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David Smith Sculptor Analysis Essay

"Art is the raw stuff which comes from aggressiveness by men who got that way fighting for survival."


Among the greatest American sculptors of the twentieth century, David Smith was the first to work with welded metal. He wove a rich mythology around this rugged work, often talking of the formative experiences he had in his youth while working in a car body workshop. Yet this only disguised a brilliant mind that fruitfully combined a range of influences from European modernism including Cubism, Surrealism, and Constructivism. It also concealed the motivations of a somewhat private man whose art was marked by expressions of trauma. Smith was close to painters such as Robert Motherwell, and in many respects he translated the painterly concerns of the Abstract Expressionists into sculpture. But far from being a follower, his achievement in sculpture was distinctive and influential. He brought qualities of industrial manufacturing into the language of art and proved to be an important influence on Minimalism.

Key Ideas

Collage was an important influence on Smith, and it shaped his work in various ways. It inspired him to see that a sculpture, just like a paper collage, could be made up of various existing elements. It also encouraged him to combine found objects like tools into his sculptures; it later influenced the way he contrasted figurative motifs and informed the way he assembled the large-scale geometric abstract sculptures of his last days.

One of Smith's most important formal innovations was to abandon the idea of a "core" in sculpture. This notion was pervasive in modern sculpture, fostering an approach that saw sculptural form springing from a center that was almost imagined to be organic and alive. But Smith replaced it with the idea of "drawing in space." He would use thin wire to produce linear, transparent sculptures with figurative motifs at their edges. Later he would use large geometric forms to create structures reminiscent of the vigorous gestures of the Abstract Expressionists.

The idea of the totem, a tribal art form that represents a group of related people, was an inspiration to Smith, and something for which he tried to find a modern form. Freud's ideas about totems led him to think of them as a fitting symbol for a world driven by violence, but it also suggested the idea that the sculptural object might keep the viewer at a distance, that it might almost be an object of fear and reverence.

One of the means by which Smith sought to keep the viewer at a distance from his sculptures - emotionally and intellectually - was to devise innovative approaches to composition. These were aimed at making it difficult for the viewer to perceive or imagine the entirety of the object at once, forcing us to consider it part by part. One method he used was to disperse pictorial motifs around the edge of the sculpture, so that our eyes have to move from one element to another. Another was to make the sculptures look and seem very different from the front than they do from the side.

David Smith's career encompasses a range of styles, from the figurative expressionism of his early relief sculptures, to the organic abstraction of his Surrealist-influenced work, to the geometric constructions of his later years. In this respect, he drew on many of the same European modernist influences as his peers, the Abstract Expressionists. And, like them, one of his most important advances lay in adapting the language of Surrealism to post-war concerns.

Most Important Art

Hudson River Landscape (1951)

Hudson River Landscape offers an abstract representation of the area around Smith's Bolton Landing home. It relates to a number of works he produced in this period with pastoral themes. It can be read as translating the expressive, gestural style and automatist principles of Abstract Expressionist painting into sculptural form. Despite its materials, it achieves a surprising weightlessness, due to the sculpture's arcing lines and open construction. Moreover, this work has often been seen as a breakthrough piece for Smith, because its inspiration was a landscape, and not a figure (the monumental figure being the oldest and most traditional form of sculpture).

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David Smith Artworks in Focus:

David Smith Overview Continues Below



David Smith was born in Decatur, Indiana, in 1906 and moved with his family to Paulding, Ohio, in 1921. Smith's mother was a schoolteacher, while the artist's father managed a telephone company and was an amateur inventor. Smith was the great-grandson of a blacksmith, and of his childhood, the artist recalls, "we used to play on trains and around factories. I played there just as I played in nature, on hills and creeks." Smith left college after only one year and, in 1925, began working at the Studebaker automobile factory in South Bend, Indiana. There, Smith learned soldering and spot-welding techniques that he would use throughout his artistic career.

Early Training

After a brief period in Washington D.C., Smith came to New York City in 1926. He soon met his first wife, the sculptor Dorothy Dehner, and enrolled in The Art Students League, where he studied painting and drawing over the next five years. He never received formal sculptural training. His teacher Jan Matulka at the Art Students League did, however, encourage him to start adding three-dimensional elements to his paintings. At this time, Smith began creating relief-like works that evolved into more sculptural and object-like pieces. Through the Art Students League, Smith also befriended artist and writer John Graham, and it was through him that he met other New York artists, such as Stuart Davis, Willem de Kooning, and Arshile Gorky.

Around 1930, it was also Graham who, through reproductions in the French magazine Cachiers d'Art, introduced Smith to the welded-metal sculptures of Pablo Picasso and Julio Gonzalez. This was a moment of epiphany for Smith, as he realized that the industrial techniques he had learned as a skilled laborer could be applied to art. Smith bought welding equipment in 1932 and, in 1933, began renting out space in a Brooklyn welding shop called Terminal Iron Works. He experimented with working in metal over the next several years, creating relief plaques such as the politically charged Medals for Dishonour (1937-40) and small-scale, increasingly abstract sculptures that incorporated found objects and the formal languages of Cubism and Surrealism. He received his first one-man show (featuring drawings and welded-metal sculptures) at Marian Willard's East River Gallery in 1938.

Mature Period

In 1940, Smith and Dehner permanently relocated to their farm in Bolton Landing, in upstate New York. He named the farm "Terminal Iron Works," after his Brooklyn studio. This move was followed by a two-year period of decreased productivity, during which Smith worked in a locomotive factory in order to avoid the draft. The majority of the 1940s was a very productive time for Smith, and he worked through the influence of Surrealism to arrive at a style of sculpture that framed abstract, metamorphic forms within a purposely flattened, Cubist space. With these works, Smith emphasized the act of viewing, particularly from one fixed vantage point. In this way, he produced a perceived flattening of sculptural forms that contrasts with the painter's attempt to create the illusion of three-dimensionality in the two-dimensional medium of painting. The science of perception and the intersection of painting and sculpture were interests that occupied a great deal of Smith's work.

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David Smith Biography Continues

After taking a teaching post at Sarah Lawrence College at the end of the 1940s, Smith received two Guggenheim awards, in 1950 and 1951. This infusion of funds allowed the artist to devote all of his time to art-making and to increase the scale and ambition of his work. In sculptures such as Hudson River Landscape (1951), Smith used the improvisational and material possibilities of his welded-steel technique to create large, expressive sculptures that appear to be drawings in space. With their flowing lines and open construction, these works not only betray Smith's formal training as a draughtsman and painter, but also approximate the spontaneous, automatism-inspired method favored by several of the New York School painters.

Like many of the other New York School artists, Smith was also interested in exploring universal human symbols and themes. In 1952, this interest found expression in Smith's first two numbered series of works, the Tanktotem (1952-60) and Agricola series (1951-57). These works, and those created over the next decade, were pieced together through a process of largely improvisational assemblage, using found objects (such as old farm implements), industrial components (ordered from standard catalogs), and, in the mid-1950s, forging techniques to create vaguely human-like, totemic forms. Throughout the rest of his career, Smith continued to work in numbered series, expanding upon a single core theme in each group and naming each series after a common material or thematic element. Despite the artist's goal of expressing universal topics, and despite the industrial materials and construction techniques that defined these works, Smith's sculptures always maintained a personal, even introspective nature. And, with their hastily welded joints and imperfect surfaces, they also continued to show the hand of the artist. This fruitful period in Smith's career was capped by a one-man show at The Museum of Modern Art in 1957 that featured 34 of the artist's sculptures.

Smith's increased artistic and professional success during these years was matched by significant turmoil in his personal life. Dehner left Smith in 1950 after she discovered that he had been carrying on an affair with one of his Sarah Lawrence students. Over the next several years, he married the student and had two children with her, only to have this marriage end as well in 1958.

Late Period

In 1961, Smith began the Cubi series (1961-65), perhaps his best-known group of works. These sculptures are composed of geometric, mostly rectilinear forms in stainless steel and are welded together in improvised groupings that approximate the human body in shape and scale. Like many of his earlier works, these pieces imply a singular viewpoint, and they explore the idea of three-dimensional shapes appearing to exist in a flat, pictorial space. The majority of these pieces were left unpainted (Smith did paint other sculptures at this time, as in the contemporaneous Zig series (1961-64)), and they feature heavily burnished surfaces that create almost calligraphic patterns, recalling the effect of brushwork on an Abstract Expressionist canvas. Smith in fact also worked on a number of paintings based on his Cubi sculptures. These paintings were composed by laying the sculptural forms on a white surface and spray-painting around the objects, creating negative images that further connected Smith's sculptural work to his academic background in painting and drawing.

In 1962, Smith was invited to create new work for an arts festival in Spoleto, Italy. To compose this work, he was given free reign of an abandoned steel factory in the town of Voltri. The setting - so like his old Terminal Iron Works studio - along with the ample supply of materials and assistants, inspired a period of feverish creativity. Smith produced 27 sculptures - known as the Voltri series - during his month-long stay. He was so taken with the place that he had a large amount of steel from the factory shipped back to the United States. There, he continued to work with the Voltri materials in a new group of sculptures that he called the Voltri-Bolton, or Voltron series (1962-63).

In 1965, at the apex of his creative and professional development, Smith died suddenly and tragically from injuries sustained in a car accident in Bennington, Vermont.


David Smith is considered by many to be the most important American sculptor of his generation. He was certainly the first to work in metal, and was singular in his ability to synthesize the influences of Surrealism and Cubism into a new, highly personal and yet distinctively American sculptural style. Smith's work was a direct and formative inspiration for the British sculptor Anthony Caro. His innovative approaches to composition - particularly the way the motifs and forms in his sculptures sometimes seem to be scattered and dispersed - were also important for other 1960s sculptors such as Mark di Suvero and David von Schlegell. For them, Smith suggested new directions for modern abstract sculpture, directions that suggested alternatives to Minimalism. In another manner, his example was also important for the Minimalists; although they applauded his use of industrial materials, they rejected the expressionism and figuration in much of his work.

David Smith, in full David Roland Smith, (born March 9, 1906, Decatur, Indiana, U.S.—died May 23, 1965, Albany, New York), American sculptor whose pioneering welded metalsculpture and massive painted geometric forms made him the most original American sculptor in the decades after World War II. His work greatly influenced the brightly coloured “primary structures” of Minimal art during the 1960s.

Smith was never trained as a sculptor, but he learned to work with metal in 1925, when he was briefly employed as a riveter at the Studebaker automobile plant in South Bend, Indiana. Dropping out of college after his first year, he moved to New York City and, while working variously as a taxi driver, salesman, and carpenter, studied painting under John Sloan and the Czech abstract painter Jan Matulka.

Smith’s sculpture grew out of his early abstract paintings of urban scenes, which were reminiscent of the work of his friend Stuart Davis. Experimenting with texture, he began to attach bits of wood, metal strips, and found objects to his paintings, until the canvases were reduced to virtual bases supporting sculptural superstructures. Long after he stopped painting, his sculpture continued to betray its pictorial origins: his overriding concern with the interplay of two-dimensional planes and the articulation of their surfaces led Smith to abrade or to paint his sculpture while often ignoring the traditional sculptural problems of developing forms in three-dimensional space.

Smith’s interest in freestanding sculpture dates from the early 1930s, when he first saw illustrations of the welded metal sculpture of Pablo Picasso and another Spanish sculptor, Julio González. Following their example, Smith became the first American artist to make welded metal sculpture. He found a creative freedom in this technique that, combined with the liberating influence of the Surrealist doctrine that art springs from the spontaneous expression of the unconscious mind, allowed him soon to produce a large body of abstract biomorphic forms remarkable for their erratic inventiveness, their stylistic diversity, and their high aesthetic quality.

In 1940 Smith moved to Bolton Landing, New York, where he made sculpture during World War II when not assembling locomotives and tanks in a defense plant. For a time after the war, he continued to work in a bewildering profusion of styles, but toward the end of the decade he disciplined his exuberant imagination by making pieces in stylistically unified series. Such series of sculptures were often continued over a period of years concurrently with other series of radically different styles. With the Albany series (begun in 1959) and the Zig series the following year, Smith’s work became more geometric and monumental. In Zigs, his most successful Cubist works, he used paint to emphasize the relationships of planes, but in his Cubi (begun in 1963), his last great series, Smith relied instead on the light of the sculptures’ outdoor surroundings to bring their burnished stainless-steel surfaces to life. These pieces abandon two-dimensional planes for cylinders and rectilinear solids that achieve a sense of massive volume. Smith joined these cubiform elements at odd and seemingly haphazard angles, in dynamically unstable arrangements that communicate an effect of weightlessness and freedom.