David Smith

David Smith’s sculptures appear on the surface to fit logically into the notion of a 20th-century “tradition.” Smith’s career, so the story goes, perfectly replicates the formal transition from the Cubism and Constructivism of the century’s early decades to Abstract Expressionism in the ’50s and early ’60s. In consequence, monumentality, greater simplicity, and an interest in form for its own sake became his trademarks as he pushed his ideas further, almost as if he were consciously laying the groundwork for sculptors who followed him.

Placing a linear teleology onto an artist’s career, however, inevitably distorts it. This Smith retrospective, consisting of 44 sculptures and a selection of paintings and drawings from all periods of his career, gave viewers an opportunity to see Smith whole, so to speak. Its unusual comprehensiveness—more than a third of the sculptures were from the ’30s and ’40s, complementing the more familiar work of the ’50s and ’60s—underlined Smith’s tendency to return constantly to earlier ideas, as well as his less purely formal interests. When placed alongside one another, a work from the famous burnished stainless steel “Cubi” series, 1961–65, has more in common with the Surrealism of his earlier sculptures like Hudson River Landscape, 1951, than it does, for example, with the Minimalist attempt to simplify sculptural form in the subsequent decade. Despite their formal and technical differences, they reveal essentially similar attitudes toward metal as a material, and toward the meaning of sculpture itself.

The crucial link between these early and late works, so different in technique and style, can be found in Smith’s continuing interest in the tension between the solidity and hardness of metal, and its fluid, delicate, almost painterly qualities. His interest in deconstructing the opposition between these different forms carries with it enormous symbolic and psychological consequences. It is not coincidental that the sculptures in his “Tanktotem” series, 1952–60, and his “Sentinel” series, 1956–61, appear both astonishingly anthropomorphic and androgynous. They play havoc with our unquestioning assumption of absolute distinctions between life and death, masculine and feminine. We are accustomed to considering industrial materials and the factories they come from as dead objects, subject to our manipulation and control; we are not comfortable when they come back to us as living Frankensteins. Similarly, we feel the surfaces and the strength of metal to be “masculine”; to have the same material revealed as “feminine,” as natural, as open and spacious, produces a kind of shock. These themes are reproduced in Smith’s later work as the tension between the spontaneous quality of sculptures like Cubi XIX, 1964, with its gleaming cubes, rods, and round pill-like form thrown together as if by accident, and their very real solidity, permanence, and technical perfection. Even his watercolor studies reveal this particular opposition, as they range from free-form, even immature experiments to the most precise mathematical studies.

Similarly, Smith’s sculptures also avoid resolving the tension between two- and three-dimensional art. In the “Voltri-Bolton Landing” series, 1962–63, and the “Cubi” series, prominent painted or burnished surfaces vie for attention with the complex arrangements of forms in space, and some of Smith’s earlier works, like Hudson River Landscape, actually seem to deny their three-dimensionality altogether. Like paintings, they display an optimal vantage point, a surface or an angle that is more important than any other. A second glance, however, always reveals the incompleteness of the single perspective. The pieces are sculptural in the classical sense, even when they seem not to be.

The brilliance of Smith’s work lies in its resistance to classification. But the very fact that a European show, the first such here in twenty years, should bring this resistance to the fore only further complicates Smith’s relationship to a modern tradition. Smith once claimed that metal interested him because its associations “are those of this century: power, structure, movement, progress, suspension, brutality”; but the lyrical, human qualities he brings out even in his later sculptures hark back to Picasso, to Surrealism, to Art Deco’s first attempts to use industrial materials for esthetic purposes, and to even earlier traditions of iron and stone craftsmanship. His stated interest in founding an “American” sculptural tradition is confounded by the universal thrust of his interests. Although Smith does not fit comfortably within a historical schema, neither can he escape the past completely. Almost unwittingly, Smith’s obsession with the unresolvable tension between opposites repeats itself again.

Anne Applebaum