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David Smith Tanktotem I, 1952
Photo: David Heald, © The Estate of David Smith, Licensed by VAGA, New York
David Smith Tanktotem VIII, 1960
Photo: David Heald, © The Estate of David Smith, Licensed by VAGA, New York

He covered the surfaces of Tanktotem VIII (1960) with expressive brushstrokes and accentuated the sculpture’s forms with color, a stylistic means he turned to again and again since the beginning of his artistic development. He called the works of the Tanktotem series, which he worked on from 1952 to 1960, "personages"; they look like abstract variations of his guard figure from 1932. Smith began erecting the two meter-high poles outdoors. They were holding guard on the fields surrounding his studio in Bolten Landing, a small town upstate New York where he has been living since 1940 and where a sculpture park has been accumulating before the dramatic backdrop of the Adirondack Mountains.

David Smith Voltri VII, 1962
Photo: © The Board of Trustees, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

In the fifties, Smith began receiving public recognition for his work. In 1957, the Museum of Modern Art in New York gave him his first one-man show. The sculptor appeared several times at the Venice Biennial and documenta; he was invited to take part in the Spoleto Festival. In Italy, his creative drive surged: in one month, he made 27 for the most part large-scale sculptures from old tools, wheels, and junk metal and exhibited them on the steps of an antique amphitheater. At the Guggenheim, nine of these Voltri can now be seen – some of which are purely abstract constructions, and some of which are figurative, such as Voltri VII. With its pair of wheels, the 10-foot long steel construction is reminiscent of a chariot transporting gladiators through Roman arenas.

Following his return from Italy, Smith’s prodigious production continued. He worked on several series at one time. With the Zigs and the Circles, he once again experimented with painted metal. Parallel to these, Smith produced his Cubi, which went on to become his most well-known works. Put together from shiny, silver-colored cubes and rectangles, Cubi I measures over 10 feet in height.

David Smith Voltri XII, 1962
Photo: David Heald, © The Estate of David Smith, Licensed by VAGA, New York
David Smith Cubi I, 1963
Photo: © 2005 Detroit Institute of Arts

The poles’ strict verticality makes it seem as though the artist had transformed a Tanktotem into a monumental abstraction. On the other hand, Cubi XXVII, a gigantic gate of parallelepipeds and cylinders carefully balanced against one another, pick up on his early Frame Constructions. Smith no longer needed paint to create the expressive surfaces of the Cubi with their swirls and textures: "I polished them in such a way that on a dull day they take on a dull blue, or the color of the sky in the late afternoon sun, the glow, golden like the rays, the colors of nature."

David Smith
Pillar of Sunday, 1945
Photo: Michael Cavanagh/Kevin Montague
David Smith
Agricola V, 1952
Photo: David Heald, © The Estate of David Smith, Licensed by VAGA, New York

The Guggenheim exhibition impressively illustrates the organic developments of his work – the dense web of references, the dialogue between sculpture and drawing. Smith made thousands of drawings over the course of his career, at first mainly as sketches of ideas for his metal constructions, and later as works of art in their own right. He worked with a variety of techniques and experimented with spray paints and self-made inks, and one can still sense the huge importance of the working process. Smith’s search for form always began afresh and never ended in a "perfect" work, but remained open-ended, for the viewer as well as for the artist himself. "This work is my identity. There were no words in my mind during its creation, and I’m certain words are not needed in its seeing; and why should you expect understanding when I do not? That is the marvel – to question, but not to understand. Seeing is the true language of perception."

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