Guggenheim Celebrates Centennial of Sculptor Smith

David Smith was one of the most acclaimed sculptors of his generation. This month the Guggenheim Museum opens a major retrospective to mark the centennial of Smith's birth. Smith helped revolutionize sculpture in this country by applying the principles of abstract expressionism to the three-dimensional medium of sculpture.

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The weight of sculptor David Smith's contribution to American art is being felt once again in New York.

Smith took the principles of cubism, surrealism, and abstract expressionism, and applied them to iron and steel. Before his untimely death in 1965, at the age of 59, Smith's work with a welder's torch helped change American sculpture.

This year marks the centennial of David Smith's birth. To celebrate, the Guggenheim Museum in New York has mounted the first major retrospective of the artist's work in more than 20 years.

Karen Michel reports.

KAREN MICHEL reporting:

David Smith was big, brawny, and imposing. He used the tools and materials of industry to make fine art. As a teenager, he worked riveting and welding cars. His grandfather was a blacksmith; his father, a part-time inventor. Smith's mother taught school in Decatur, Indiana, where he grew up.

In a film for the National Gallery of Art, Smith notes he was more familiar with machines than, say, Matisse.

Mr. DAVID SMITH (Artist/Sculptor): I don't think I have seen a museum out in Indiana, other than some very, very dark picture with sheep in it. That was in the Public Library. But as far as anything I ever knew about art, I didn't know until I came to New York.

MICHEL: By the time Smith moved to New York, he had taken some college art classes. And a correspondence course in cartooning. But he was 20 before he was able to study art seriously.

He discovered that painting was not his natural medium.

Mr. SMITH: Seeing iron and factory materials used in a way of producing art was quite a revelation. After my first year in college, I had worked on the assembly line in the Studebaker plant in South Bend, Indiana. And since I have known iron and metal, and metal-working, since I've been very young, it came to me that it should be.

MICHEL: The huge metal sculptures that he created filled the landscape around his 64-acre former fox farm in Bolton Landing, in upstate New York. His daughter, Candida, says the entrance to the Guggenheim exhibition gives viewers a mini-Bolton.

Ms. CANDIDA SMITH (daughter of sculptor David Smith): When you walk in there's this ba-boom of his achievement and identity in those three pieces; Australia, Hudson River landscape, and this soaring Cubi. It's a moment of, just an, almost a warning of what you're in for.

MICHEL: Cubi One is twelve feet tall. Its six cubes balanced on the tip of a large stainless steel diamond, while a small flat metal disk leans against its base.

Australia and Hudson River Landscape are considered Smith's masterpieces of 1951, examples of what he called drawing in space.

Australia looks like a fish in space, if fish had legs and antennae. Its black, painted steel shape suggests aboriginal art. Hudson River Landscape is an abstraction of the horizon line. Fish again, the river's banks, and land forms as they might appear from an airplane.

For exhibition curator, Carmen Jimenez, it suggests a train trip along the Hudson.

Ms. CARMEN JIMENEZ (Curator): It's like a window through the landscape. And then you see the movement in it, the superposition of the different type of line is so, because he did the street, the train along the Hudson River.

MICHEL: In some of the staccato marks you can hear the ka, ka, ka, ka, ka, of the train moving.

Ms. JIMENEZ: Yes. You can see that. You can feel that when you see the sculpture.

MICHEL: Walking up the ramp that runs around the inside of the Guggenheim, you can see the range of Smith's work, small sculptures from the early 1930's, some of metal, others of shell, wood, and wire. But you have to travel far up the ramp and into a side gallery to find a seldom seen series Smith made in the 1930's.

Ms. SMITH: There they are, The Medals for Dishonor.

MICHEL: Most of them are 10-inch wide disks of cast bronze, their bas-relief surfaces a bitter honor. Candida Smith.

Ms. SMITH: Very powerful images of the horrors of war and the collaborative elements of society that profit from war. They come from war medals from World War I. He saw one in the British Museum granted for sinking a civilian ship. And that brought about the series of Medals for Dishonor.

MICHEL: David Smith was a political man. He was, for a time, a member of the communist party. These medals are among his only overtly political works.

The retrospective shows many unexpected aspects of an artist some viewers and critics think of as only an abstract expressionist metal sculptor. Several of the works here include horizontal lines of Smith's own pictographic script.

Ms. SMITH: I think the family bible offered the first imagery he saw. And his family was quite religious, and there was Sumarian wedge writing. And the idea of a kind of writing that you couldn't read but only see was very important to him, and also the pictographs, Egyptian pictographs.

And that idea later merged with his interest in James Joyce, who released language from content in the same way that my father was often releasing imagery from content in abstraction.

MICHEL: There are many sculptures that use found objects, tools and wheels among them. During a one month residency in Italy, Smith produced 27 sculptures, the Voltry(ph) Series, using the abandon implements he found in a workshop assembled in what might seem a random arrangement.

Mr. SMITH: I try to approach each thing without following the pattern that I made with the other one. They can begin with any idea. They can begin with a found object. They can begin with no object. They can begin sometimes even when I'm sweeping the floor and I stumble and kick a few parts that happen to throw into an alignment that sets me off in thinking that sets off a vision of how it would finish if it all had that kind of accidental beauty to it.

MICHEL: Smith worked incessantly, sometimes late into the night, spray painting stencil drawings that are among the surprises of the exhibition. To daughter Candida, the sound of him shaking a can of spray paint and the smell of it was as homey as cookies in the oven. Her older sister Rebecca remembers it too.

Ms. REBECCA SMITH (Daughter of David Smith): Especially hearing the sound of the spray can with that little sound he just made with the little clicking sound and then the spray sound and the smell of if. He would do that at night when we were in bed and then we'd hear it down the hall.

MICHEL: Candida and Rebecca were young when their mother left Bolten Landing, taking them with her. David Smith was known for an explosive temper and a wandering eye. But his daughters say he was also a devoted dad, and the girls visited him often. He dedicated sculptures to them, named them after them, even inscribed works to Dida and Becca.

Ms. R. SMITH: It's like a greeting. And I think that, I mean he was quite old, he was 48 when I was born, so he knew, you know, and you know, he had a sense of mortality. I mean he knew that he wouldn't always be around but he knew that sculpture would be out in the world. I always felt it was his way of sort of sending a postcard down the line or something.

Ms. C. SMITH: He said that, he was very aware that he wouldn't be around. And that was a way to say hello from a museum. Just hello.

MICHEL: David Smith died in an automobile accident at the age of 59 in 1965. His greetings from the beyond are at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City through May 14th. For NPR News I'm Karen Michel in New York.

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