New York

David Smith

Knoedler Contemporary Art

There are no masterpieces in this spring’s David Smith show, but there is such diversity in its 12 small sculptures as to extend a lesson in the repertoire of ideas and techniques that occupied Smith’s work. The exhibition divides almost evenly between pieces conjoined from found objects and sculptures cut fresh from blank steel and pulled direct from the imagination. It is a test of the viewer’s acuity and persistence to find the thread of sensibility that continues through all 12, and the 11 years they represent.

The found objects that compose some of the pieces are usually recognizable—though incongruous couplings can make these discrete parts elusive—and are fairly abstract in their significance, since they are divorced from their worldly contexts and erstwhile functions. They are welded together roughly, and usually presented without paint, so that they retain their discoloration and decay. In one 1959 piece, what may once have been the housing of a gas meter becomes a head with a Cyclopean eye, and sports the brake pedal of a vanished motorcycle as its left ear, or perhaps its waving arm. Head’s other ear is a Frankensteinian plug; Smith’s initials, cryptically transposed into Greek, grin where a mouth ought to be. The sculpture’s surface crumbles with age from grim industrial black into floral red and green.

The elements that make up this piece and others like it were minor functionaries in our industrial hierarchy; no invention so important as a bicycle wheel appears in the confections of pedals, levers, rivets and rivet holes, steel balls, spikes of various sizes, and what I think must once have been the decorative armrest of a movie theatre chair. These castoffs of the mechanical fraternity gesture toward their former lives, though, toward that world in which they played a useful part, and one of the apparent themes of these sculptures is the recalcitrance and vagueness of memory. For the pieces ask us to remember, against severe odds, the real purposes and better circumstances of the constituents, literally, to re-member these parts. What sadness and nostalgia these industrial items consequently summon, though, is subsumed in the bold and grotesque shapes they achieve in unison. The untitled “armrest” piece, cut, re-welded and colored orange, looks now like some denuded tree. The procession of the “mechanical” sculptures indeed evokes a return of the dead, or at least of the derelict, where purgatory had frightened them into wholly new masks and distorted shapes and a vengeful power over the quotidian world.

The pieces in the current show that make no use of found materials are generally lighter in spirit, though at times they look for a brute and rigid order that becomes menacing. These pieces are more often painted, and offer the consolation of geometry where their anguished fellows do not. Apparent in these pieces are some of the animals, trees and birds that have elsewhere concerned Smith. They strive, with their small size, light weight, and freedom from a rememberable past, to be fanciful and full of play; but they come out weaker than the “mechanical” sculptures, amorphous and dreamy in comparison.

Reconciliation between the two rough groups of sculptures in the current show takes place in David Smith’s monuments, his Cubi. Those grand and shimmering totems turn fantasy into vision with their purity of shape and brilliancy of surface. Geometry, in them, is at once solacing and grotesque; color is at once fresh and aged, having been brushed into the bright metal with countless strokes. The full color under the dull metal of the gas meter has here, in a sense, fully emerged, and the distorted shapes of the industrial relics have undergone a further transformation and become clean, exact, towering and proud. Having learned from travail (from memory) and from the fantasy of perfect shape, the Cubi also march in procession, but no longer as twisted relics—now, as strong and mysterious men.

Leo Rubinfien