David Smith Life and Art Periods

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

DAVID SMITH SYNOPSIS

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.

DAVID SMITH 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.
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MOST IMPORTANT ART

TITLE: Helmholtzian Landscape (1946)
Helmholtzian Landscape(1946)
Artwork Description & Analysis: Smith titled the early and relatively small-scale sculpture Helmholtzian Landscape in reference to a nineteenth-century German scientist who studied perception. Here, Smith draws on Cubist and Surrealist painting, translating these precedents - replete with color - into three dimensions, to create a tableau that suggests a figure standing amid foliage. Works such as this were important in shaping Smith's idea of "drawing in space," and they have also encouraged critics to liken his work to that of the Abstract Expressionist painters.

Steel, painted blue, red, yellow and green - Kreeger Museum, Washington D.C.

  • Helmholtzian Landscape(1946)
  • Hudson River Landscape(1951)
  • Tanktotem I(1952)
  • Agricola V(1952)
  • Cubi XIX(1964)
  • Voltri VI(1962)
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DAVID SMITH BIOGRAPHY

Childhood

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.

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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

David Smith Biography

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.

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.

David Smith Photo

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

David Smith Portrait

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 LEGACY

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.

Original content written by David Kupperberg
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DAVID SMITH QUOTES

"What [steel] can do in arriving at form economically, no other material can do. The metal itself possesses little art history. What associations it possesses are those of this century: power, structure, movement, progress, suspension, destruction, and brutality."

"I do not work with a conscious and specific conviction about a piece of sculpture. It is always open to change and new association. It should be a celebration, one of surprise, not one rehearsed."

"The sculpture work is a statement of my identity. It is part of my work stream, related to my past works, the three or four in process and the work yet to come. In a sense it is never finished. Only the essence is stated, the key presented to the beholder for further travel."

"Art before my time is history explaining past behavior, but not necessarily offering solutions to my problems. Art is not divorced from life. It is dialectic."

David Smith

David Smith Influences

Interactive chart with David Smith's main influencers, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.

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Julio Gonzalez
Julio Gonzalez
Julio Gonzalez was a Catalan-Spanish sculptor and painter. His best known early works were Synthetic Cubist paintings, and later in life turned to bronze and iron welding, creating many famous abstract sculptures. In 1927 he introduced Picasso to oxy-fuel welding and cutting techniques, and became one of the artist's closest confidantes.

Modern Art Information Julio Gonzalez
Pablo Picasso
Pablo Picasso
Picasso dominated European painting in the first half of the last century, and remains perhaps the century's most important, prolifically inventive, and versatile artist. Alongside Georges Braque, he pioneered Cubism. He also made significant contributions to Surrealist painting and media such as collage, welded sculpture, and ceramics.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Pablo Picasso
Alberto Giacometti
Alberto Giacometti
The Swiss artist Alberto Giacometti created semi-abstract sculptures that took up themes of violence, sex, and Surrealism. His famous later work is characterized by towering, elongated figures in bronze.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Alberto Giacometti
Sigmund Freud
Sigmund Freud
Sigmund Freud was an Austrian neurologist who in the early twentieth century founded the psychoanalytic school of psychology. His theories on the human unconscious, arhcetypal forms and free association were very influential on many forms of modern art, including Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism.

Modern Art Information Sigmund Freud
Clement Greenberg
Clement Greenberg
Clement Greenberg was one the leading American art critics during the twentieth century. Best known as the ideological counterpart to Harold Rosenberg, Greenberg was a formalist who coined the terms "American-type painting" and 'Post-painterly abstraction.' He was a staunch champion of pure abstraction, including the work of Jackson Pollock, Clyfford Still and Hans Hofmann.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Clement Greenberg
John Graham
John Graham
John Graham was a Russian-born American painter and a key figure in the development of Abstract Expressionism. Never adopting a singular style in his own art, Graham tutored many young abstract artists on the tenets of Cubism and Surrealism, of which he was an expert. Willem de Kooning credited Graham as the person who discovered Jackson Pollock.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information John Graham
Cubism
Cubism
Cubism was developed by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque between 1907-1911, and it continued to be highly influential long after its decline. This classic phase has two stages: 'Analytic', in which forms seem to be 'analyzed' and fragmented; and 'Synthetic', in which pre-existing materials such as newspaper and wood veneer are collaged to the surface of the canvas.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Cubism
Surrealism
Surrealism
Perhaps the most influential avant-garde movement of the century, Surrealism was founded in Paris in 1924 by a small group of writers and artists who sought to channel the unconscious as a means to unlock the power of the imagination. Much influenced by Freud, they believed that the conscious mind repressed the power of the imagination. Influenced also by Marx, they hoped that the psyche had the power to reveal the contradictions in the everyday world and spur on revolution.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Surrealism
Anthony Caro
Anthony Caro
Sir Anthony Alfred Caro is an English abstract sculptor whose work famously incorporates found industrial objects, or what has been called "junk sculpture." Caro's non-objective sculpture was heavily influenced by the work of David Smith in the 1950s. Caro showed at the 1966 Primary Structures exhibition at the Jewish Museum. His work has also been categorized as Minimalist and Conceptual.

Modern Art Information Anthony Caro
John Chamberlain
John Chamberlain
John Chamberlain is best known for his sculptures made of crushed and twisted automobile parts, works that bring the formal qualities of Abstract Expressionist painting into three dimensions.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information John Chamberlain
Joel Shapiro
Joel Shapiro
Joel Shapiro is an American abstract sculptor. His giant-scale works feature beams, rectangles, and other shapes in balanced formal arrangements and are frequently made of heavy industrial materials.

Modern Art Information Joel Shapiro
David von Schlegell
David von Schlegell
David von Schlegell was an American abstract artist and sculptor. Inspired by his wartime experience as an aircraft engineer, he worked mostly with aluminum, steel, and wood. Von Schlegell was the head of the Yale School of Art sculpture department.

Modern Art Information David von Schlegell
Mark di Suvero
Mark di Suvero
Mark di Suvero is an American sculptor, best known for his large-scale non-objective works that have been tied to Constructivism, Conceptualism and Abstract Expressionism. Using materials such as railroad ties, steel and scrap metal, many of di Suvero's works contain moving parts, rendering them kinetic and thus altering one's experience of the work whilst viewing it.

Modern Art Information Mark di Suvero
Rosalind Krauss
Rosalind Krauss
Rosalind Krauss is an American art critic and philosopher. Originally a disciple of formalist critic Clement Greenberg, Krauss later founded the radicalist journal October, and became an important proponent of postmodern art theory.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Rosalind Krauss
Minimalism
Minimalism
Minimalism emerged as a movement in New York in the 1960s, its leading figures creating objects which blurred the boundaries between painting and sculpture, and were characterized by unitary, geometric forms and industrial materials. Emphasizing cool anonymity over the passionate expression of the previous generation of painters, the Minimalists attempted to avoid metaphorical associations, symbolism, and suggestions of spiritual transcendence.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Minimalism
Constructivism
Constructivism
Russian Constructivism emerged with the Revolution of 1917 and sought a new approach to making objects, one which abolished the traditional concern with composition and replaced it with 'construction,' which called for a new attention to the technical character of materials. It was hoped that these inquiries would yield ideas for mass production. The movement was an important influence on geometric abstraction.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Constructivism
Robert Motherwell
Robert Motherwell
Robert Motherwell was a first-generation Abstract Expressionist whose paintings use hulking shapes, large-scale strokes and calligraphy, and wide expanses of muted color. Eloquent and well-educated, he wrote extensively on theories of art.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Robert Motherwell
Abstract Expressionism
Abstract Expressionism
A tendency among New York painters of the late 1940s and '50s, all of whom were committed to an expressive art of profound emotion and universal themes. The movement embraced the gestural abstraction of Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, and the color field painting of Mark Rothko and others. It blended elements of Surrealism and abstract art in an effort to create a new style fitted to the postwar mood of anxiety and trauma.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Abstract Expressionism
Dorothy Dehner
Dorothy Dehner
Dorothy Dehner was an American sculptor. Her work is included in the collections of the National Museum of Women in the Arts and the Smithsonian American Art Museum. She met fellow artist David Smith in 1926, and they were married from 1927 to 1952.

Modern Art Information Dorothy Dehner
Art Students League of New York
Art Students League of New York
The League is an artist-founded institution that arose in the post-Civil War years, when many art students became dissatisfied with the lack of quality instruction in the basics of portraiture, sculpture and composition offered by New York art schools. During the Depression years, many young artists who would eventually define the Abstract Expressionist movement spent their formative years studying and teaching at the League.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Art Students League of New York
Stuart Davis
Stuart Davis
Stuart Davis was an American artist who played a key role in the development of Abstract Expressionism. Davis' "Jazz Art" (because it was considered a visual manifestation of jazz music) was highly experimental. He was one of the youngest artists represented at the 1913 Armory Show and for years taught at the Art Students League of New York.

Modern Art Information Stuart Davis
Willem De Kooning
Willem De Kooning
Willem de Kooning, a Dutch immigrant to New York, was one of the foremost Abstract Expressionist painters. His abstract compositions drew on Surrealist and figurative traditions, and typified the expressionistic 'gestural' style of the New York School.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Willem De Kooning
Arshile Gorky
Arshile Gorky
Arshile Gorky was an Armenian-born American painter and a major influence on the development of Abstract Expressionism. In his own art he fused elements of Cubism, Surrealism and Expressionism, and was close with key figures central to New York's burgeoning abstrct art scene, such as John Graham, Stuart Davis and Willem de Kooning.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Arshile Gorky
Museum of Modern Art
Museum of Modern Art
The Museum has become the home for some of the greatest works of avant-garde painting, sculpture, film and multi-media art in the world. While MoMA remains true to its roots as a place where new styles of art can circulate, its permanent collection is widely considered the most impressive and diverse assortment of Modern art to ever exist, ranging from late-nineteenth-century van Goghs, Monets and Gauguins to works produced in the present day.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Museum of Modern Art
Helmholtzian Landscape
David Smith: Helmholtzian Landscape
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Title: Helmholtzian Landscape (1946)

Artwork Description & Analysis: Smith titled the early and relatively small-scale sculpture Helmholtzian Landscape in reference to a nineteenth-century German scientist who studied perception. Here, Smith draws on Cubist and Surrealist painting, translating these precedents - replete with color - into three dimensions, to create a tableau that suggests a figure standing amid foliage. Works such as this were important in shaping Smith's idea of "drawing in space," and they have also encouraged critics to liken his work to that of the Abstract Expressionist painters.


Steel, painted blue, red, yellow and green - Kreeger Museum, Washington D.C.

Hudson River Landscape
David Smith: Hudson River Landscape
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Title: Hudson River Landscape (1951)

Artwork Description & Analysis: 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).


Welded steel - Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

Tanktotem I
David Smith: Tanktotem I
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Title: Tanktotem I (1952)

Artwork Description & Analysis: Tanktotem I is the first piece in Smith's eponymous series of welded-steel sculptures that he worked on from 1952 until 1960. In this piece, he combined found metal objects into an anthropomorphic, totemic form, a symbol of universal humanity. As the critic Rosalind Krauss has argued, the totem, and the idea of totemism, was an important symbol for Smith. He believed, following Freud, that totemism operated in primitive societies as a means to discourage incest. Members of the tribe were encouraged to identify with different totems, often representing animals, and the laws which applied to those animals - perhaps not to eat them, or approach them - applied also to those other members of the tribe associated with the animals. Hence, for Smith, the totem suggested an art object that might strike fear into humanity and prevent conflict. But the idea of the totem pole also answered to his formal interest in collage. Tanktotem I has been read as representing two human figures, or two birds, joined at the neck, one looking left, the other right.


Steel - Art Institute of Chicago

Agricola V
David Smith: Agricola V
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Title: Agricola V (1952)

Artwork Description & Analysis: Agricola V (along with all of the work in the Agricola series) was created using elements from old farm tools, a formal and aesthetic decision that demonstrates the artist's lasting connection to the materials and ethos of industrialized America. In this piece, Smith combined this distinctly American perspective, his interest in totemic forms, and his signature use of spot-welding techniques to create a personal and unique sculptural language. Many of the works in the Agricola series stand on thin linear supports, just as this does. The sculpture represents a bird, though the motif is somewhat concealed by Smith's desire to incorporate qualities of abstraction and symmetry, qualities that run throughout the series.


Steel - Private collection

Cubi XIX
David Smith: Cubi XIX
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Title: Cubi XIX (1964)

Artwork Description & Analysis: Composed entirely of geometric rectilinear and spherical shapes, Smith's Cubi series (1963-65) exhibits perhaps the artist's most obvious reference to Cubism in his work. His singular style is apparent in the dynamism created by balancing objects precariously and playfully in a three-dimensional yet strangely flattened space. The burnished metal used in the series is also important in suggesting weightlessness, while also preventing the viewer from fully appreciating all of its parts at once, since they are liable to give off reflective glares. The series has been talked of as representing heroic figures, or architecture, and it might be read as the culmination of Smith's "drawing in space," an idea that preoccupied him throughout the 1950s. Here, however, instead of using thin wire or found objects to make his "drawings," he uses geometrical shapes - these being for Smith just another type of found object. This series was particularly influential in the 1960s.


Stainless steel - Tate Gallery, London

Voltri VI
David Smith: Voltri VI
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Title: Voltri VI (1962)

Artwork Description & Analysis: Smith created his Voltri series (1962) in an abandoned Italian steel factory. The curved forms (or "chopped clouds," as he called them) that rise from the Voltri VI are repurposed, irregular factory discards left over after the metal had been rolled out and flattened. The wheels that provide the base for this piece not only subvert the expectation of a traditional sculptural plinth, but also reference Giacometti's wheeled sculptures, the wheeled carts Smith used in his own studio, and, perhaps, even the locomotives that the artist played on as a child.


Steel - Raymond and Patsy Nasher Collection, Dallas

Bibliography
The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing this page. These also suggests some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.