The sculpture of David Smith is dramatic, impassioned. Smith was willing to try just about anything in a career that extended from the 1930s to his death in a car crash in 1965. He welded, carved, and cast. He applied color to metal surfaces and was fascinated by found objects, among them old tools, which he incorporated into his work. He also produced paintings and drawings, sometimes with spray enamel or paint squirted from a bottle. Smith’s most commanding pieces, always essentially abstract, are complicated by traces and afterimages of figures, landscapes, and even still lifes. He was by no means the only artist of his generation in the United States who was inspired by Picasso’s shattered figuration and coiled narratives, but when it came to embracing Picasso’s obsession with change—what might be thought of as the Spaniard’s formal profligacy—Smith demonstrated a reach and a range that has no parallel among his friends and contemporaries, a formidable group that included Barnett Newman, Jackson Pollock, and Willem de Kooning.
In the last years of his life Smith’s work was widely exhibited, discussed, and acclaimed. But much of what he had done in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s remained relatively or entirely unknown. More than half a century later a lot of his sculpture is still too little seen and understood. Michael Brenson’s biography, the first devoted to the artist, is an important contribution to an ongoing process of discovery. When Brenson’s more than eight-hundred-page book is taken together with the three-volume catalogue raisonné of Smith’s sculpture that appeared in 2021, I think it’s fair to say that we are at long last beginning to grasp the extent of his achievement. Museumgoers who associate Smith with the steel arabesques of some sculptures from around 1950 (Australia, Hudson River Landscape) and the shimmering, piled-high geometries from the Cubis of his final years still know only a fraction of what he could do.
There’s a theatrical fever—an old-fashioned melodrama—about this artist’s life and work that suggests comparisons with the tortured creative figures in the novels of Theodore Dreiser and Thomas Wolfe. Members of Smith’s extended family had been involved with the early history of Decatur, Indiana, where he was born in 1906. The American heartland made him—but it couldn’t contain him. That’s the kind of story that Dreiser and Wolfe were always telling. By 1926 Smith was living in New York, where he met and fell in love with another aspiring artist, Dorothy Dehner. For a quarter-century they shared a difficult idyll, lovers and comrades embracing the artistic, political, and social revelations of the 1930s, their marriage ultimately undone by Smith’s wild egotism. Smith’s second marriage, to a younger woman, Jean Freas, produced two daughters, Rebecca and Candida, whom he loved almost fiercely, but he and Freas spun apart. His swaggering productivity was fueled by a physical and emotional energy that could overwhelm those close to him.
Eventually the bohemian grit of the 1930s and 1940s, which Smith shared with Dehner, gave way to the bohemian glamour of the 1950s and 1960s. In his last decade Smith was in a frenzy of creativity and womanizing, the sculpture ever larger and more astonishing, the women always younger, or so it seemed. He began to make money but spent it as fast as it came in. There were court battles over child support. His drinking was sometimes out of control. Through it all he was a charmer and a terror, a tall, physically imposing, and charismatic man not always entirely in control of his own powers, and in the end perhaps too drunk on his greatness to know how to navigate life’s mundane matters.
Smith’s house in upstate New York wasn’t far from Bennington, the progressive Vermont college then in its heyday. He was a regular visitor, enjoying friendships among the faculty, the school’s pathbreaking exhibitions, and the attention of female students. There, after a day spent at the home of a great friend, the painter Kenneth Noland, Smith headed off to an opening, only to lose control of his Dodge truck, which careened across the road and landed in a ditch; he was dead when the ambulance reached the hospital. Brenson looks closely at Smith’s troubled comments and reckless behavior in the days and hours leading up to his death, what he calls Smith’s “perilous state.” Some thought he had committed suicide; others did not.
In the 1930s, while living in Brooklyn, Smith had improvised a studio in what he described as a “rambly junky looking shack” called Terminal Iron Works. He always remembered the men who operated that ramshackle establishment—Blackburn and Buckhorn—and when he shifted his operations to Bolton Landing, a hamlet on the shore of Lake George, he decided to call his new studio Terminal Iron Works. It was there that he made most of the sculpture for which he’s best known. A man with a fine feeling for the English language who throughout his life produced what amounted to prose poems, Smith must have responded to the way that the metaphysical implications of terminal were juxtaposed with the matter-of-factness of iron works. Terminal is inevitably associated with death, but a sculptor who’s working with iron, steel, and other metals—forging, welding, casting—is giving recalcitrant materials a terminal form that is also a timeless form. Terminal Iron Works suggests the do-or-die—or is it do-and-die?—nature of the artistic act.
It’s not easy to know where to begin when considering Smith’s work. The act of welding was central to his art, with the heat of the blowtorch as it joined pieces of metal evoking ideas of metamorphosis and transformation that go back to Hephaestus, the Greek god of blacksmiths, in some accounts a son of Zeus. Smith was not uninterested in such mythological associations. To melt metal was to make the intractable tractable—a violent act that created new forms of permanence. Smith reveled in the visceral nature of sculpture, the rough-and-tumble of the sculptor’s studio. He was an expressionist, with an all-or-nothing approach to art. Even when we feel that he’s risking incoherence we’re beguiled by his experimental aplomb.
In the years around 1940 Smith produced a series of fifteen bronzes that he collectively titled Medals for Dishonor. Although the use of carved plaster originals cast in bronze wasn’t typical for him, the openness of the compositional method, with Smith gathering together a veritable babel of images, provides one key to his entire career. He was letting his imagination run wild as he carved into the plaster to create these irregularly shaped plaques, most of them less than a foot in any dimension. The iconography draws on the social, economic, and political turmoil of the 1930s, with renderings of instruments of war and men and women in various states of physical and mental distress, but Smith refuses the boilerplate ideology that characterized so much of the politically charged work that left-wing artists were doing at the time. His themes include racism, fascism, poverty, and prejudice but also, Brenson points out, “pregnancy, abortion, infanticide, defilement, desecration, and venereal disease.” These works, he writes, are “outraged and outrageous, prankish and disturbing, scrupulous and excessive, direct and slippery.”
Smith always wants to keep us guessing. Each of the medals is differently shaped and has a different theme. He is drawing on an astonishing range of sources: ancient seals, coins, and statues; the work of Bosch, Callot, Goya, and Picasso; mass media imagery; the ideas of Darwin, Marx, Joyce, and Freud. “Here, for the first time,” Brenson observes of Medals for Dishonor, “is the Smith ‘workstream.’” Guernica, Picasso’s explosive response to the fascist attack on the Basque town during the Spanish Civil War, may well be the essential source. But if Picasso crystallized humanity’s inhumanity in a masterwork that has a classical unity, Smith couldn’t or wouldn’t force the nightmares of the 1930s into any ultimate form. What anchors all Smith’s hopes and fears is his passionate engagement with a tradition of relief sculpture that stretches from Mesopotamia and Egypt to Greece and Rome and the masterworks of Pisanello and other Renaissance artists. The fiercely personal imagery—the boiling imagination—would be difficult for us to even begin to absorb if it weren’t for Smith’s pleasure in the act of creation itself. Despite all that’s impure in his work, I’m tempted to speak of the purity of his pleasure.
After completing Medals for Dishonor Smith lost interest in sculpture as a vehicle for social and political critique, but his interest in visual variety and hyperbole only became stronger. Hilton Kramer, who wrote beautifully about Smith in the 1960s, observed that
“finality” is probably of more interest to us than it is to Smith…. His fecundity often precludes the necessity of having to choose between better and lesser works from his own production, and his very copiousness has frequently turned a failure into a success before the eye (his or ours) has had the chance to judge it.
Smith’s “appetite for new ideas,” Kramer argued, was “anarchic and omnivorous.” Perhaps it was in an effort to both showcase and discipline these impulses that, especially in the 1950s and 1960s, Smith worked in what he called series, emphasizing his great variety by giving distinctive names to groups of works, sometimes done over a period of several years. Those names have a ringing power: Agricola, Tanktotem, Forging, Sentinel, Zig, Cubi, Voltri, Voltri-Bolton, Primo Piano, Circle, Menand, Wagon. The range is impressive, from the attenuated vertical forms of the Forgings and the crisply shaped and colored arabesques of the Circles to the almost comedic spirit of some of the Wagons, with their eccentrically placed wheels suggesting prehistoric or at least premodern travel.
Smith’s combinations of elements have some of the unexpectedness of a rebus, the parts, each with its own symbolic or emblematic meaning, joined together to tell a story or make a statement that isn’t necessarily easy to decode. The Letter (1950) is an openwork steel sculpture with eighteen different but related forms (eleven of them circular, four that look a lot like a Y, plus an H, an N, and an I), arranged in four horizontal registers (see illustration below). Smith seems to be urging us to read the sculpture as a letter; his signature is prominent at the bottom and there’s something that looks like script at the top. But what we’re left with is a beautiful riddle, a sibylline message that might have something to do with origins and genealogies, because those circular shapes suggest cellular activity, some early or primitive form of life. Sometimes Smith’s rebus is easier to read, as in Portrait of a Painter (1954–1956), a tall, skinny bronze personage whose head has been cast from a painter’s palette. But there are still mysteries. Is Smith saying that the palette is the mind of the artist? And what of the cast of a paint box that takes the place of a pelvis?
Even when Smith’s sculpture is entirely abstract, the elements remain somewhat detached, the forms suggesting the letters of an alphabet that can be combined to make any number of words, sentences, and paragraphs, the results persuasive but provisional. The Cubis, arrangements of shimmering stainless-steel boxes that Smith worked on in his later years, have some of the experimental intentness of a children’s game. The boxes, variously shaped and sized, are combined to suggest everything from towers and gateways to juggling acts. Some constructions are almost stolid; others seem on the verge of collapse. Smith’s Cubis are Olympian toys, playthings fit for the gods.
In the fields around his house and studio in upstate New York, Smith took to displaying the sculpture in all its glorious profusion. Nobody lucky enough to see it there—and see it while Smith was alive—ever forgot the experience. Whatever the greatness of individual works, there was no question that together they were much more than the sum of their parts—perhaps a gigantic rebus with no solution in sight. In an essay written after Smith’s death, the poet Frank O’Hara recalled being “struck by these brilliant stainless steel or painted structures, poised against the rugged hills and mountains, the lake in the distance, and the clouds.” For O’Hara they were “an assertion of civilized values.” To see Smith’s work in a setting that Kramer described as “one of the most beautiful, open, wide-ranging, and still isolated landscapes in America” was to contemplate its proliferating mysteries as they took hold in the world. The experience defied definition. It was sublime.
The catalogue raisonné of Smith’s sculpture, edited by Christopher Lyon with contributions by seven authors, underscores the heterodox nature of his production. We see the achievement whole, the individual sculptures often united with preparatory drawings and archival photographs of works in progress. We feel Smith reaching in different directions. We’re closer to appreciating the tangled metamorphoses that animate his work when we see, to give but one example, that Billiard Player Construction (1937), for all intents and purposes an abstraction, was at least in part based on sketchbook drawings of a figure bent over a billiard table.
In these elegantly produced volumes we recognize the gradual development from one sculpture to the next, as when Portrait of a Lady Painter (1954–1957) follows hard on Portrait of a Painter (1954–1956), but also a zigzagging process, with welded and cast sculptures and pieces that look significantly different from one another produced nearly simultaneously. The first volume contains essays on the critical response to Smith’s work, his interest in series and sequence, his use of materials, and his fascination with photography. The hundreds of photographs that he took constitute an invaluable record of his work. Smith almost invariably photographed outdoors, no doubt for practical reasons but also for the pleasure of seeing his abstractions juxtaposed with the naturalism of tree, lake, and mountain.
Some months before Brenson’s biography of Smith appeared, I read his contribution to the catalogue raisonné, “Series, Sequence, and the Radical Imagination,” and was nonplussed by some pages of theorizing that I found unnecessary in light of Smith’s intuitive approach. There is none of that sense of intellectual strain in Brenson’s work as a biographer. He brings a winning steadiness and humility to the daunting challenges involved in writing the first full account of a major artistic figure. His descriptions of individual works and groups of works are pithy, evocative. The relatively early Blue Construction (1938) “has the giddy optimism of a Constructivist painting or sculpture, but it’s bawdier and more theatrical.” A late work, Zig IV (1961), has “shifts of scale…as improbable as a clown on stilts emerging from a miniature car in a circus.”
When Brenson addresses the twists and turns of Smith’s life, he resists psychological speculation, instead navigating tumultuous relationships with serene common sense. There’s a sensitive evenhandedness about his accounts of Smith’s two marriages, with weight given both to the women’s travails and his unhappy restlessness. Brenson writes well about Smith’s great love for his two daughters and his torment at being apart from them. When he comes to the later years, when Smith was messing around with much younger women, Brenson handles interactions that can at best be described as dismaying with as much grace as any author could muster.
Reading Brenson’s biography, I was reminded that he first emerged in the United States as an art critic at The New York Times. He’s still at his best when his writing is fast and pungent. His paragraphs can hold a reader, but they sometimes bump up against one another in awkward ways, leaving us wondering how we arrived where we are. What seems to be missing is a feeling for the larger sweep of a life and the wider interactions between the artist and his friends and the world. Smith was to one degree or another in contact with all the movers and shakers in the New York art scene of his day. While there’s a good deal in the book about his camaraderie with the artists and critics associated with Abstract Expressionism and the Color Field painting that followed it, I think there’s much more that could have been said about the connections among their various achievements. This would have involved making some value judgments that Brenson may have been unwilling to contemplate, perhaps because he would have had to say something critical about Pollock or Noland or somebody else.
The fact is that by the early 1950s daring new developments were the exception among the Abstract Expressionists. Clement Greenberg, Pollock’s great supporter, saw a falling off in Pollock’s work in the 1950s; most everybody would agree that Newman did his finest painting, Vir Heroicus Sublimis, in 1950–1951; and by the 1950s many in the downtown art community believed that Abstract Expressionism was turning into what some dubbed a new academy. If there were times when F. Scott Fitzgerald’s old claim about there being no second acts in America seemed true of the Abstract Expressionists, Smith was the exception, continually reimagining his work all through the 1950s and to the end of his life. He found different ways to reconceive and reshape the singular, unified image with which Pollock, Newman, Mark Rothko, Ad Reinhardt, and Franz Kline had made their mark, whether by erecting a solitary, striking vertical element or joining a group of metal forms into a massive, imposing monument. In his later years, when he was friends with Noland, Helen Frankenthaler, and other members of a group that Greenberg saw as picking up where the Abstract Expressionists left off, Smith played wonderfully fast and loose with their relatively limited ideas, transforming, for example, Noland’s repetitious paintings of circles within circles into a beguiling game of three-dimensional hide-and-seek.
Brenson has hardly grappled with one of the basic biographical questions, which is what ideas and inclinations remain central, if not indeed constant, throughout an artist’s—or for that matter any person’s—life. I believe that one key to the creative fecundity that was a constant for Smith was the ongoing influence of an early friendship with the artist, author, and connoisseur John Graham. Toward the beginning of his book Brenson devotes a good deal of space to Graham, a European émigré with a profound knowledge of the Parisian art world. But I think he misses Graham’s overarching significance.
In 1930s New York Graham had a critical impact on Arshile Gorky, de Kooning, Smith, Pollock, and Lee Krasner; it was Graham who precipitated Pollock and Krasner’s meeting when he put them both in a show that juxtaposed the work of younger American artists with established Europeans. A collector and connoisseur of African art and for a time a great admirer of Picasso, Graham was an inciter and inspirer of modern principles through conversations, friendships, and a book that has had a kind of underground cult status since it was published in 1937, System and Dialectics of Art. Brenson explores Graham’s initial impression on Smith and his first wife; Graham acted as a guide when they visited Paris in 1935, and he introduced Smith to Julio González’s welded sculptures, a major influence on the younger man’s work. But once their friendship waned and Graham had rejected Picasso in favor of his own idiosyncratic brand of modernism, Brenson may feel that Graham is no longer particularly important. That’s a mistake. A passing discussion of Graham’s death—it occurs toward the end of the biography—would have been the place to reaffirm his significance.
I suspect that the imaginative avidity of Graham’s vision—amply on display in the pages of System and Dialectics of Art—remained a guide for Smith to the end of his life, whether acknowledged or not. Graham’s finest paintings and drawings, sui generis inventions with figures and faces often surrounded by mystical signs and symbols, were fueled by a fascination with magic and hermeticism that Smith certainly shared. (Graham was the subject of a modest retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in 1968.) I feel Smith’s affinity with Graham in The Letter, as well as in the 1962 Voltris series, which suggests not only the tools on a sculptor’s table but also the visual hullabaloo of a magician’s workshop. Graham’s eclectic enthusiasms—they ranged from Mesopotamian sculpture to the paintings of Uccello—are echoed in Smith’s equally wide-ranging avidities. Smith’s achievement, which Greenberg, an early and ardent supporter, was intent on giving a progressivist spin, has much more to do with Graham’s vision of “the unconscious mind [as] the power house, the creative agent. The conscious mind is the clearing house or a controlling agent.” There is something that Graham wrote in System and Dialectics of Art about the creative personality that might have almost functioned as a master plan for Smith’s later life:
Genius being a gigantic engine requires a gigantic plant, an enormous amount of fuel, infinitely more than an ordinary organism. He devours ideas, space, time, paint, canvas, paper, woman, wine, etc. Fire burning in him scorches everything in his vicinity—wife, children, friends, animals, objects.
Like all artists who count, David Smith was to a large degree self-invented, the autodidact of his own imagination. But a successful self-education depends on looking deeply at the work of forerunners and contemporaries, and it has long been believed that Picasso and the welded sculpture that he made in collaboration with González, as well as the work that González made on his own, had a profound effect on Smith. It has also been pointed out that early in his career Smith looked very closely at Giacometti’s fantastical interior The Palace at 4AM .
I see no reason to argue about the influence of Picasso, González, and Giacometti on Smith. But at the risk of being accused of special pleading—I spent many years on the first biography of Alexander Calder, much as Brenson has on the first biography of Smith—I must say that I think Brenson has made a serious misstep in largely ignoring the sculpture of the somewhat older Calder. Calder’s mobiles and stabiles, open-work constructions exhibited in New York as early as the first half of the 1930s, seem to me to have had a decisive influence on much of Smith’s work. I don’t think there’s any question that Calder’s mobiles are part of the prehistory of Smith’s experiments with aerial imagery in works such as Australia and Hudson River Landscape. I also find it difficult to believe that the abstract figures that Smith produced over a period of many years, especially the ones with skinny tripod legs, don’t owe a debt to the stabiles that Calder began showing in the 1930s.
At least one important museum show in New York—“Picasso and the Age of Iron” at the Guggenheim in 1993—joined Picasso, González, Giacometti, Calder, and Smith in a stirring dialogue. But there is a long history, going back to Greenberg’s rejection of Calder’s work in the 1930s and 1940s, of minimizing his influence on Smith and the other Abstract Expressionists. I think there was some personal animus involved; there may have been artistic disagreements, but they were complicated by the younger generation’s resentment of the success that Calder had already achieved in the 1930s and early 1940s. After briefly acknowledging that “critics debated Smith versus Alexander Calder,” Brenson more or less dismisses the question, citing what are by now dated observations about Calder’s work being “childlike,” “unserious,” and so forth.
I am grateful to know that in Spoleto in 1962, when both Smith and Calder were involved with a great sculpture festival, they spent evenings drinking together, a story Brenson has from an interview with Giovanni Carandente, the brilliant Italian critic and curator who brought both artists to Italy and was a close friend of Calder’s. But Brenson never really explains that Smith and Calder were the two sculptors whose work dominated the festival. If the group of sculptures by Smith exhibited in the old Roman theater in Spoleto was a spectacle not to be forgotten, the other significant event was Calder’s construction of an immense stabile, Teodelapio, at the entrance to the Spoleto train station; it still stands there today. I cannot imagine that Smith, with his own ambitions to create monumental abstract works, could have ignored this achievement, a landmark in the history of public sculpture in the twentieth century. I also find it strange—very strange—that nowhere in his book does Brenson even mention that a work by Calder, a wire portrait of John Graham that Graham gave to Smith, was for many years among the objects in his Bolton Landing home. And he entirely overlooks the jewelry that Smith began producing in 1941, according to the chronology in the catalogue raisonné, “after learning from Marian Willard about the popularity of Alexander Calder’s jewelry.”
Whatever Smith learned from Calder—and I believe he learned a great many important things—they offer very different visions of abstraction. Brenson has missed the opportunity to explore the differing qualities of these two formidable artists—and thereby to clarify the nature of Smith’s achievement. Calder’s vision is essentially classical. He believes in wholeness and completeness. Even when he joins unequal or dissonant elements, mingling anthropomorphic, zoomorphic, and architectonic impulses, the ultimate effect is all-in-one, a light-filled, Cartesian clarity. Smith, the fierce welder, the modern Hephaestus, goes to the brink of classical resolution—but he always pulls back. His unity is a troubled unity, harrowed and harrowing, the struggles never quite resolved. There’s something Shakespearean about Smith’s wild, clashing ambitions. He rages against limitations. He pursues the impossible. Each work is a brilliant fragment. Taken together, as visitors saw them in the fields of the Terminal Iron Works while Smith was alive, these extraordinary inventions suggested the chapters in an unfinished and unfinishable magnum opus.