A Centennial. Over 120 sculptures from his complex and varied body of work dating from 1932 to 1965, as well as a selection of the artist's drawings and sketchbooks. Marked by the use of industrial materials, especially welded metals, and the integration of open space, Smith's three-dimensional version of Abstract Expressionism revolutionized the art of sculpture in the U.S. He initially made his mark by introducing into the idioms of American sculpture models pioneered during the 1920s by Alberto Giacometti, Julio Gonzalez, and Pablo Picasso.
"If you ask why I make sculpture, I must answer that it is my way of life, my balance, and my justification for being." David Smith
Widely considered the greatest sculptor of his generation, David Smith (1906-1965) will be celebrated in the exhibition David Smith: A Centennial, opening February 3, 2006. Curated by Carmen Gime'nez, Curator of Twentieth-Century Art at the Guggenheim Museum, on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the artist’s birth, David Smith: A Centennial presents over 120 sculptures from his complex and varied body of work dating from 1932 to 1965, as well as a selection of the artist’s drawings and sketchbooks. The works have been culled from 41 private and 24 public collections, including 35 sculptures and 41 drawings from the David Smith Estate. David Smith: A Centennial will be installed throughout the ramps of the Frank Lloyd Wright building and several ancillary galleries, and the exhibition will remain on view through May 14, 2006.
This exhibition is organized by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation in collaboration with the Centre Pompidou and Tate Modern.
Considering his art as a totality, David Smith: A Centennial will provide audiences with a singular opportunity to understand the complexity of Smith’s aesthetic concerns, as well as his impact on the course of modern and contemporary sculpture. Each period of his oeuvre will be represented by important examples from museums and private collections, including many works rarely seen by the public. In addition to bringing together the masterpieces of Smith’s mature period in the 1950s and ’60s, the exhibition will give special emphasis to his connection with his European forebears by including a number of his early Cubist- and Constructivist-inspired constructions of the 1930s, as well as his more expressionistic works of the 1940s, which were largely influenced by Surrealism.
Marked by the use of industrial materials, especially welded metals, and the integration of open space, David Smith’s three-dimensional version of Abstract Expressionism revolutionized the art of sculpture in the U.S. and around the world. Smith initially made his mark by introducing into the idioms of American sculpture models pioneered during the 1920s by Alberto Giacometti, Julio Gonza'lez, and Pablo Picasso. Most importantly he took up the Cubist mode of “drawing in space," welding sheets and rods of metal—often found industrial discards—into an abstract open network of forms. This collage aesthetic, combined with the influence of Surrealism, led Smith, like his contemporaries in the world of painting, to formulate a new mode of expressionism amidst the turbulent context of World War II and its aftermath. In the 1950s, as he streamlined his aesthetic and his sculptures became increasingly abstract, Smith continued to assert that his sculpture was a pure expression of his identity. He grew increasingly ambitious during the 1960s, creating works of monumental scale that were often painted in bright colors. When Smith died suddenly in a tragic car accident in 1965, he was at the height of his creative powers, and he left behind an expansive yet remarkably coherent, and extraordinarily powerful, body of work.
David Smith: A Centennial opens with Smith’s first explorations into sculpture, made shortly after an extended trip to the Virgin Islands in 1932. Smith had trained as a painter, enrolling at the Art Students League of New York in 1927, where he studied with John Sloan and Jan Matulka. Under Matulka’s tutelage, he had begun to attach objects to the surface of his paintings, and his first bona fide sculptures—such as Construction (Lyndhaven) (1932)—grew directly out of this practice, the canvas becoming a base for constructions of wood, wire, and coral that were frequently painted with bright colors. Matulka also first exposed Smith to European precedents for metal sculpture, which he saw reproduced in magazines such as Cahiers d’art. Not reading French or German, Smith’s understanding of these pieces was purely visual and was aided only by his own early experiences working as a welder on an assembly line in Ohio at age nineteen. When Smith himself turned to welding in his practice, he began by making a series of heads, following in the example of many Cubist works on this theme. Saw Head (1933) is a typical example: here Smith appropriated the circular blade of an industrial saw as the basis of his composition, combining it with steel rods and pipes to evoke a human visage.
Throughout the 1930s, Smith continued to grapple with his European influences. Like the Cubists and Surrealists, he made relatively small-scale works during this period, often based on well-established themes: reclining figures, musicians, dancers, bathers, interiors. But most significantly, during these first years of his work with sculpture, Smith sought out a systematic style of metalworking that could incorporate the open structures first explored in Picasso’s constructions. In works such as Aerial Construction (1936), he disregarded the notion of a central mass around which historical sculptures had been organized, instead defining a hollow space at the heart of the piece through a network of lines and planes. In this way Smith offered a sculptural translation of the flat forms of Synthetic Cubism. Notably, he often painted these works, and he later summarized this ongoing dialogue between painting and sculpture by claiming, “In my own case, I don’t know whether I make some pieces as painted sculpture or paintings in form."
At the onset of World War II Smith had begun to develop a greater interest in Surrealism’s metaphorical dimensions, which first manifested itself in a series entitled Medals for Dishonor (1938-40). This group of fifteen cast medallions, which will receive a special display in the fourth level of the museum’s Thannhauser wing, attacked the evils of fascism and totalitarianism through intensely satirical, symbolic sculptural narratives that focused on disease, sexuality, and violence. One medal, which the artist titled Bombing Civilian Populations (1939), features a female statue, her torso flayed open to reveal a fetus in utero, her decayed legs revealing mechanized skeletal structures within, flanked by bombs, ruined architecture, and an impaled child.
During the war, with metal supplies scarce, Smith worked on an assembly line welding locomotives and tanks and produced few sculptures. By the war’s end he had backlogged a wealth of ideas, and 1945 proved to be his most productive year to date: he made over 35 pieces, twelve of which will be featured on the second and third ramps of the exhibition. In these works Smith expanded upon his personal symbolism, but turned away from social themes toward more autobiographical explorations. In Pillar of Sunday (1945), for instance, a series of vignettes relate to the artist’s memories of his teenage years in Ohio; their vertical arrangement is one of Smith’s first uses of a totem structure. Like other works made at this time, this sculpture provided an ambiguous window into the artist’s psyche, suggesting but rarely revealing his true emotions. Often Smith returned to particular symbolic motifs over a number of works, and from 1946 to 1951 he explored one of the most noteworthy, creating a total of fifteen sculptures titled Landscape, as well as at least ten other closely related pieces. David Smith: A Centennial will feature the most complete exploration to date of this theme, which Smith came to through his lifelong preoccupation with the intersections of sculpture and painting, where landscape was a well-established subject. This connection is especially evident in the striking green patina used in Egyptian Landscape (1951) to highlight its central phallic element, which hangs above an earthy brown cradle of steel.
In 1950, Smith was awarded a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship, which freed him from the side jobs that had often hampered his development. The increased time and large stocks of high-quality materials afforded by the fellowship ushered in an intensely fertile period, and Smith created many of his greatest masterpieces. In The Letter (1950), he perfected his use of personal symbolism while radically altering the formal structure of his work. Abandoning the tableau layout, he lined up glyphic elements, often containing symbolic scenes, on a series of stacked register lines like the text of a written letter. This work signaled Smith’s return to a mode of interweaving lines and planes in open space and paved the way for his two great sculptures of 1951, Hudson River Landscape and Australia. While still tied to an expressive symbolism, these works marked a vital transition for Smith, as he gained confidence, increased his scale, and developed a new sculptural style around the concept of “drawing in space." The practice of drawing had always been crucial to his creative process, and in Hudson River Landscape he came closest to approximating its graphic effects in sculptural terms. Utilizing an organizing structure that resembled the rectangular frame of a piece of paper or canvas, Smith welded steel rods into curves and loops that operated like lines on a blank page. Australia, at nearly nine feet across and over six feet tall, dominates space with its magisterial presence, but avoids massive monumentality through its delicate articulation of curving steel rods. Its birdlike form, which related to a motif Smith repeatedly used in the ’40s, became a cipher for a formal examination of the terms of sculpture itself: line and mass, open and closed space, and the balance of weight on a narrow base.
In the works that followed, Smith continued to explore the notion of “drawing in space," but he left explicit symbolism behind. At the same time he began organizing his work in a new manner, conceiving of his sculptures as part of titled series that allowed him to resolve different formal issues over a number of pieces. These series, which occupy the upper ramps of the museum, as well as several ancillary galleries, were produced haphazardly: numbered series were made out of order and seldom completed, and Smith simultaneously maintained several series at any given time. The first of these, which Smith began late in 1951 and titled Agricola, continued to emphasize the articulation of line in space, but turned away from the figurative composition of Smith’s more symbolic works, explicitly incorporating found materials into increasingly abstract assemblages, as in Agricola V (1952). With the Tanktotem series (1952-60) Smith moved into the space of the viewer, creating sculptures that could stand directly on the floor. He referred to these works, which continued in his Sentinel series, as “personages," and began to arrange them in the fields outside his Bolton Landing home in upstate New York. He also began to paint these works in ever more vibrant colors, often with expressionistic brushstrokes, as can be seen in Tanktotem VIII (1960).
In 1955, Smith began one of his most unique series, called the Forgings. This group of sculptures was remarkable within his oeuvre for being the only works in which he did not assemble disparate elements into collage-style constructions. Rather, using a powerful forging hammer, the artist created singular, vertical lines that stood freely in space like a forest of totems. David Smith: A Centennial brings together 9 of the 11 works from this series in a special display in the Guggenheim’s High Gallery. This will be the most complete presentation of the Forgings since their original exhibition at New York’s Willard Gallery in March 1956.
In the final thirteen years of his life Smith would create over sixteen separate series of as many as 28 works each. He continued to employ found materials to great effect, and to increase the scale of his sculptures. In 1962, he accepted a monthlong residency in Italy, where he worked out of an abandoned welding factory near Genoa. In an extraordinary burst of creativity, he made 27 sculptures in 30 days, a phenomenal achievement that will be commemorated with the installation of nine examples from this series on the museum’s sixth ramp. Titled Voltri after the town that housed Smith’s factory studio, these works were largely assembled from found tools and scraps of steel and featured a range of construction styles, while nevertheless maintaining a remarkable coherence. Many of the pieces ostentatiously preserved the identity of found components such as tongs, work tables, and industrial carts, as in the large wheels of Voltri VII, which took the form of a wagon, implying motion and hearkening to Smith’s early days on the assembly line. For others, like Voltri XII, Smith welded together cast-off metal fragments to create some of his most abstract works.
When Smith returned to his home in Bolton Landing he brought with him many leftover materials from Italy, which he used in a follow-up series entitled Voltri-Bolton (1962-63). While further developing many of the formal themes already explored in the Voltri works, now he could take his time planning and executing the sculptures, and thus they bear a greater formal complexity, as seen in Volton XVIII. At the same time Smith was at work on his last great series, the Cubis (1961-65). With their strident use of burnished stainless steel and prefabricated geometric shapes, these works are Smith’s most famous, and are some of the most iconic works of the twentieth century. Their highly reflective surfaces adopted the color and light of their surroundings, and although they were expressionistic, their structures often foreshadowed the simple geometries of Minimalism. With a piece like Cubi I (1963), Smith explored volume and space in a manner as yet undeveloped in his work, while returning to the extreme verticality of his earliest Tanktotems, if not even Pillar of Sunday.
Just months before the his death, Smith created Cubi XXVII (1965), a work that reflects the many achievements of his 33-year career as a sculptor. Fashioned as a gigantic gate, this construction of industrial steel blocks and cylinders encloses open space in its carefully balanced structure. At the same time it hearkens to the frames of Smith’s early paintings and to the sculptural framing devices he had developed in such mid-career works as Hudson River Landscape. Reenvisioning this frame on an epic scale, Cubi XXVII seems a fitting summation of Smith’s prematurely truncated career. Most of all it shows how the disparate strands of his creative powers ultimately came together with remarkable coherence.
Smith Exhibition History
During his lifetime Smith was the subject of several retrospectives and a host of smaller exhibitions, and in the years since his death he has been celebrated with several retrospectives in the U.S., and to a more limited extent, abroad. The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum organized the first major posthumous retrospective of his work in 1969. The National Gallery of Art and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden simultaneously presented important retrospectives in 1982. Other significant presentations have included in-depth exhibitions of Smith’s works on paper and paintings, such as the Whitney Museum of American Art’s 1979 show, and smaller exhibitions focused on one series or aspect of his sculpture, such as the 2000 presentation at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. David Smith: A Centennial will constitute the first retrospective of his sculpture since the 1982 exhibitions in Washington, D.C.
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