Whitehot Magazine

David Smith: A Man of Steel’s Closing Statements

Left to right, Rebecca Circle (1961), Zig I (1961), Untitled (1963), Ninety Son (1961). Photo by J. Scott Orr


By J. SCOTT ORR February 14, 2024 

In 1940 sculptor David Smith moved permanently to an 86-acre spread at Bolton Landing in the bucolic Hudson Valley some 225 miles due north of New York City. Over the coming decades, Smith’s monumental welded steel sculptures would transform the one-time fox farm into what may have been the world’s first large-scale outdoor sculpture museum.

In one famous photograph taken in 1963, the sculptor sits on the edge of a bench looking out at a wintery field, a platoon of welded steel sculptures arrayed before him like snowbound troops ready for inspection. Smith, and his charges, seem in dialogue with the snowy Adirondack Mountains, which oversee the proceedings from afar.

Last week, a collection of seven monumental pieces from this most productive period of Smith’s legendary career were brought in from the cold for an exhibition called “No One Thing. David Smith, Late Sculptures” at Hauser & Wirth’s 22nd Street gallery. Curated by Alexis Lowry, the included works are nothing if not diverse, sharing with each only their material – steel – and their vintage – 1961-64. This is as it should be for an artist who explained in 1951 that his artistic vision “is not one thing; it is a chain of interlocking visions.”

Smith was killed in a car wreck in Bennington, Vermont, an hour east of Bolton Landing, at 59 in 1965, ending an extremely productive five-year period during which he created a third of his sculptural oeuvre. The works included in the show at Hauser & Wirth reveal a mature artist, game to experiment with organic lines and severe angles, textured metallic shades mixed with vibrant colors and stark white, circular components and elegant curves blended with precise quadrangular geometry.

During a press opening at the gallery the other day, Lowry explained that the works of this period were being created at a breakneck pace, which contributed to their diversity and their refusal to surrender to categorization. 

“The work cannot be easily pinned down in style by movement, by theme, and part of that is because he had this way of working on a bunch of different projects at once. He always had four or five sculptures competing in process from different series at any given moment just in his general day to day,” she said.

Circles Intercepted (1961) in the foreground with a portion of Primo Piano (1962) visible behind. Photo by J. Scott Orr

“The work in this late period kind of opens up and starts its breathing, the lines are looser, its use of color becomes increasingly complex,” she said.  

Among the works are 1962’s Primo Piano II, a 13-foot long piece in steel and bronze, the largest work in the collection. Lowry explained that, like other works of the period, Primo Piano’s size is limited only by Smith’s ability to construct it while working solo. The piece hews to Smith’s preoccupation with natural forces in the context of an industrial footing, particularly in its employ of a square plate angled as if to capture the sun’s energy. At Hauser & Wirth, it is positioned near a window on the gallery’s fifth floor to do just that.

Gondola II, the last painted sculpture Smith completed before his death, is an unusual polychromatic work in warm cream, dusky purple and black. It comprises an upward joist riveted onto a diamond-shaped central corridor that is itself supported by two steel plates Smith likened to “chopped clouds.” The Gondola series is said to have begun in response to his close friend Robert Motherwell’s series “Elegy to the Spanish Republic,” a lamentation on the Spanish Civil War.

Motherwell, among the founders of the abstract expressionist movement and an articulate spokesperson for the New York School, said in “For David Smith,” an essay that was included in an exhibition program for an early show at New York’s Willard Gallery, that Smith strove to access nature and his own humanness amid the industrial confines of his chosen medium.

“David places his work against the mountains and sky, the impulse was plain, an ineffable desire to see his humanness related to exterior reality, to nature at least if not man, for the marvel of the felt scale that exists between a true work and the immovable world, the relationship that makes both human,” Motherwell wrote. 

It was during this later period of Smith’s life that he sat down with Thomas B. Hess, the long-time editor of Art News, for an interview that would become “The Secret Letter,” which was published in the exhibition catalog for Smith’s 1964 show at Marlborough-Gerson Gallery in New York. During the sessions, Smith, less than a year away from his death, summarized his free-wheeling approach to sculpture in six words: “There are no rights and wrongs.” 

“The one rule is that there may be no rules….I think the minute I see a rule or a direction or a method or an introduction to success in some direction, I’m quick to leave it or I desire to leave it,” he said. 

Primo Piano II (1962). Photo by J. Scott Orr

Frank O'Hara, the writer, poet, art critic and another key figure in the New York School, said Smith’s sculptures demand the attention of viewers, that they are active participants in the artistic proceedings they are part of. “They’re generous; they have no boring views. Circle them as you may, they are never napping. They present a total attention, and they are telling you that that is the way to be: on guard.” he said.

Smith’s sculpture farm in Bolton Landing has had an enduring legacy. In 1967, businessman and art-lover Ralph E. Ogden bought 13 of Smith’s works, mostly welded steel, from the late artist's estate. The works became a centerpiece of the nascent Storm King Art Center in New York’s Hudson Valley, the largest outdoor sculpture museum in the U.S. and the inspiration for countless similar permanent outdoor exhibitions around the world.

While he was closely associated with the abstract expressionists and the New York School, Smith plowed his own ground out on the banks of Lake George in the verdant Hudson Valley. His work was rebellious, insurgent, sumptuously austere, lushly organic, yet possessed of unyielding, precious geometry. He welded together cast-off pieces of steel to create stunning sculpture at a time fine art-making was largely focused around brushwork on canvas. He did not apologize. 

“You know who I am and who I stand for. I have no allegiance, but I stand, and I know what challenge is, and I challenge everything and everybody. And I think that is what every artist has to do,” Smith said in his interview with Hess.

“We’re challenging the world…I’m going to work to the best of my ability until I die, challenging what’s given to me,” he said. WM

Scott Orr

Scott Orr is a career writer, editor and a recovering political journalist. He is publisher of the East Village art magazine B Scene Zine. He can be reached via @bscenezine, bscenezine.com, or bscenezine@gmail.com.

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