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David Smith

American Sculptor

Born: March 9, 1906 - Decatur, Indiana
Died: May 23, 1965 - Bennington, Vermont
Movements and Styles:
Abstract Expressionism
"Art is the raw stuff which comes from aggressiveness by men who got that way fighting for survival."
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David Smith Signature
"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."
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David Smith Signature
"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."
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David Smith Signature
"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."
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David Smith Signature
"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."
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David Smith Signature

Summary of David Smith

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.


  • 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.

Important Art by David Smith

Progression of Art

Helmholtzian Landscape

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 DC


Hudson River Landscape

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

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 - The Art Institute of Chicago


Agricola V

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 VI (1963)

Cubi VI

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 - The Israel Museum, Jerusalem


Voltri VI

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

Biography of David Smith


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.

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 Dishonor (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

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.

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

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 rein 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.

The Legacy of David Smith

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.

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Content compiled and written by David Kupperberg

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

"David Smith 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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First published on 01 Aug 2012. Updated and modified regularly
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