David Smith: A Centennial
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
1071 5th Avenue (at 89th Street)
212 423 3500
February 3-May 14, 2006
David Smith’s preoccupations with human and animal form had less to do with a romanticized yearning for a pre-industrial past or, as some critics have suggested, opportunistic cultural grave robbing, than they had to do with an abiding interest in the transformative aspects of technology. In Gary K. Wolfe’s book, “The Known and the Unknown, The Iconography of Science Fiction,” an analytical and theoretical study of the recurring icons that appear throughout the science fiction genre, he states that “Technology not only creates new environments for humanity, it also creates new images of humanity itself, which tend to mediate between the natural environment of mankind and the artificial ones it has created, between the past and the future, and between the known and the unknown.” Smith was interested in the ambiguity of form and the ambiguity inherent in the materials he used. He dwelt upon the fact that steel could be used to make agrarian tools and destructive weapons; it had the potential to manifest a wide spectrum of psychological impulses.
Like the Minimalists, Smith explored serial forms and radically pared down gestalts, though for him these are attempts to explore anthropomorphic and psychological states through dialectical processes rather than intellectualized rejections of the immediate past. He made imaginative improvisations that broke with the history of the carved monolith placed on a pedestal, connecting instead the concept of the totem with the starkly formal, and in his final phase he experimented with scale and geometric forms to explore a duality of structure and collapse and to give his imagination free play.
He liked steel’s anonymous qualities and the fact that it was used to support or embellish almost every public structure. Jack Burnham points out in his insightful 1967 book “Beyond Modern Sculpture” that such “arch-underground American art forms” as the “neon belt and stickout signs” and “roadside pylon signs” were an important antecedent for Smith’s work. This connects him to the important sculptors in the years following his death who focused on sculpture’s being-in-the-world. Smith constructed tenuous arrangements of forms and symbolic barriers, heightening the tension between the known and the unknown in a way that isn’t kitschy. He also explored the concepts of interior and exterior in the way convolutions of linear steel describe movement, form and outline interchangeably between interior and exterior spaces.
Giacometti’s “Palace at 4 A.M.” made a deep impression on Smith. In this sculpture, abstract figures or signs interact in what could be a cage or the skeletal remains of a house. This model or dollhouse structure acts as a boundary, but the space it contains is still visible to those peering into it. Smith created many linear steel sculptures prior to the 1960s that consisted of disjointed and compact arrangements of forms in which negative space became an active component, and abstract and symbolic figures and structures interact in some mysterious way. But such assemblages of mechanical-organic and architectural forms as “Home of the Welder” (1945), articulated shapes propped up in space at subtly different angles and orientations to the vertical and horizontal planes, are meant to be elusive. For Smith sculpture was a peering into or seeing through and around, and even though many of his sculptures can be looked at as if they are two dimensional constructs, the metal lattices or vertebra rotate around invisible cores. To ignore the constructive aspects of the work is to ignore Smith’s complicated formal concerns.
Uninterested in creating volume or describing space, Smith constructed intersections and nuanced surfaces. He was interested in the act of revealing and many of the sculptures he made that incorporate framed fragments of open space in their composition, have distinctly different identities when viewed from the back, front and sides. The sculpture “Star Cage” (1950) emulates scientific models and is a crystalline cage shape made of sharply bent lines of steel. Embedded in the pointed boundaries of this open space, abstract model are mysterious clumps which could be read as molecules or astral bodies. There is no dominant view here and open spaces are captured by and permeate the sculpture simultaneously. The cage flattens and expands as it is examined in the round. He wanted the act of framing or bracketing of sculptural elements to be ephemeral or transient, always shifting. Looking became a process of discerning fragments and pockets of space that expanded and contracted in accordance with the shifting negative and positive spaces generated by the viewer circling the sculpture.
“Agricola IX” (1952) is a sculpture that epitomizes Rosalind Krauss’s concept of “radical discontinuity.” From the front we see an upside down T-shaped stand with a long horizontal, sharply angled bar of steel suggestive of a trowel or machine part welded onto it. Extending from this are tendril-like appendages that crisscross and bend in different directions, ensuring a balancing of linear elements along a horizontal plane. The tops of the appendages resemble the circular frames of magnifying glasses, a reference to the act of seeing. These circular framing devices are positioned in such a way that we can’t make out their full outline unless we go to the side of the sculpture. The seven circular frames are positioned at slightly different angles so that from the front or back we can see different sized and shaped slivers of the perfect circles only seen in full from the sides.
In his seminal sculpture, “The Letter” (1950) the details on the front and back of the sculpture are completely isolated from one another visually. Smith explores the sculptural qualities of script, transforming letters directly into symbols, inventing his own personal language using abstract pictographs, combinations of images and letters. Smith was the first sculptor to make letters into sculptural forms. In “24 Greek Y’s” (1950), for instance, or “17 h’s” (1950) he ingeniously presented a rectangular pillow of space as a metaphorical writing paper. The erect, animated letters are welded onto multi-tiered stands reminiscent of candelabras or lighting fixtures. The slightly puffy letters transform the space directly behind into a ground plane, generating a tension between two and three dimensionality. Smith turned to systems of notation because of his abiding interest in models of reality, and as a way to clearly differentiate his work from sculpture that describes reality.
With “Voltri XIX” (1962), Smith does something completely different with the found object. This workbench and the various tools placed on it “were simply found at Voltri, and left in their original state.” Smith transforms real objects into allegory, an allegory of the artist craftsman. Time estranges us from these implements of the past, but their utilitarian purpose does not diminish their imposing mystery. Smith was aware of the fact that an exhibition context would transform the actual workbench into a tableau. The normalized space set up by the placement of the object directly on the floor would be thwarted by the viewer’s limited relationship to the sculpture. We can only look not touch. Real objects become weird memorials to past actions in their new context as static symbols. Smith bridges the schism between humanity’s aesthetic creations and its mechanical ones.
It is easy to dismiss Smith as a staid Modernist simply because of his intuitive working method, his interest in the human figure and the needs of human personality, and his use of abstract symbolism during most phases of his career. Critics say that Smith offered little more than riffs on the work of the European Modernists and that his organic abstractions are irrelevant to an age of variegated appropriations. But to see Smith’s work in such a compartmentalized way, simply as a product of its times, is a crude reduction. Critics can’t predict the future so why do they always feel it is necessary to determine what is passé? Do they entirely reject the cyclical or dialectical aspects of history? Why praise Renaissance art or primitive art in an unqualified way, but feel obligated to sound the death knell of Modernist art? I say that critics who claim to be open minded about an artist’s materials but think that steel sculpture began and ended with Pablo Picasso, Julio Gonzalez, David Smith and Anthony Caro, and who consider all Modernist sculptors irrelevant because they came before the advent of “plop art” are being hypocritical.
Smith’s explorations in the borderlands between drawing and sculpture may be the most prescient aspect of his work considering how prevalent the cross breeding of mediums has been during the last few decades. What particularly continues to influence and inspire many living sculptors is his ability to juggle concepts of presence and absence in the same work, as in the “Cubi” series where etched geometric surfaces dematerialize when viewed outdoors and become recessive or concave spaces filled with the reflected and refracted colors of the landscape and scribbles of light.