View of “David Smith,” 2016. From left: 7 Hours, 1963; Untitled (Chock Full O’Nuts), 1960.

View of “David Smith,” 2016. From left: 7 Hours, 1963; Untitled (Chock Full O’Nuts), 1960.

David Smith

View of “David Smith,” 2016. From left: 7 Hours, 1963; Untitled (Chock Full O’Nuts), 1960.

Many photographs of David Smith (1906–1965) show the artist next to his worktable or contemplating a piece in progress in his studio. Such images seem to present an ideal space for the creative process, revealing the formidable simplicity of Smith’s artistic practice. Intently observing the possible structural and semantic compositions of his tools and the shapes and colors of his pieces, Smith created his sculptures the way poets create their verses. His work, intrinsically lyrical, embodies concepts and moods within a totality of metric laws that the artist could choose to follow or not. This exhibition, “Form in Colour,” clearly revealed Smith’s work as a poiesis, an inclusive kind of sculptural practice, reflecting the artist’s “Report on Voltri,” in which he described his creative process as connected to the table on which his materials were laid out. Smith wrote: “A thick steel layout table was never white. I had it painted with lime and water. Ancient in use, practical because it was there, it gave me an order contact which from then on let me work freely without order. The gauges and calipers were those of blacksmiths, rough and imprecise. After Voltri XXII, five pieces of a different scale came from the layout table.”

The twenty pieces selected for this exhibition conveyed the technical and conceptual complexity of Smith’s work through a sequence of painted steel sculptures and spray-painted works on paper. From the time the latter technique was invented, around 1958, Smith made it his own. The alternation between the two-dimensionality of drawing (First Ovals, 1958, or Untitled, 1963, for example) and the three-dimensionality of sculpture (Untitled [Chock Full O’Nuts], 1960, or Circle IV, 1962) not only gave a rhythmic sense to the exhibition, but also clearly revealed the equivalence between the way Smith viewed the finished work and his understanding of the ideational phases that preceded and followed. On paper, simple forms—circles, rectangles, and triangles—that bend according to human effort are like words that have lost their gravity yet have not ceased being elements of a unitary vision. Drawings, sculptures, and selections from the artist’s writings displayed on the gallery walls were thus able to construct a space that enveloped the viewer within an environment of lyrical abstraction that tended to indicate the degree to which the relationship between sculpture and painting was a natural condition in the development of Smith’s artistic practice.

As the title suggested, the exhibition granted a commensurate role to color, and in particular to the act of applying it with an industrial tool such as the spray can. Thus the floating forms that Smith welds to the page in spray paint absorb the same characteristics that the artist associated with metal—strength, structure, movement, progress, suspension, destruction, and brutality. In this way, Smith marked the passage of one material state to another within a single creative way of thinking, confirming once again Rosalind Krauss’s interpretation of Smith’s work as a crucial “passage” in the history of modern sculpture.

Paola Nicolin

Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.