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Artists David Smith
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David Smith

American Sculptor

Movement: Abstract Expressionism

Born: March 9, 1906 - Decatur, Indiana

Died: May 23, 1965 - Bennington, Vermont

David Smith Timeline


"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."
David Smith
"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."
David Smith
"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."
David Smith
"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

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

David Smith Signature


Among the greatest American sculptors of the 20th 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.

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.


David Smith Photo


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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David Smith Biography Continues

Important Art by David Smith

The below artworks are the most important by David Smith - that both overview the major creative periods, and highlight the greatest achievements by the artist.

Helmholtzian Landscape (1946)
Artwork Images

Helmholtzian Landscape (1946)

Artwork description & Analysis: Smith titled the early and relatively small-scale sculpture Helmholtzian Landscape in reference to a 19th-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 (1951)
Artwork Images

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 (1952)
Artwork Images

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

More David Smith Artwork and Analysis:

Agricola V (1952) Cubi XIX (1964) Voltri VI (1962)

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Influences and Connections

Influences on Artist
Artists, Friends, Movements
Influenced by Artist
Artists, Friends, Movements
David Smith
Interactive chart with David Smith's main influences, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.
View Influences Chart


Julio GonzalezJulio Gonzalez
Pablo PicassoPablo Picasso
Alberto GiacomettiAlberto Giacometti
Sigmund FreudSigmund Freud

Personal Contacts

Clement GreenbergClement Greenberg
John GrahamJohn Graham



Influences on Artist
David Smith
David Smith
Years Worked: 1929 - 1965
Influenced by Artist


Anthony CaroAnthony Caro
John ChamberlainJohn Chamberlain
Joel ShapiroJoel Shapiro
David von SchlegellDavid von Schlegell
Mark di SuveroMark di Suvero

Personal Contacts

Clement GreenbergClement Greenberg
Rosalind KraussRosalind Krauss



Useful Resources on David Smith





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


The Fields of David Smith Recomended resource

By Alexander Liberman, Kenneth Noland, Dan Budnik, Irving Sandler, Peter H. Stern

David Smith Recomended resource

By Karen Wilkin

David Smith: The Sculptor and His Work

By Stanley E. Marcus

David Smith by David Smith: Sculpture and Writings (Painters & Sculptors)

By Cleve Gray

More Interesting Books about David Smith
Sorting Out the Many Sides of a Sculptor

By Karen Rosenberg
The New York Times
October 13, 2011

David Smith

By Michael Fried
Summer 2006

Other Dimensions

By Peter Schjeldahl
The New Yorker
March 6, 2006

Mr. Smith Goes to New York

By Mark Stevens
New York Magazine
February 5, 2006

More Interesting Articles about David Smith
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Cite this page

Content compiled and written by David Kupperberg

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

" Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by David Kupperberg
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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