Smith, David Roland

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SMITH, David Roland

(b. 9 March 1906 in Decatur, Indiana; d. 23 May 1965 near Bennington, Vermont), artist whose abstract metal sculptures and innovative use of welding both influenced and served as a catalyst to younger sculptors, especially during the 1960s.

Smith was one of two children born to Harvey Martin Smith, a telephone engineer and inventor, and Golda Stoler, a schoolteacher and strict Methodist. In 1921 the Smiths moved to Paulding, Ohio, where he attended Paulding High School, graduating in 1924. Smith attended Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, for one year, but the summer of 1925 found him at the Studebaker automobile factory in South Bend, Indiana, working as a spot welder and riveter. That fall he entered Notre Dame University in Indiana but dropped out after only two weeks and began working for the Studebaker Finance Agency. In 1926 he was transferred to Washington, D.C., then to New York City, where he was introduced to cubism and constructivism during evening classes in painting at the Art Students League. He chose the league on the advice of a young art student, Dorothy Dehner. Smith became a full-time student the fall of 1927 and married Dehner on Christmas Eve that year.

Smith created his first welded sculpture in the fall of 1933, prompted in part by Pablo Picasso's and Julio González's welded examples of the late 1920s. He had seen examples of Picasso's welded work reproduced in the art magazine Cahier d'Art. However, from the beginning Smith's works reflected his antipathy towards the prevailing understanding of sculpture as a monolithic object. Smith eliminated or incorporated the pedestal into his work. He preferred to disperse his forms across the plane so that there was usually no "spine," or single orientation, to his sculpture. Smith welded rods and forms together to create what the critic Clement Greenberg later described as "drawings in air." In 1934 Smith rented studio space from Terminal Iron Works, a metal shop in Brooklyn, even helping out the workmen to improve his facility with welding techniques. He later appropriated the name for his factory-like studio at his farm in Bolton Landing near Lake George, New York, which he and Dehner had purchased in 1929.

In 1940 Smith moved permanently to Bolton Landing, although he continued to exhibit with the Marian Willard Gallery, where his first solo show was held in 1938. He further honed his welding skills during World War II, when he worked for two years in a factory. In his own sculpture, Smith began to incorporate symbolic forms that were ambiguously personal, even autobiographical. His work reflected aspects of surrealism, as well as the prevailing tendencies of the emerging New York School, and for this reason Smith is often associated with the abstract expressionists.

Smith's mature work is usually considered to have begun around 1951. He received the Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship in 1950, renewed in 1951, and began a sustained commitment to working in series, beginning with the Agricolas (1951–1959). These sculptures are composed of farm machinery pieces, hence the title, which is Latin for "farmer." Smith welded the parts together so that the original function of the implements was obscured, transforming the sculpture into an abstract construction. In 1952 the artist began the Tanktotems (through 1960), which were anthropomorphic in character, and in 1956 the Sentinels (through 1961), so named for their extreme verticality and watchful air. Smith achieved a new monumentality in terms of scale and sculptural power in the Zigs (1961–1964), each of which shares an interest in reductive geometry (both planar and modular) and in surface texture.

Smith's personal life suffered upheavals during this period. He divorced Dehner in 1952 and on 6 April 1953 married Jean Freas, with whom he had two children. They divorced in 1961. Nevertheless, his career enjoyed several boosts. In 1957 the Museum of Modern Art in New York held his first retrospective, which confirmed Smith's status as a major sculptor after years of relative isolation, and in 1958 he and three of his colleagues represented the United States in the Venice Biennale. The entire February 1960 issue of Arts Magazine was devoted to Smith, with photographs illustrating his factory-like working process. In 1962 he was invited to participate in the Fourth Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto, Italy, where he was given access to the contents of several factories. Over the course of a month, Smith produced twenty-seven sculptures made out of the materials he had found there. He called them Voltri, after the name of the town in which he worked, and had the found remnants shipped back to Bolton Landing, where he created twenty-five more, known as the Voltri-Boltons.

Smith began his final series, the Cubis, in 1961, although he did not return to the series until 1963. The title is a reference to their main compositional element—solid squared units, usually rectangular boxes, made out of stainless steel. These sculptures differ from his earlier work in that Smith now directly acknowledged the volume of the form, rather than metaphorically referring to it with planes or rods. He arranged these cubes by stacking them, tilting them to form a diamond shape, and combining them with other geometric shapes, such as cylinders, disks, and plinths. The sculptures were designed to be set outdoors, and the natural daylight on the polished sheen of the cubes made them seem to dissolve, their three-dimensionality effectively countered by the effects of the light. The series was unfinished at the time of Smith's death in an accident in which his truck rolled over. At the time of his death, Smith had eighty-nine of his sculptures, many of them Cubis, in the fields around his home at Bolton Landing.

With their frank acknowledgement of austere, geometric forms, emphasis on industrial materials, and process of welding, the Cubis struck a responsive chord with many artists of the 1960s, despite the philosophical differences that went into their creation. Among younger artists there was a strong interest in elemental, standard shapes, especially the minimalists, from Tony Smith's single cubes to Robert Morris's blocks of six unequal sides. When Donald Judd created his famous and often reproduced 1966 untitled sculpture of seven galvanized iron boxes arranged vertically, but each separately attached to the wall, he was undoubtedly reflecting in part an awareness of—or a reaction to—Smith's Cubis.

Smith's work provided an example against which younger artists had to respond, both formally and philosophically. Over the course of his career, Smith transformed the definition of sculpture so completely that the use of metals and welding as part of the creative process had become commonplace, demonstrating in the process the many open-ended possibilities available to the artist. "Art has its tradition, but it is a visual heritage," stated Smith in 1959. "It is an inner declaration of purpose, it is a factor which determines artist identity."

Smith's papers are at the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. For biographical information, see Candida N. Smith, The Fields of David Smith (1999), the catalogue for an exhibition at Storm King Art Center, New York, that year. For Smith's mature work, see E. A. Carmean, David Smith (1982), the catalogue for the exhibition at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. For a discussion of thematic and symbolic aspects in Smith's work, see Rosalind E. Krauss, Terminal Iron Works: The Sculpture of David Smith (1971), and for artistic process, see Stanley E. Marcus, David Smith: The Sculptor and His Work (1983). For a general overview, see Karen Wilkin, David Smith (1984). An obituary is in the New York Times (25 May 1965).

Leigh Bullard Weisblat