Jill Krementz covers David Smith at the Whitney

David Smith: Cubes and Anarchy
October 6, 2011-January 8, 2012
Whitney Museum of American Art

David Smith
(1906-1965) has been widely heralded as one of the greatest sculptors of the American century. Born in Indiana, Smith moved to New York City in 1936 where he studied at the Art Students League and became friends with abstract artists John Graham, Stuart Davis, Arshile Gorky, and Willem de Kooning. He established his studio in a foundry on the Brooklyn waterfront and in 1940 he moved to Bolton Landing, on Lake George, in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York.

Smith exhibited regularly in New York City beginning in 1938. His work was exhibited frequently at the Whitney Museum of American Art and he was given a major retrospective of his work at MoMA in 1957. Following his death at the age of 59 in an automobile accident, a major survey of Smith’s work was presented at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Major retrospective exhibitions have since been held in Australia, France, Germany, Japan, the Netherlands, Spain, Switzerland, and the United States.

Now we have a fresh look at the work of this great American artist that offers new insights into his career-long involvement with Geometric abstraction, from his earliest works to his late stainless steel abstractions. Originally organized by Carol Eliel for LACMA, and overseen for the Whitney by Barbara Haskell, this exhibition includes over sixty works: sculptures, drawings, and paintings, as well as rarely seen sketchbooks and early photographs.

When I revisited the David Smith exhibition on a Saturday I had lunch afterwards at the Danny Meyer Cafe at the Whitney. Like most of David Smith's pieces, it, too, calls itself Untitled. I had Meyer's signature hamburger and it was delicious. My companion had the poached eggs and grits. The service was excellent, the wait staff cheerful. I highly recommend this excursion while you are gallery hopping.
Cubi V, 1963
Stainless steel
Lectern Sentinel, 1961
Stainless steel
This is the view directly in front of you as you exit the elevator and enter the exhibition on the 4th floor.
If you turn around and face the elevator, this is what you see.
Untitled (Candida), 1965
Stainless steel
Circle III, 1962
Painted steel
Barbara Haskell and Carol Eliel. Ms. Haskell is the Whitney curator who organized the exhibition here in New York. Ms. Eliel, who curated the show when it was on display at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where she is the curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, edited the catalogue which accompanies the show.
From the catalogue: David Smith Welding Primo Piano Two in his Bolton Landing Workshop, 1962; photograph by Dan Budnik. Mr. Budnik is a colleague and friend of mine who photographed David Smith extensively.

David Smith was proud of his blue collar credentials. He was the son of an engineer and the great grandson of a blacksmith. Smith worked as a telephone lineman, a riveter in a Studebaker automobile factory, and a welder at the American Locomotive Company. Proud of the fact that he was a union member, he remained one even after his art career flourished.

"By choice I identify myself with working men and still belong to Local 2054 United Steelworkers of America. I belong by craft--yet the subject of aesthetics introduces a breach. I suppose it is because I believe in the future in a working man's society, and in that society I hope to find a place."
From the catalogue:
On the left: From Sketchbook #41, 1944-54
On the right: Big Diamond, 1952
Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester
Vertical Structure--Vertical Construction, 1939
Steel with copper
Blue Construction, 1938
Sheet steel with baked-enamel finish

Smith studied painting at the Art Students League in New York between 1926 and 1932. He credited his teacher Jan Matulka with introducing him to the work of geometric avant-garde artists in Europe. Inspired by the welded-steel sculptures of Pablo Picasso and Catalan sculptor Julio Gonzalez, as well as by his own experiences working as a welder in an automobile factory, Smith turned to sculpture as his primary medium in 1933. His use of sheet steel and a baked-enamel finish in this work predicts his subsequent fusion of industrial materials and painterly techniques.
Untitled, 1946
Gouache and contê crayon on paper
Untitled, 1958
Colored-paper collage on paper
Suspended Cube, 1938
Painted steel

Smith here pays homage to the Russian Constructivists, who sought to blur the lines between art and production in works that used simple, often geometric, forms and industrial materials. He had seen works by Vladimir Tatlin, El Lissitzky, and others reproduced in magazines and likely viewed them in person at the Exhibition of Contemporary Art of Soviet Russia in New York in 1929.
Untitled, c.1937-38
Ink, pastel, and watercolor on paper
View of one of the galleries.
ΔΣ Mar. 9-1963, 1963
Spray enamel and oil on paper
Untitled, 1963
Spray enamel on paper
Untitled (Three Cubi Studies), 1962-63
Spray enamel on paper
Donna De Salvo, Peter Stevens, and Adam Weinberg. Ms. De Salvo is the Whitney's Chief Curator, Mr. Stevens is the former son-in-law of David Smith and the Executive Director of his estate, and Mr. Weinberg is the Director of the Whitney.
Walter Robinson, the editor of Artnet Magazine.

"Who could pass up a chance to look at David Smith's cubi sculptures?"
Construction, 1932
Wood and plaster, painted, on wood base
An exhibition print by David Smith from
existing negative, Bolton Landing Workshop, c. 1961;
L. to r.: Zig III, 1961, and Black White Forward, 1961
Gelatin silver print by David Smith.
The image is of Zig VII, 1963 and Zig VIII, 1964, Bolton Landing, c. 1964
Martin Mullen viewing a collection of David Smith's notebooks. Mr. Mullen is a partner of Museum Projects Partnership, consultants to museums and art related businesses.
Sketchbook spread, c. 1938
Pencil on paper
Sketchbook spread
Notebook #41, 1944-1954
Pencil and Ink on paper
Detail of sketchbook showing notation:
"Research/Joan Carter/Time/Rockefeller Center/NY20", c. 1951
Sketchbook page, c. 1949
Notebook #40, 1950-54
Ink on paper
Alexander Adler, 23, is a New York based art and culture writer.

"Distilling concepts and harvesting materials from various artistic movements as well as commonplace industrial components, Smith must have considered everything he encountered as a possible source, from a broken down Ford to leaves fluttering in the wind, the imagery of Tanguy and Matta to Bosch or Bruegel’s demonic critters (visible in a gouache Untitled (1946)."

Mr. Adler is referring to the painting that follows.
Untitled, 1946
Oil on paper mounted on masonite

Look carefully and you can see the artist's signature in upper right hand corner.
Jim Hoberman, who is a film critic for The
Village Voice.
Larry Qualls, who has been writing and thinking about art forever.
Albany IX (Little Albany), 1959–60
Painted steel

Smith obtained the steel for all of the sculptures in his Albany series, including this work, from a foundry in New York’s capital city. The title Albany became the series' only concrete link to the real world. As Smith remarked, “The only tangible was the place where I bought the steel. They are otherwise abstract.” Smith had long been preoccupied with circular forms, associating them with "the first wheel of man to wheels on Indian stone temples, to a target on a pyramid I painted in 1934, to all the suns and poetic imagery of movement.”
Untitled, 1957
Oil on cardboard
Untitled, 1958
Oil and paper collage on cardboard
5 1/2, 1956
Painted steel
Five Units Unequal, 1958
Oil and collage on cardboard
Black White Forward, 1961
Steel, painted black, brown, white
Detail of:
Black White Forward, 1961
17 h's, 1950
Painted steel
Fifteen Planes, 1958
Stainless steel
Fifteen Planes, 1958
Stainless steel
The Hero, 1951-52
Painted steel
Left: Tanktotem VII, 1960
Painted steel

All of the sculptures in Smith’s Tanktotem series, including this one, incorporate parts from a manufactured boiler tank. Just as a totem is an object that serves as the emblem of a family and its ancestry, the found object from the tank becomes the uniting feature of this clan of sculptures and a reminder of their origins in industry.

Right: Circle IV, 1962
Painted steel
View of one of the galleries. This is an exhibition worth seeing.
Tanktotem IX, 1960
Painted steel
Detail:Tanktotem IX, 1960
Construction in Rectangles, 1955
Painted steel
Detail of the rectangle at the very top of the totem-pole-ish structure shown to the left: Construction in Rectangles, 1955.

One of the real joys of this show is to walk up very close to the sculptures and see the painted details on the steel.
Big Diamond, 1952
Painted Steel
Rebecca Smith and Barbara Haskell.

Ms. Smith is the daughter of David Smith. She, too, is an artist and has a studio on Watts Street. She also works in her father's studio in Lake George, which she now owns. She is known for her tape drawing installations.

Ms. Smith is having an exhibition of her work at the Virginia Museum
of Fine Arts curated by John Ravenal in 2013.
Rebecca Smith and Adam Weinberg. Whitney art handler Graham Miles, who helped with the installation. The heaviest piece weighed 18,000 pounds and was installed with a gantry and forklift.
Rebecca Smith standing in front of Zig III, painted steel. Ms. Smith owns this piece by her father.

"This exhibition is a wonderful opportunity to see my father's later work beautifully installed with plenty of space to walk around it."

When Rebecca Smith departed from the Whitney she was on her way downtown to join the protesters at Occupy Wall Street. The apple doesn't fall far from the tree.
Text and photographs © by Jill Krementz: all rights reserved.