David Smith couldn't have had a commoner name, but it also couldn't have been more appropriate. "Smith" is an occupational name, meaning that its bearer had an ancestor who was a blacksmith, forging horseshoes and other ironwork on an anvil. David Smith was always proud of belonging to Local 2064 of the United Steelworkers of America. He updated his ancestor's practices to weld both iron and steel into the powerful and quintessentially 20th century sculptures that had already earned him the reputation as America's greatest sculptor by the time he was killed in an auto crash in 1965. His masterpiece is "Australia" (1951), a vigorously-outlined 9 1/2-foot wide flying creature that towers above its creator in the photograph he took of them both. It also towers above the entrance to "David Smith: A Centennial," a retrospective exhibition celebrating the 100th anniversary of the artist's birth and organized by Carmen Giménez, with nearly 120 sculptures and more than 50 paintings and drawings, at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York until May 14, 2006.
Smith's work unites the brute strength of the Industrial Revolution in America with the artistic sophistication that until he came along had been exclusive to the School of Paris. He was born in 1906 in Decatur, a town in central Illinois that is now (along with most of the Midwest) undergoing the pangs of shifting from a manufacturing to a service economy, but in Smith's youth was still a bustling manufacturing center, and a major railroad hub. Smith later recalled that when he was a child, he'd had a "pretty profound regard for railroads. We used to play in trains and around factories, just like I played in nature, on hills and creeks." He was interested in art, but frustrated by the rigid way it was taught during his year at OhioUniversity. During the summer of 1925, he worked at the Studebaker automobile factory in South BendIL, doing it for the money but learning riveting, soldering and spot welding along the way.
By 1926, he'd settled in New York City, and (while holding down assorted day jobs) was studying painting at the Art Students League with John Sloan, who taught him about Cézanne, and the lesser-known but more modern Jan Matulka. Smith dreamed of becoming a painter, but Matulka encouraged him to fasten "found objects" onto the surfaces of his paintings. In time, these collages evolved into three-dimensional constructions, of which "Construction (Lyndhaven)" (1932) is an early example, a droll little personage holding a staff of some sort, made of coral, iron, lead and wire. Then Smith saw photographs in Cahiers d'Art, a French magazine, of the welded iron sculpture that Picasso had recently made in conjunction with his countryman Julio Gonzáles. "Since I had worked in factories and made parts of automobiles and had worked on telephone lines," Smith later wrote, "I saw a chance to make sculpture in a tradition I was already rooted in." In the fall of 1933, he made his first welded iron sculptures at a garage near the summer home he and his first wife Dorothy Dehner had bought at Bolton Landing, in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York. When he returned to New York City, he bought a welding outfit and an air reduction oxy-acetylene welding torch, then found a warehouse on the Brooklyn waterfront where they'd let him work. The rest, as they say, is history.
Smith's earlier welded sculptures were mostly pretty small, though in 1940 he moved up to Bolton Landing on a permanent basis, with plenty of space. These earlier welded sculptures, made in the later '30s and the '40s, reflected not only his long-distance exposure to Picasso and Gonzáles but also the French surrealism he'd seen close up when visiting Paris in 1935, and at the big exhibition of dada, surrealism and fantastic art held at the Museum of Modern Art in 1936. Smith made semi-abstract versions of traditional subjects that Picasso and other cubists had used (female nudes, bathers, dancers), but he also made totemic figures evoking surrealism's love affair with Freud and myth, plus bizarre little stage-like sets that he called "interiors." These were clearly (if distantly) related to Giacometti's famous construction, "The Palace at " (1932-1933), which MoMA bought in 1936 out of its dada and surrealism show and made a part of its permanent collection.
Already in these early small pieces can be seen Smith's characteristic idiom of "drawing in space:" using narrow strips of iron or steel cunningly sweeping up, down and around to define the open spaces inside them (indeed, his command of "negative space" was extraordinary early on). Although all these sculptures are to some extent three-dimensional, and can offer interesting side views, the side views are almost always secondary to the front view, which can be seen and responded to much as one sees and responds to a two-dimensional painting or drawing.
Around 1950, Smith entered his artistic maturity, and, as his sculptures become more abstract and correspondingly more ambiguous, ties to his earlier sources (Picasso, surrealism) fade away. Another one of his great works from this period (besides "Australia") is "Hudson River Landscape" (1951). A 6-foot wide horizontal rectangle lovingly embellished with swooping horizontal strips of steel, small cloudlike forms and shorter ladder-like shapes, the piece was inspired by the view of the Hudson River and the countryside on its western shore that one sees riding in the train from Manhattan to Albany on a roadbed that runs close beside the river's eastern bank. Smith made sketches of this long, lovely ongoing view before he started the sculpture itself, yet the finished work departs so much from literal reality that its various parts also manage to suggest not only segments of railroad track, but also the tail of an airplane and even boats. In sum, it conveys a composite of motion, vision and transport.
In the later '50s and the '60s, Smith moved on to larger, often chunkier pieces, turning them out in series. Among these series were the "Tanktotems," "Sentinels," "Zigs," and "Circles." During this period, he was more likely to paint his sculptures bright, cheerful colors, but far from always. He simply allowed the steel surfaces to rust in the mammoth "Voltri" series, twenty-seven poignant, dignified pieces turned out within a month in Italy while participating in the Spoleto art festival in 1962. Smith's final, even more monumental "Cubi" series was made of big cubes, slabs and bars of burnished stainless steel; they were meant to be placed out of doors, so their surfaces would reflect the sun, sky and whatever landscape they were set into. Some people prefer this later work to the earlier work. Certainly, Smith's reputation in the '60s was primarily based on the later work, when, after decades of being known only within the art world, he became a public figure, featured in Life magazine. One cannot appreciate his extraordinary versatility without knowing his total oeuvre, yet for me his finest work was done right around 1950 -- the same time when Jackson Pollock was creating his greatest paintings, and abstract expressionism, the movement to which both Smith and Pollock belonged, was as a whole enjoying its finest moment....