New York

Left: David Smith, Tanktotem IX, 1960, painted steel, 90 x 33 x 24 1/8“. Right: David Smith, Agricola XIII, 1953, steel and stainless steel, 35 1/4 x 42 1/2 x 12”.

Left: David Smith, Tanktotem IX, 1960, painted steel, 90 x 33 x 24 1/8“. Right: David Smith, Agricola XIII, 1953, steel and stainless steel, 35 1/4 x 42 1/2 x 12”.

David Smith

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum | New York

FOR YEARS—decades, really—when encountering a sculpture by David Smith in a museum or an art gallery, I’ve looked at it long and hard, from up close and far away. I’ve walked all around it and peered at it from every point of view; and then, if it was a piece I found compelling (and no one was watching), I made a loose fist with my right hand and lightly rapped the sculpture in order to hear—I almost wrote “see”—how it sounded. Only then do I ever feel that I know a work by Smith, whatever else knowing it might be taken to mean. So imagine my satisfaction when I read Michael Brenson’s essay “The Fields” in a catalogue accompanying the artist’s recent retrospective at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, in which Smith’s daughter Candida is quoted recalling her experience visiting the scores of sculptures Smith had placed in the fields adjacent to his house and studio at Bolton Landing in upstate New York: “My father encouraged my sister and me to run among the sculptures,” she remembers, “to climb, to put our heads into the elements of the sculptures, to bang out tuneless rhythms and hear the difference between the sound of flat and volumetric elements.”

Of course, Smith may simply have been thinking of what kids in the countryside would enjoy doing, away from other amusements. But I believe there is something more to his encouragement. Smith recognized, I think, that one of the great strengths of his art, and maybe its overriding strength, is its sheer physicality: the intensity, or intensiveness, with which sculpture after sculpture by Smith contrives to mobilize—and then invites the viewer to register and acknowledge—every conceivable dimension of its sensuous being as a particular sort of material artifact. It’s far from easy to put what I am driving at into words. But I am trying to point to an aspect of his work that isn’t captured at all by notions such as drawing in space, Surrealist imagery, Cubist structure, the tension between two- and three-dimensionality, disparate views, totems, or (perhaps least of all) opticality. All of these considerations, despite their unquestioned relevance to his art, seem to me too general—too concerned with works of art as iconic or conceptual wholes—to capture the specific mode of sensuousness (of presentness?) I have in mind. Nor is it easy for this mode of sensuousness to be captured in even the best photographs of Smith’s work, for the simple reason that such photographs are invariably taken at a distance sufficient to show the whole of a given sculpture. The sorts of features I am referring to are most effectively registered at very close range—sculpture-rapping range, one might say.

Probably the clearest instance of what I mean occurs in pieces from the ’40s and ’50s, where the “drawn” element—the steel “line,” such as it is—more or less continuously varies in thickness and, equally if not more tellingly, in cross section as it arcs, arrows, meanders, or curves sharply through space. Similarly, the “drawing” itself is anything but regular, clean-cut, geometric; instead it more or less continuously divagates as it goes, so that the viewer is invited, almost compelled, to pay those divagations just as much attention (even closer attention) as he or she does the overall configuration made by the “drawing” or, for that matter, the piece as a whole. Then too there are the welds, the actual points of jointure between elements, which almost always are visible, indeed tangible, in their own right. That is, one of Smith’s most brilliant innovations turned on the recognition that, by means of the simple technology of welding, elements that seemed merely to touch could be securely joined to one another, often in configurations defying customary expectations with respect to weight, gravity, practicality, and so on. (The marvelous Tanktotem IX, 1960, with its narrow, flat, rectangular body supported by three legs that no more than graze it, is a particularly inspired case in point.) Not that Picasso and Julio González failed to grasp this possibility before Smith. But he made far more inventive use of “touch welding”—to coin a term—than they ever did, and beyond that his works time and again direct the close-up viewer’s attention to the welds themselves, thereby introducing a thematic of touching, which is to say of tactility, unlike anything in previous sculpture. “Touch is the Eros of painting,” Jeff Wall says somewhere, and one knows what he means. (Photography, he implies, lacks that particular erotic resource.) But touch, or tactility, of another sort is also the eros of Smith’s work, which is why I habitually long not only to rap his sculptures and hear their sound but also to touch the welds, to run my fingers lightly along “drawn” elements so as not just to see but also to feel their divagations, their swelling and narrowing, the tiny nicks and cuts with which more often than not they are punctuated, and most of all—as I have said—their alterations of cross section (typically from round to rectilinear and vice versa).

If I had to single out a work that epitomizes this dimension of Smith’s achievement it would be Agricola XIII, 1953, one of the absolute masterpieces in his oeuvre, hence in modern sculpture, and a work that demands to be relished up close, over time, and repeatedly, for both its exact configuration—a tour de force of complexity, economy, visual poetry—and what might be called its internal tactile relations, which are best appreciated starting at either of its two “ends.” (Up close, too, we realize how much attention Smith gave to the patina of the steel, which in some parts appears to have been blackened, in other parts polished to a shine.) That Agricola XIII, like the other pieces in that series, makes use of elements that enjoyed a previous life as farm implements adds still another dimension, a largely imaginary or metaphorical one, to an already extremely rich perceptual manifold. As does the etched signature on a metal etiquette on the base, a feature which here, as throughout Smith’s production, signifies “finishing touch,” a last instance of making, or wroughtness, before letting the sculpture go (never an easy thing for Smith, we are made to feel).

The piece is just one highlight in a show whose works were extremely well chosen, largely thanks to the astute and sympathetic eye of poet Dominique Fourcade, who collaborated with curator Carmen Giménez during the project’s beginning stages. Nevertheless, I missed some of the “Albany” and “Zig” sculptures that are among my personal favorites, though not the “Circle” series, which I agree with Fourcade is not among Smith’s best. I also missed Three Ovals Soar, 1960, one of Smith’s most original and exhilarating creations. As for the installation, it was, I think, a dreadful mistake to have placed the magnificent Hudson River Landscape, 1951, in front of an atrium window, turning it into almost pure silhouette and prohibiting circulation around it. It might as well not have been in the show. (Would that the tremendous Australia, 1951, had been “upstairs” as well, though its placement in the atrium was less demeaning to it than Hudson River Landscape’s.) Throughout the exhibition there were, in fact, pieces that one wished had been displayed so as to allow one to view them from all sides, not merely from the front; the positioning of The Five Spring, 1965, partly inset into the sloping interior wall, was particularly unfortunate in this regard. In addition, I disliked the stationing of nine “Forging” sculptures in the High Gallery, an arrangement that detracted from each of them while also turning that potentially dramatic space into a kind of post-Minimalist installation. The selection of the “Cubi,” 1961–65, on the whole a problematic series (I agree with Clement Greenberg about this), felt somewhat arbitrary, except for Cubi XXVII, 1965, the strongest of the group, and the exhibition of all but one of them in a side room seemed almost an afterthought. And as one climbed higher and higher, toward Smith’s later work, the infernal bias of the Guggenheim’s upward spiral exacted a greater and greater price from the individual pieces.

Notwithstanding such missteps and architectural challenges, the choice of sculptures from the late ’30s and ’40s was especially brilliant, enabling—no, forcing—one to recognize how masterful Smith was by the middle of the latter decade, in works such as Steel Drawing I, 1945, Landscape with Strata, 1946, and Oculus, 1947. And there was no shortage of superb works from the ’50s and ’60s. The Letter, 1950, is a glorious achievement, as is Hudson River Landscape, and Australia; the series “Agricola,” 1951–59, and the best of the “Tanktotem,” 1952–60, and “Sentinel,” 1956–61, series; as well as Running Daughter, 1956–60. In 1962 there comes the exfoliation of the “Voltri,” those miracles of easy strength and natural-seeming inspiration, my favorite among which is probably the Hirshhorn Museum’s Voltri V—so simple, so unexpected, so altogether moving. (And so right, so felt, in the thickness of its constituent elements, as almost always in Smith.) In comparison with “Voltri,” most of the “Voltri-Bolton” series, 1962–63, made back at Bolton Landing out of components from the earlier series, feels a little rigid, as if forced. Then toward the top of the Guggenheim’s ramp were the “Cubi,” and all too soon there came the brute fact of Smith’s death at the unbelievable age of fifty-nine—unbelievable, I mean, in view of the quantity, quality, and inventiveness of his accomplishment down to that last moment.

A confession: When in the early ’60s I used to visit exhibitions of Smith’s work at Marlborough and elsewhere, I found it difficult to give my heart to it. There was, it seemed to me, something willed, arbitrary, perhaps overly personal—in a sense, not entirely intelligent—about many of the pieces. I was troubled, sometimes, by their persistent imagery. And then there was his penchant for putting sculptures (e.g., Zig IV, 1965) on little trolleys—why? What I was looking for, I realize, was the sort of internal motivatedness (without remainder, so to speak) that I found in the best of Anthony Caro’s radically abstract sculptures of those years or, differently, in Frank Stella’s stripe paintings. But I also remember looking at Smith’s work more than once in Stella’s company, and there was no limit to my friend’s enthusiasm. He had no patience with my reservations. He was right.

Michael Fried is J. R. Herbert Boone Professor of Humanities and director of the Humanities Center at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

“David Smith: A Centennial” travels to the Centre Pompidou, Paris, June 14–Aug. 21, 2006; and Tate Modern, London, Nov. 1, 2006–Jan. 14, 2007.