American artist David Smith was an abstract expressionist sculptor and painter best known for his welded and painted metal sculptures made from stacked geometrical forms.Read More
Born in 1906 in Decatur, United States, David Roland Smith was the great-grandson of a blacksmith and spent his childhood playing on trains and in factories. From 1924 to 1925, he attended Ohio University in Athens followed by the University of Notre Dame. Between his studies, in 1925, Smith learned metalwork while working as a riveter on the assembly line at the Studebaker automobile plant. Smith dropped out after his first year at Notre Dame, due to a lack of art courses, moving to New York in 1926 to study painting.
Smith joined the Art Student League in New York in 1927 where he trained under American painter and etcher John Sloan and Czech abstract painter Jan Matulka. He also befriended American Abstract Expressionists such as Jackson Pollock, and became acquainted with works of European modernists Pablo Picasso, Piet Mondrian, and Wassily Kandinsky.
Smith's welded metal sculptures depict abstract assemblages of lines, colours, and shapes, creating a network of intersecting planes, which define a hollow space at the heart of each piece. Artworks become the frame to support a dynamic interaction between forms in space.
Smith's sculptures are influenced by his training as a painter, the shift from working in two to three dimensions coming through making collage and relief works, building up the canvas until they became sculptural. He experimented with treating the canvas as a base and generated an understanding of sculpture as an assemblage of existing elements.
Early works like Helmholtzian Landscape (1946) stem from his abstract urban landscape paintings, to which he had attached pieces of wood, metal, and found objects, transforming the canvas into a supportive base for massive sculptural superstructures. Painted blue, yellow, and red, Smith's large steel tableau drew from Cubist and Surrealist influences, depicting a flat figure assembled from imperfect shapes hovering inside a frame, and referenced Hermann von Helmholtz, a 19th century physician and scientist known for his research on colour theory and perception.
Smith became interested in freestanding sculptures in the early 1930s after seeing illustrations of Pablo Picasso's welded metal works. Known for being 'coreless', Smith's sculptural forms use thin wires to draw figurative motifs into space.
The technique allowed for spontaneous expression, eventually culminating in a vast body of stylistically diverse biomorphic forms like Hudson River Landscape (1951).
Defying traditional sculptural forms, the welded steel work Hudson River Landscape offered an abstracted three-dimensional representation of the area around Smith's Bolton Landing home, as an open linear construction painted across space.
During World War II, Smith moved to Bolton Landing, New York where he worked in a defence plant assembling trains and tanks. By the end of the 1940s, Smith began to make stylistically unified series, often working on multiple series at the same time.
The early 'Zig' series (1960) marked the sculptor's turn to geometrical forms, showing hints of Cubist influences with painted surfaces employed to emphasise the relationship between planes.
The subsequent 'Cubi' series (1963–1965) sought to achieve the same affect using natural light, which not only flattened the three-dimensional shapes, but emitted a glare that deterred viewers from taking in their complete forms in their entirety.
Among them, a standing steel work Cubi VI. Here the oddly stacked geometrical shapes can be perceived from varying angles, appearing at once to take up space, yet weightless.
Smith was the recipient of the 1950 and 1951 Guggenheim Fellowship.
David Smith's works have been shown widely in Europe, Asia, America, and the UK.
Solo exhibitions have been held at Neuberger Museum of Art, New York (2021); Hauser & Wirth, New York (2021); Yorkshire Sculpture Park, England (2019); Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford (2018); Hauser & Wirth, Zurich (2016); American Contemporary Art Gallery, Munich (2015); Ordovas Gallery, London (2015); Gagosian Gallery, New York (2013); LACMA, Los Angeles (2011); and the Whitney Museum of Art, New York (Travelling exhibition, 2011).
He has been in numerous group exhibitions, including at Hauser & Wirth, Hong Kong (2021); Baltimore Museum of Art (2019); Royal Academy of Arts, London (2016); Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington (2015); Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (2015); the British Museum, London (2010); and Museum of Modern Art, New York (2010).
Smith passed away following a car accident in 1965 in Vermont, United States.
David Smith's website can be found here.
Elaine YJ Zheng | Ocula | 2022