New York

David Smith

Matthew Marks Gallery / Gagosian Gallery

In commenting on his 1950 sculpture The Letter, composed of four stacked rows of indecipherable welded-steel ideographs, David Smith explained that the work derived from a section in Finnegans Wake in which a hen scratches up a letter. Asked whether he thought of drawing in terms of writing, Smith replied that, after reading Joyce, he no longer differentiated between the two. That Smith forged a pictorial—and verbal—vocabulary for sculpture is one of his well-known achievements. This hybridization underlies much of the artist’s oeuvre: Smith conflated the otherwise distinct categories of sculpture and painting, abstraction and figuration, line and volume. We saw in two simultaneous exhibitions how this operation, so apparent in the iconic late masterpieces at Gagosian, had its genesis in Smith’s early efforts in diverse media.

The show at Matthew Marks Gallery, principally of photographs taken between 1931 and 1965, was the first to focus on this aspect of Smith’s production. It revealed that the young artist positioned himself at a confluence of avant-garde currents, from the “New Vision” christened by László Moholy-Nagy to Surrealism. The show presented two essentially separate categories of work: Smith’s foray into photography as an exploratory medium (which, while brief—it lasted from the early to mid-’30s—was serious enough for the artist to send examples to Moholy-Nagy at the Institute of Design in Chicago); and, beginning in the mid-’40s, documentation of the sculpture.

The early photographs, made while Smith was living on St. Thomas in the Caribbean, are Tanguyesque close-ups of found objects such as coral, bone, and wire, replete with figurative and architectural allusions that derive from his earlier Surrealist-influenced painting. But legible in this formative body of work is Smith’s way of seeing and building a kind of multiplicity and complexity into a coherent if not entirely graspable structure. These configured tableaux and other superimposed shots—of his studio, or of the nearby Brooklyn waterfront—prefigure the amalgams of abstract and realistic elements that Smith would exploit in the round. “The eye of man is not a camera eye, it is a cerebral eye,” he wrote. “It is not a two-dimensional photograph, nor any one view.” Just as Black White Forward, 1961, for example, on view at Gagosian, disorients the viewer, undermining the stability of a given perspective by manipulating oblique views, the early pictures involve various techniques—collage, superimposition, or simply drawing on or varnishing the prints—that produce breaks and fissures of a complex spatiality. The manipulated photographs also illustrate Smith’s lack of compunction about the purity of materials, a trait expressed fully in the polychromes.

Next to the almost startling discovery of these early markers of his stylistic evolution, Smith’s photographic documents of his welded-steel sculptures are familiar, having served as their authoritative visual record. Taken outdoors at his Bolton Landing, New York, studio or on the town’s dock, under varying conditions of light, weather, and season, these images—their worm’s-eye perspective determining an otherworldly magnification and silhouetting the work against an often blurred backdrop—provide the viewer with a transient sense of perspective and unity.

The late steel works generate tension between their almost two-dimensional, graphic frontality and the surprising and resonant perceptual shifts that occur as we move around them. The seven on view represent Smith at his most painterly, highlighting the abiding challenge color posed for him, especially in the last years of his life. In Tanktotem IX, 1960, for example, one of the last four Tanktotems, Smith continued to ponder, on a monumental scale, the premises that govern painting and sculpture. His efforts toward their aesthetic union proved equally grand.

Mason Klein