“David Smith: Related Clues” at Gagosian Gallery until April 17 (555 West 24th Street, at 11th Avenue, 212-741-1111)
“Carl Andre: Lament for the Children 1976/1996” at Paula Cooper until April 3 (534 West 21st Street, between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues, 212-255-1105)
Gagosian has assembled an exhibition of works by David Smith that any museum would be proud of. It makes one of the most theorized and at the same time imitated twentieth century sculptors seem utterly fresh.
A particular strength of the selection is that it makes new sense of a problematic side of Smith: his paintings and drawings. Beautifully installed and intelligently curated, the exhibition often posits the products of two and three dimensions in friendly exchange in a way that seems to insist on singularity of vision transcending the means at hand.
Smith had started out as a painter, evolving into sculpture as a result of a painterly impasse (and at the urging of an influential teacher, the Czech Jan Matulka). He retained from this background a stronger personal affinity with the painters of his day than sculptors.
But his art is so tactile, both in the way it is conceived and made that at first it is impossible to think of him as a painter turned sculptor. Rather, it is the other way around: His generally monochrome, or else brashly colored, 2-D works, are almost stereotypically the paintings and drawings of a sculptor: personage dominated, form obsessed, and color blind.
His mature sculpture is characterized by its brawny physicality, revealing always the way it was made, and making that facture part of the visual meaning of the piece. Usually, his sculpture is realized “in the round”, to be sensed sculpturally, in other words, rather than “read” pictorially. There is a strong, multi-layered association of his later sculptures of the 1950s and 1960s with machines, bolstering the blue-collar thingness of his vision, the sense of his sculpture being out there in the world.
And yet, there is another element in Smith, especially in the breakthrough pieces of the 1940s, that builds a different relationship with flat works: his calligraphic quality. Whether made of welded-together elements or cut out forms, he often made work that looked like hand writing in space. Although resolutely 3-D, the linear seemed to win out over the volumetric.
The juxtaposition of “Black Flock (Raven),” (1960) a painted steel piece that despite its date relates to the earlier aspect of Smith, and a group of egg ink on paper paintings of two years prior, is richly illuminating. Smith, in these paper works, relates at one and the same moment to such contemporaries as Pollock and Kline, and to oriental calligraphy. As if in conscious emulation of Far Eastern exemplars, some of his black ink pieces highlight the signature pictographically with an orange stroke. The heavily painted Raven piece, with its energetic, anything but disguised welded joins, has the collaged elements work as words in sentence-like syntax.
A couple of paintings on paper from 1954 exhibited nearby explore a comparable fugal relationship between elements and joins by having ochre gouache lines dig into exuberant black ink brushstrokes, as if the lines are bones, the brushstrokes flesh.
Collage is crucial to any understanding of David Smith, but equally, so is Surrealism. One of the earliest pieces in this exhibition, “Construction,” (1932), brings together found elements in ambiguous, sexually suggestive juxtapositions, in a way that doesn’t compromise on sculptural integrity. The elements retain their individuality while working together as a whole. “Construction” is shown with a bizarre little untitled relief painting from 1958, with bones and plaster painted over in a washed-out French flag tricolor of rose, white and blue. The bones are arranged as personages that read like a cross between Hans Bellmer dolls and Henry Moore figures. These are associations that sit uneasily with the persona of Smith as the torch bearer of American abstraction, which for years was the official line on the artist. They are a compelling reminder, however, never to overlook the oddity in Smith, or the humanity.
Smith was clearly obsessed by positive-negative relationships. In a way, this was the opposite of his line in space idiom. Instead of placing forged or collaged elements in thin air, he punctured vacuums into solid volumes. “Untitled,” (1955) is a flat, white-painted steel shape that’s punctured by a series of circles and a square. It is an extreme instance of sculpture as pictorial support and at the same time three-dimensional object. This is shown with a set of Smith’s spray paintings in which found objects or carved stencils preserve shapes in the virginal white of the page in striking contrast to the surrounding enamel spray paint, lurid and speckled.
Apart from the oddball bone and plaster pieces, the Gagosian show swings shy of a crucial aspect of Smith’s output that has crucial bearings on his traffic between the second and third dimensions: His extensive forays into relief. These were the subject of a rigorously argued tourning show, curated by Karen Wilkin a couple of years ago, seen in New York at the National Academy of Design: relief was presented as a missing link between personal content and abstraction in his work. By sidelining the reliefs, however, the Gagosian exhibition shines a stronger light on the flat works, making them seem like fuel to the engine of his robust sculptures.
Most of the material in this show comes from the artist’s estate, complemented by signficant loans from the Metropolitan Museum, the National Gallery of Art, and other institutions. There seems to be a growing trend of liberal lending to commercial high flyers. Earlier this year, similarly top notch lenders made the historic Rothko in 1949 exhibition possible at PaceWildenstein. Whether this increasingly common cause of commercial and public galleries is a healthy sign of the times or not, the policy offers treats for New York’s gallery goers.
The protean David Smith was progenitor to countless sculptors and several directions in sculpture. Among these can be counted minimal art, although formalists like Anthony Caro or Mark di Suvero who consciously took up his mantle after his automobile death in 1965 at the age of 59 chart a contrasting course.
Smith’s machine aesthetic, his sometime tendency towards decenteredness, and his penchant for arranging works in fields, all find echo in the work of echt minimalist Carl Andre, whose 1976 piece, “Lament for the Children”, closes at Paula Cooper this weekend. The work was destroyed after its initial installation at the disused playground of P.S.1; the version on show at Ms. Cooper’s is a reconstruction made in 1996 for an exhibition in Germany.
The work consists of a hundred concrete rectangular stumps evenly placed in a grid, filling Ms. Cooper’s humungous barn: Minimalism, it could be argued, at its most pompous and arid. And yet, as so often happens with this enigmatic artist, as notorious for what he has thrown out as for what he has added to art, the work has a capacity to take on subsquent meanings that belies its obstinate reductiveness.
It is hard, in this vein, to suppress the observation that the odd, poetic title, deriving from a Scottish renaissance dirge commemorating the tragic death of five children, takes on an eerie resonance with the artist’s own personal history. Mr. Andre-to some the artworld’s O.J. Simpson-was tried and acquitted in 1988 of pushing his wife, Cuban-born artist Ana Mendiata, from their 34th floor balcony.
A version of this article first appeared in the New York Sun, April 1, 2004print