Exh. cat. New York: Prestel, 2011
Exhibition schedule: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, April 3–June 24, 2011;
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, October 6, 2011–January 8, 2012;
Wexner Center for the Arts, Columbus, OH, January 28–April 15, 2012
Published caa.reviews, March 14, 2012
David Smith: Cubes and Anarchy is the first major presentation of Smith’s work on the West Coast since the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s (LACMA) own memorial exhibition held in 1965, which consisted of a dozen works from the Cubi series and two Zigs, all executed in the last years of his life, from 1961 to 1965. The present exhibition seeks to set these late works in context by demonstrating that Smith’s use of geometric form in these sculptures did not represent a departure for the artist, as has often been claimed, but was the culmination of a career-long preoccupation. As Carol S. Eliel, the exhibition’s curator, puts forward in the exhibition’s handsome, profusely illustrated catalogue, geometry was for Smith both a formal and thematic construct, one entwined with his leftist politics, self-identification as a “worker,” and use of industrial materials and techniques.
In the late 1920s, shortly after arriving in New York City from the Midwest, Smith studied painting at the Art Students League with John Sloan, from whom Smith later said he learned about “cubes and anarchy,” the goal held by many European modernists of (symbolically) constructing a brave new world, one free of enforced political authority, using geometric forms and modern industrial materials. Eliel devotes a good portion of her catalogue essay to demonstrating that both in his formative years and later in his career Smith drew inspiration from the clean lines and fundamental shapes found in the work of Piet Mondrian, Vladimir Tatlin, Wassily Kandinsky (the Bauhaus years), Constantin Brancusi, and others, his devotion to these sources being a factor that set him apart from his Abstract Expressionist colleagues.
During the Depression years of the early 1930s, Smith’s political engagements increased as he became affiliated, as did many of his contemporaries, with the Artists’ Union, the Artists’ Congress, and other progressive groups in support of labor. At around the same time, Smith’s friend, the painter John Graham, introduced him to the welded iron sculpture incorporating found industrially fabricated parts produced by Pablo Picasso and Julio Gonzalez in the late 1920s. Smith, who had learned to weld as a youth working a summer job in a Studebaker automobile factory in South Bend, Indiana, was greatly inspired both by Gonzalez’s leftist politics and his use of industrial materials and techniques (Gonzalez was, in fact, the only artist to whom Smith devoted a monographic article; entitled Gonzalez: First Master of the Torch, it appeared in Art News in February 1956.). By the mid-1930s, Smith was welding sculptures alongside skilled laborers at Terminal Iron Works, a foundry on the Brooklyn waterfront, and in the early 1940s did wartime work with steel at the American Locomotive Company in Schenectady, New York, experiences that led him to insist that, despite his bourgeois upbringing, he be seen as a member of the working class and that his sculptures be understood to intersect with manual labor and contemporary industry. “The metal,” Smith said, “possesses little art history. Its associations are primarily of this century, it is structure, movement, progress, suspension, cantilever, and at times destruction and brutality” (quoted in the exhibition catalogue, 26).
The Smith of “destruction and brutality,” who appears often in his works rendered in figurative expressionist and biomorphic styles (Smith having often explored multiple manners currently), is nowhere to be found in this exhibition devoted to his use of geometric form. Smith’s preoccupation with biomorphic abstraction derived from an interest in Surrealism, Freudianism, the unconscious, and the totem that he shared with his Abstract Expressionist colleagues. Smith’s sculptures employing organic forms were also assembled through the process of welding metals, although these pieces tended to be more improvisational (due to automatist principles) than the more formally studied geometric work featured in the LACMA exhibition.
As David Smith: Cubes and Anarchy was among the first exhibitions to be installed in LACMA’s new Lynda and Stewart Resnick Pavilion designed by Renzo Piano, it is worth noting that the installation was well suited to the form and spirit of the featured work. The pavilion’s interior is a Miesian universal space, which was configured for the purposes of the show into a long, wide corridor with glass walls at the front and back, where it opened onto a landscaped expanse. Translucent white scrims suspended from the ceiling and extending down to the cement floors, most of them set at forty-five-degree angles, separated the sculptures into bays in groups of three or four. Although Smith’s large-scale pieces, particularly those executed after 1950, are best seen outdoors (as Smith generally portrayed them in his photographs), the scrims, particularly when coupled with the natural light filtered in through saw-tooth skylights, served as atmospheric veils and offered experiences of intimacy and distance: near things appeared sharp, while sculptures even a short distance away were blurred. This arrangement echoed the layered effect of sculptures being seen through sculptures found in Smith’s photographs of his work distributed over the fields of his Bolton Landing property.
The exhibition opens with two large gleaming, burnished metal works of the Cubi series, Cubi XXIII (1974), which evokes the mountain landscape surrounding Bolton Landing, and Cubi XXVIII (1965), a stately “gate.” These are followed by Cubi I (1963), a totemic piece of almost crystalline structure, and Cubi V (1963), yet another work evoking the human figure (in this case specifically known to relate to a photograph of Smith’s daughter, Rebecca, running with a plate in her hand). A roughly chronological unfolding of the artist’s career follows, beginning with the rusted and “primitivizing” Saw Head (1933), one of his first welded metal pieces incorporating found parts, which was directly inspired by Gonzalez’s work.
Among the most remarkable and telling of his early works, Suspended Cube (1938), was produced soon after, this piece signaling an advance into increasingly abstracted form and into the redefinition of sculpture through the elimination of volume and mass. In this piece, a rectangular prism featuring geometric cuts that allude to facial features is suspended by two curved rods within a perpendicular, cutout circular plane, which forms a head. Other cutout circles appear, the whole resting upon a circular plane. In its geometric structure, opposition of positive and negative space, and formally studied design coupled with (seeming) casual brilliance, this painted steel work heralds much of what is to come in Smith’s oeuvre (it anticipates, too, aspects of Frank Stella’s three-dimensional work in metal of half-a-century later).
There are a multitude of noteworthy pieces in the exhibition, as Eliel has done an impressive job of gathering work from the David Smith estate as well as from public and private collections far and wide. Particularly striking when seen in the context of an exhibition devoted to aligning Smith with the working class are the elegant and highly precious (in every sense of the term) Books and Apple and Lonesome Man, both of 1957 and made of polished silver. Yet another standout is the polychrome Tanktotem VII (1960), which features elements painted in configurations that recall the work of Kazimir Malevich and Barnett Newman. In this work, a white circular form (a boiler tank cap) enclosing a black square and a white rectangular plane with a black zip or stripe painted along its left edge are played against two straight black bars and an arched black linear form, the latter, as if by magic, endowing the geometric abstraction with grace and personality. Offering different views recto and verso, this piece reiterates that Smith extended definitions of sculpture by blurring distinctions between painting and sculpture both through enhanced planarity and the application of paint.
Smith began his career as a painter and continued to paint and draw, as well as take photographs, throughout the course of his career, and a section of David Smith: Cubes and Anarchy was devoted to a fascinating selection of his work in these media. So as to reinforce the theme of the exhibition, a number of these works, including pages from a few, never-before-exhibited sketchbooks, show Smith looking directly at works by artists variously associated with international Constructivism. Sketches by Smith after paintings by Mondrian, for example, are seen in drawings dating to 1946 and 1952–54. Kandinsky’s spray drawings of the 1920s are offered as precedents for Smith’s dynamic spray paintings begun in the late 1950s, and Brancusi’s studio photographs are identified as antecedents of Smith’s stunning photographs of his sculpture taken both inside his studio and in the landscape. Other works included in this part of the exhibition, as Smith once described them, “are studies for sculpture, sometimes what sculpture is, sometimes what sculpture can never be” (David Smith, “Portland, Oregon, March 23, 1953,” unpublished manuscript of lecture, The Estate of David Smith, Archives, box 11, n.p.). The former is found in the bird-like configuration in the collaged Study for 15 Planes (1957), which was realized as a sculpture, the latter in the three implied stick-and-block figures in the drawing Delta Epsilon 10/31/54(1954), which was not.
As the work in the exhibition clearly demonstrates, in the mid- to late 1950s, when trends in the American art world swung away from gestural and expressionist styles to cooler, clean-edged, and geometrically oriented styles, Smith was already there and had been for some time. Although it is well known that Smith was inspired by the paintings of his young friend Kenneth Noland to produce a series of sculptures on the circle theme in the early 1960s, this was hardly a departure for him (the painted steel Circles III and IV, both of 1962, were included in the exhibition). However, as the Minimalist sensibility with its focus on industrial manufacture and earthbound literalism emerged in the 1960s, Smith’s sculptures stood apart in being labor-intensive, multipart, and insistently referential, particularly with regard to the human figure. In Smith’s final works—the upward aspiring, larger-than-life, radiant Cubis of the early and mid-1960s—the purity of form and utopian aspirations of the international Constructivists (“cubes and anarchy”) were welded to Abstract Expressionist transcendentalism.