Drawing in Cubic Space

John Haber
in New York City

David Smith: A Centennial

Stop me if you have heard this before. Better yet, pour yourself a drink, down it quickly, and visit the Guggenheim. David Smith might prefer it that way.

Myth America

He came out of the heartland at age twenty, ready to take on New York. Broad shouldered and brawny, he had paid his working-class dues back home, and he knew how to drink. John Graham and the Arts Students League taught him about Modernism, especially Cubism and Surrealism. He drew on WPA funding in 1937, while Philip Guston and Lee Krasner were receiving mural commissions. The Museum of Modern Art gave him an exhibition in the 1950s, when Alfred Barr and John Sweeney were embracing a new generation of abstract painting and sculpture. He died in an automobile accident, after putting American art on the global stage. David Smith's Hudson River Landscape (Whitney Museum, photo by David Smith/VAGA New York, 1951)

David Smith probably enjoyed the myth, too. He might even have forgiven you for thinking it the life of Jackson Pollock. One spots the affinity between the artists right off the Guggenheim rotunda, in that tall alcove off the first ramp. The curators have gathered an entire series of plain, slim verticals. The standing form evokes any number of Pollock's alter egos, and the traces of black on burnished steel suggest the limited palette of the painter's last years. I think, too, of the anchoring diagonals of Blue Poles, and one circulates among them as if walking into Pollock's shallow weave of oil and enamel.

Later series of Tanktotems and Sentinels, as well as Smith's white sculpture, continue the concern for a confrontation in space between the artist's persona, the work, and the viewer. So do Pollock-like echoes of a primitive psychic landscape, as when Smith calls one work a "still life of Chaldean history." If anything, he does Pollock one better. He started far sooner, arriving in New York in 1926. He survived until 1965, when his piled cubes seemed to presage a whole new direction in American art. His Guggenheim retrospective marks a centenary.

Smith did not need the Depression-era West after all, for he had worked as a welder and riveter in Ohio. He set up shop at a Brooklyn iron works in 1934, as well as in upstate New York, and he returned to the assembly line during World War II. He had already shown his opposition to Fascism with his 1936 Medals for Dishonor. That horrific series in low relief began after an extended trip to Europe—well before Robert Motherwell undertook his Elegies to the Spanish Republic and indeed a year before Guernica. If Pollock ran his car into a tree, Smith died like a trucker, in a rollover.

For decades now, artists and critics have been working their way past the myth. They have struggled to extricate themselves from Abstract Expressionism—or the movement from its associations with nationalism, male egos, and a rigid formalism. So, in a sense, does his retrospective. It emphasizes that Smith surpassed Pollock in another way as well, with his easy absorption of early Modernism. The Spanish curator, Carmen Giménez, give a good half its space to the years before abstraction. True to the museum's roots, he claims Smith for the European avant-garde.

One can pick and choose one's artist. At least one reviewer felt relieved to rescue Smith from his familiar late, monumental Cubi. Another decided that the show begins only halfway up the museum ramp. Still another looks somewhere between for the true Smith, at a turning point between the Europe he left behind and the Minimalism he could not have adopted. I myself felt the temptation to ditch them all for Gagosian in Chelsea, for a more familiar focus on Smith's Personages, all from the 1950s. Alternatively, however, one can savor the Guggenheim's quirky but valuable view of the 1950s as a point of multiple intersections.

Why not sculpt?

One can call Smith the archetypical, perhaps only true Abstract Expressionist sculptor, although Broken Obelisk by Barnett Newman, grandly displayed not so long ago in the MoMA atrium, gives him a run for his money. Rather than ask why he belongs to an earlier generation, before the New York painters, then, one might well ask how he possibly cannot.

Sculpture may seem a natural companion to American painting, but an odd candidate for a postwar breakthrough. Everything that postwar art fought to achieve, it does without breathing hard. It does not have to prove itself as an art object rather than an illusion. It assimilates soup cans as easily as iron and steel, and statues stood patiently in line long before the plaster commuters by George Segal. Conversely, when Smith claims to draw in space, he has to fight on two separate fronts. He has to convince you that he really is drawing in just two dimensions, and he has to convince you that the solid object has invaded the space around it.

Those paradoxes make Smith's early wrestling with Cubism and Surrealism all the more interesting. One can see his career as a series of steps to break up sculpture, in order to find lines, planes, blocks, and air. One can also see it as a long arc from three to two dimensions and back again. Another artist who lived to see early Modernism and Minimalism alike, Louise Nevelson, followed much the same path.

Smith may have done some heavy welding, but he first wanted to become a painter, and he had more college education than the mythic profile may suggest. When he changed media, he looked naturally to a painter, Pablo Picasso. Along with Cubist collage, he had seen Picasso's own sculpture and that of Julio Gonzales.

Smith first works on a small scale, with welded iron scraps and coils, the color of Picasso's first Guitar. They fit readily on a cabinet shelf, like collage by Kurt Schwitters but heavier and rusted. Obviously he sticks to additive media, rather than carving. A boast by Michelangelo of salvaging a single, flawed block of marble for David would not have made much sense to him. No wonder the actual work in two dimensions and in straight representation, the Medals for Dishonor, belong on a table, off in a side gallery at the Guggenheim.

From here, Smith's interests lead easily to Surrealism, especially to Alberto Giacometti. Even his vertical slabs return Smith briefly to Giacometti's influence, this time the European's late Personages. From Woman with Her Throat Cut come arched rib cages and birds of prey. From The Palace at 4 A.M. come architectural settings. The Guggenheim's first few ramps have plenty of both, with images of violence everywhere. He took a long time, the end of a war, and a full-time retreat to Bolton Landing to reach the calm of his best-known art.

Cart before the horse

As Smith pushes the rib cages and architecture to the point of bursting, he starts to open up. At the same time, he keeps the painter's instinct, with relatively small work on pedestals and almost uniformly at eye level. In The Sculptor and His Model, the artist appears to lean across an easel. Surfaces, too, often given a uniform red or black patina, seem born of a concern for image. Even the fictive architecture functions as stage sets for a miniature theater. In fact, Gagosian displays the later Personages on pedestals of varying heights, and while that seriously undermines their innovative exploration of the sculpted image, its base, and the ground, it does create a haunting theater.

Along with open spaces, surfaces, and the violent unconscious in which to hold them, Smith inherits one last feature of collage and Surrealism, punning. This gives him another hold on what would become the late modernist concern for art as object. A wheel or chain may seem to anchor the work in real space, ironic for sculpture that obviously is not going to get up and go anywhere anytime soon.

He has the pieces in place now, and about halfway up the ramp he is ready to trust them to have a life of their own. Still on just a slightly larger scale, he starts to work abstractly. At first he tries letters in a nonsensical alphabet. Then he simply recombines lines and shapes for themselves.

In 1951, just when the painters around him are making Life magazine as "the Irascibles," he finally pulls off the wide-open lines of Hudson River Landscape and Australia. The first reaches back to the roots of American painting, as well as to the land between Smith's studio and New York City. The latter allows his birds of prey to take flight. Both greet visitors on the way into the retrospective.

The top two ramps bring the payoff. Confidence and a rural work setting allow a larger scale, and with the greater mass the lines can consolidate again into planes. Unlike at Gagosian, they also bring the work in touch with the ground. Thin lines may serve both as part of the image and as a pedestal for his spindly Sentinels, and later the entire work takes the shape of a shaft or cart on wheels. More tellingly than the earlier anchors, the carts function as an extension of real space—the space of the sculptor's studio, with his tools welded in place. Sculpture as art independent of its world has disappeared at last.

Again and again in these last year, Smith works in series. Besides the various totems, the planar Agricola, the Voltri, and the Cubi each serve as a project, like so many modernist projects. Given its bias against anything too close to late Modernism, Minimalism, or the art of today, the retrospective banishes his very last work, the Cubi, except for one tower gallery and a single piece in the rotunda. Still, the 1962 Voltri, executed in Italy at a pace of almost one a day, give the show a marvelous, if somewhat artificial ending.

Another Hudson River landscape

I feel grateful that art so much as appears at the Guggenheim these days. I had all but given up expecting any, after years of fashion shows and a nearly empty museum. Besides, the installation alone has much to recommend it.

It places most pieces along the ramp, where one can circulate around them but also see them again from the next level, giving them their roles in both two and three dimensions. A few find their into the bays, where they emphasize the two dimensional. The tower galleries and the topmost room for the Voltri give the largest pieces their due independence. Natural and artificial light from above helps recall the outdoor setting planned for the largest work, and it plays off the burnished or rusted surfaces that Smith finally came to prefer.

A strong point of view also helps in dealing with an artist, especially one encrusted with myth. Moreover, it works. People who hate the thought of encountering again Smith the dead white male are enjoying the show, and no wonder: it tells a good story. Perhaps nothing short of the great outdoors could tell more.

A point of view can mislead, of course, and museums have the power to control art's legacy, often at its cost. The retrospective tempts one to save Smith from a textbook art history by casting it aside, just as reviewers have mostly chosen to ignore parts of what they saw. Saving Smith by reducing him to an epigone of Gonzales or Giacometti may have its insights, but it will not help people wondering exactly what happened in art between 1940 and 1965. A single line from Surrealism to the future or, alternatively, a search for Smith's one decisive moment can lose what make it so decisive. This art has its central place because of the many directions in which it leads.

It does look to Picasso, Surrealism, and the Hudson River. The tall shafts of some Cubi reach back to Constantin Brancusi's reversal of sculpture and base. Smith's own most prominent follower, Anthony Caro in England, reaches back further still, to a vision of sculpture as a well-crafted composition. Meanwhile, the industrial materials and inclusion of the artist's tools look forward to Pop Art and Minimalism, while the welding itself recalls his influence on John Chamberlain and Chamberlain's automobile parts. One may have less of a walk than one thinks from the Cubi to the cube of Tony Smith's Die—or from drawing in space to the wide-open arena of Mark di Suvero and Joel Shapiro in public parks or on Governors Island.

In his last years, Smith also reaches out. He makes public art a force of and within nature. That does not mean recovering the monumental or heroic. I once saw his work in a real Hudson River landscape, at Storm King at sunset. The changing light dissolved his silvery metal into the hills, and I had to feel that it belonged to them. For now, though, one may have to make his great last decade likeable before one can learn really to love it.

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"David Smith: A Centennial" ran through May 14, 2006, at The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. A selection of Smith's "Personages" and related drawings ran at Gagosian through April 15. A related review looks at his "Spray" paintings and his "Cubes and Anarchy," another at Smith's white sculpture.


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