, in all respects, identical to Croce’s “lyrical intuition.”

Smith never really defined “identity” either, but it was, alongside of “concept,” one of the cornerstones of his esthetic. He did, however, insist upon what it was not:

It is identity, and not that overrated quality called ability, which determines the artist’s finished work. Ability is but one of the attributes and acts only in degree. Ability may produce a work but identity produces the works before or after. Ability may make the successful work in the eyes of the connoisseur, but identity can make the failures which are most important for the artist. What the critics term the failures are apt to be unresolved but of greatest projection. . . .

In the context of statements like this and in relation to the rambling Whitmanesque poems which catalog his sensations, “identity” does make sense. It seems very like what Keats referred to as “the Wordsworthian or egotistical sublime” as opposed to what he discovered in Shakespeare and which he, himself, wished to achieve, a state of “negative capability” in which the poet has no identity. It can, of course, be argued that this is splitting hairs and that, in any event, sculpture and poetry are different activities and don’t bear comparison; but Smith himself, perhaps because of his emphasis upon sculpture as concept, would seem to refute this. He went so far as to maintain that “sculpture is a poetic statement of form” and to make poems of his sources.

By “negative capability,” Keats meant that the artist should be selfless, should be perpetually entering other things, other identities—somewhat like Miriam Rooth in The Tragic Muse. What he meant by the “egotistical sublime” and what Smith certainly seems to mean by identity appears to be the opposite, that the artist should assimilate everything. This seems to be precisely what Smith attempts in his poems and in his constant reconciliation of opposites: he produces art by first assimilating the world and then celebrating his self.

To my mind, the most important question this book raises is that of what an artist can say that will shed light upon art in general and upon the relation of the artist to his art. Perhaps the masterpiece of the intimate, informal approach to this problem is Renoir on Renoir, which succeeds in presenting a vivid glimpse of the man and the artist as well as collecting a series of valuable insights into art in general as well as the art of his contemporaries. Probably the finest, systematic account of the problem is the Discourses of Joshua Reynolds. Smith, of course, was not called upon to found an academy and David Smith by David Smith is closer to Renoir on Renoir on that account. Yet it suffers in relation to that book, perhaps because too many of Smith’s contemporaries are still with us to permit a fully personal account. The book, as a result, seems to stand rather uneasily with a foot in either camp.

Nevertheless, Smith had a number of important things to say. What the book illustrates, above all, is a sense, that I suspect every great artist must have, of the real import of art. This is exemplified primarily in an aspect of Smith’s thought I have only alluded to, his sense of sculpture as celebration:

I do not work with a conscious and specific conviction about a piece of sculpture. It is always open to change and new association. It should be a celebration, one of surprise, not one rehearsed. . . .

Drawing is the most direct, closest to the true self, the most natural celebration of man—and if I may guess, back to the action of very early man, it may have been the first celebration of man with his secret self—even before song.

This amounts, I suppose, to saying that art should be what Berenson called “life-enhancing,” and should be so in the most total possible way. The measure of Smith’s enduring stature is that he not only recognized this, but realized it in great works of art.

Terry Fenton