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David Smith - Biography and Legacy

American Sculptor

Born: March 9, 1906 - Decatur, Indiana
Died: May 23, 1965 - Bennington, Vermont
Movements and Styles:
Abstract Expressionism

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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