David Smith: Related Clues

Art Review by Donald Goddard

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Two Box Structure

Two Box Structure, 1961.
Stainless steel,
165 3/4" x 53" x 27 1/2".
Courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

It may not be possible to reach further as an artist than David Smith did, within and outside himself. The connections he made and the structures he devised to hold things together describe the limits of human comprehension, within a universe that is both reflected by and unconcerned with that comprehension. In Two Box Structure of 1961 the shapes couldn't be simpler, all stainless steel: two fairly large, flat rectangles, a smaller rectangular base, an even smaller circle at the top, and a number of long, mostly vertical linear elements connecting the other shapes in various ways. Standing on the ground, we are at the level of the horizontal rectangle, which has two legs (linear elements) supporting it. Another linear element extends far up from this rectangle and finally reaches the small circle some thirteen feet off the ground. This circle might be taken for a head, in the manner of Picasso's pin-headed Harlequin of 1915, connected to the body below, or perhaps the sun, also connected to the shapes below. Then the vertical rectangle could be another torso, supported by very long linear elements that bend like knees or elbows, so they appear to be oriented both upward and downward. There is some kind of "figure" here, and it is playing with our perceptions, particularly when we realize that the rectangles are like pictures that reflect light (when it is there), and absorb the surrounding colors into their steely surfaces. There are ways in which none of this may be pertinent. Two Box Structure is, after all, just a composition of shapes, but it is impossible to avoid associations and the extraordinary range of mind and emotion they suggest.

Before he began studying art in 1926, Smith had worked briefly on a car assembly line in Indiana (and he was later, in 1942-44, to work on a line assembling armored locomotives and tanks), so the idea of making something from parts was quite familiar to him. It was also not unlike the processes of Cubism and Constructivism that he was to learn about at the Art Students League in New York from 1927 through 1932. More immediately recent was the example of Surrealism, which might be said to represent a kind of Cubism or Constructivism of the inner self. Several drawings and a painting of the early 1930s derive his from trip with his first wife, the sculptor Dorothy Dehner, to St. Thomas, the Virgin Islands, in 1931-32. There is a convergence. The beach is already an assemblage--of shells, stones, shadows, figures, sea life, sky, water. It is also an ancient place, of the world and of the soul, where all these images are gathered. Nothing is specifically depicted in any of the drawings, but neither is anything, in its suggestiveness, inappropriate to the whole. As disparate as the images are, in shape, size, and character, they are all connected by lines that wind their way through the interior of the drawing and then, in different manifestations, encircles everything. In Untitled (Abstract Beach Scene), the shapes, and lines, are red, yellow, and white, the paper is blue, as though it were the sky or the sea.

Abstract Beach Scene

Untitled (Abstract Beach Scene), 1933. Ink and gouache on blueprint paper, 17 5/8" x 23 3/4".

It is interesting that what Smith did later, in his sculpture and drawings, usually involves parts that have been found or cut out and then laid out--as on a beach, or in a factory, or like the detritus of dreams or of the mind--before being put together by the artist. There is a gap in the show of 18 years from the early works to the sculpture Untitled (Study for Agricola I) of 1951, and the changes are dramatic and contradictory, toward both expressionistic frenzy and geometric calm. But rather than contradictory, one is in fact impossible without the other. Smith is supremely aware of motion and stasis, gesture and place. He did hundreds of drawings in black egg ink, a combination he invented, many of which are like the kanji ideograms of China in their certainty of gesture and representation. Smith harped on the idea that words cannot in any way represent what is expressed in a work of art, yet he made art that was itself a language of words, and it is in their very graphic wordness that we know these works are representations. He is signing to us, letting us know something through the figure he has created. In any of them, David Smith 3-10-59, for instance, the black strokes stretch out, mostly in diagonals, with some curls and swoops, to claim the rectangle of the paper for the simplest and most direct expression of a complex thought and image, something that might otherwise be impossible to express. There is always the sense of reaching across the surface from one corner to another, one edge to another, to establish a single image and encompass its meaning, as the circling line encompasses meaning in Smith's St. Thomas drawings. Smith began as a painter, and he continued to be one, but the flat rectangle of a painting or drawing was not for him a scene or space, it was rather a boundary within which the configuration of his thought could be most intensely realized, like a word, which contains within it more than any dictionary definition can describe.

Untitled on Paper

Untitled, 1959. Ink on paper, 27" x 39 5/8".

Construction December 11

Construction December II, 1964.
82 3/4" x 67" x 29 1/2".

Always, but more specifically at times, Smith's kanji correspond with nature, as for instance with the extraordinary energy of a flock of birds and how it consumes all the space within its compass. A sculpture such as Black Flock (Raven) of 1960 refers directly to this phenomenon and gives form to the jagged expressionism of a number of drawings done during the 1950s. In Construction December II of 1964, the gestural expressionism of these works has been transmuted into straight lines and cylindrical shapes of steel, though the expression of movement, energy, and force is even more complex and centrifugal than in the earlier work. It springs from the flatness of drawings to the three dimensions of the sculpture, as birds might spring en masse from the ground. What is worked out in the mind (of the artist) invades, blossoms into a larger realm of action. Though everything in the collation of elements is geometric, nothing is parallel to anything else, vertically, horizontally, or in depth. With every move one makes around the sculpture, no matter how incremental, the work as a whole and every relationship within it changes, so that it constantly becomes a different figure, still and affectless at times, explosive at others. It is an action-painting equivalent of Brancusi's art-deco Bird in Space.

Painted Steel

Untitled, 1955. Painted steel, 39" x 36 1/4" x 7 1/2".

At the opposite extreme, but not so far away, are a series of painted steel sheet metal pieces of the 1950s and '60s in which large squares, and especially circles, are the predominant shapes. Explosiveness becomes contemplation, whatever precedes action. In extreme cases, such as one of the untitled pieces of 1955, all that can be seen from the front or back is the base and the thin edge of the steel, a line in space. From the sides there are two circles in the sheet of steel, the larger one above partially open toward the top, the other enclosed, with the beginnings of rectangles and diagonal-sided shapes around them. Nothing becomes something, or rather, a line, the artist's line, becomes something. In related drawings, some of the circles are empty, others contain figurations of various kinds, like zygotes. In this sculpture, what the circles contain is the world seen through them. Negative space is often discussed as an essential element of great sculpture. Here it is the subject, the place where everything begins.

Smith sensed everything around him--the growth and movement of trees, the transformation of light, the flight of birds, the roiling of his own consciousness--and the possibilities of writing it all in steel. It was no wonder that he lived and kept his work around him in the country, at Bolton Landing in upstate New York, where he returned in another form what he had sensed of nature.

Donald Goddard © 2004

The exhibition was on view at Gagosian Gallery, New York. Gagosian Gallery

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