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Silver Gates, Archaic Guards
David Smith at the Guggenheim Museum in New York

The influential art critic Clement Greenberg considered him the most important sculptor of his generation. David Smith, one of the pioneers of American abstract sculpture, is currently being celebrated with a large exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. Achim Drucks introduces the show, which will also be traveling to the Centre Pompidou in Paris and the Tate Modern in London later this year.

David Smith mit Australia (1951) vor seinem Haus in Bolton Landing, New York, ca. 1951
Photo: David Smith, © The Estate of David Smith, Licensed by VAGA, New York
David Smith, Cubi XXVII, 1965
Photo: David Heald, © The Estate of David Smith, Licensed by VAGA, New York

A monumental gate, assembled together from shiny, silver-colored parallelepipeds and cylinders – since last fall, the steel sculpture Cubi XXVIII is the most expensive work of contemporary art to date. New York gallery dealer Larry Gagosian paid a grand total of 21.25 million dollars at Sotheby’s for the work. The sculpture was created in 1965; it was one of the last pieces made by the American sculptor David Smith, who is currently being honored with a large retrospective commemorating his hundredth birthday. The exhibition David Smith: A Centennial, sponsored by Deutsche Bank, can be seen at the Guggenheim Museum in New York through May 14.

David Smith, Construction (Lyndhaven), 1932
Photo: David Heald,
©The Estate of David Smith, Licensed by VAGA, New York

The show curated by Carmen Gimenez turns out to be a spectacular affair: the exhibition rooms spiraling upwards in the museum’s rotunda provide Smith’s monumental works with enough space to unfold their innate power. Together with drawings and sketchbooks, over 120 sculptures bring to life Smith’s development from his Cubist-influenced beginnings to the almost Minimalist Cubi. The exhibition starts off with the first sculptures he made in New York following a sojourn on the Virgin Islands that lasted several months. For Construction (Lyndhaven) of 1932, he combined fragments of bleached coral, fissured lead, and iron poles to create a standing figure – an archaic guard who greets the show’s visitors.

The early years in New York left their mark on the young Midwestern artist. In 1926, at the age of 21, he immersed himself in the life of the intellectual capital of the US. Smith had previously broken off his studies at Ohio University to learn soldering, welding, and riveting at an automotive factory. At the Art Students League in New York, the Modernist painter Jan Matulka introduced him to the European avant-garde. "Matulka was the kind of teacher that would say you’ve got to make abstract art – got to hear the music of Stravinsky – Have you read… Stendhal?… It was from him that I learned about Cubism and Constructivism for the first time..." In New York, he also fell in love with the painter Dorothy Dehner, whom he married in 1927. The artist couple circulated among the pioneers of Abstract Expressionism Willem de Kooning and Arshile Gorky were their friends, and they were crazy about jazz, Modern Dance, and African tribal art.

David Smith, Aerial Construction, 1936
Photo: Lee Stalsworth/Christopher Smith,
©Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

Julio González’ and Pablo Picasso’s iron assemblages welded together from found objects inspired Smith to create his first metal sculptures, a series of heads. For his Saw Head from 1933 he used a circular saw blade; metal parts welded on top form a face. The jagged head with its bill-like nose joins a small body to form a grotesque, threatening gnome. A short time later, he made his first abstract works. For Aerial Construction (1936), he departed from the traditional idea of sculpture as a massive object, arranging instead an airy web of iron rods and sheets painted in rust around an empty center, which transported the forms of Synthetic Cubism into the third dimension.

David Smith Bombing Civilian Populations, 1939
Photo: David Heald,
©The Estate of David Smith, Licensed by VAGA, New York

Smith’s Medals for Dishonor (1938-40), which can be seen in a special case in the Thannhauser Wing at the Guggenheim, were somewhat more conventional. The 15 medals do not honor heroes, but testify to the horrors of war in the tradition of Goya. Bombing Civilian Populations (1939) shows a naked woman surrounded by a landscape of ruins. The torn torso exposes her unborn child, while strangely mechanical skeleton structures are visible beneath the shredded flesh of her legs; next to her, a child is being impaled by a bomb.

David Smith The Letter, 1950
Photo: David Revette Photography, Inc., Syracuse, New York
David Smith
Hudson River Landscape,
Photo: David Smith, © The Estate of David Smith, Licensed by VAGA, New York

After the Second World War, Smith’s sculptures became increasingly monumental; he primarily constructed them in series consisting of variations on particular themes. In Hudson River Landscape (1951), he returned to the formal principles of Aerial Construction. The outline of the sculpture is reminiscent of a frame inside which the thin rods and bands of steel look like lines and curves. Thus, Smith combines the vitality of Abstract Expressionism with González’ concept of sculpture as "drawing in space."

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