The scudding clouds across the Los Angeles Basin on Sunday morning of Memorial Day weekend seemed to bode rain. The walkways and lawns around the County Museum of Art were damp when I arrived to see the David Smith sculpture exhibition “Cubes and Anarchy” at the new Resnick Pavilion. Hundreds of people were already in queues. They were there not to see the work of America’s greatest sculptor, but were spilling into adjacent galleries to delve into Tim Burton’s elaborate fantasies. Skirting the line, I aimed straight for the doors to the main gallery toward several Smith stainless steel Cubis, implacable attendants facing the throng headed toward the Burton cavalcade.
Those colorfully costumed, tattooed Burton pilgrims snaked left into the dark bowels of the inner galleries as the Smith Cubis stood mute, silver sentinels under the skylights.
Smith intended that his iron and steel sculptures be seen outside, in nature, especially the Cubis, where their burnished, stainless steel forms engage every nuance of an ever-changing sky. The scoured, sanded whorls skirting across the sculptures’ surfaces catch light in a way that seems as if they are neon-lit from inside, the flat surfaces shimmering with depth.
Unfortunately, Smith’s sculptures are shown too often in the artificially lit bowels of museum galleries. The recent huge retrospective of Abstract Expressionism at MoMA included one room of Smith’s work, an artist most closely aligned with the ambitious scale of America’s mid-century painting abstractionists. A slice of window at the gallery’s end afforded the ten foot Cubi X a breath of light; as I stood in front of it, the undefined, overcast window light suddenly gave way to a raking hard sun striking the back wall, the shadow pattern a perfect complement to the sculpture.
The twenty-eight stainless steel Cubis were the last body of work that Smith created before he was killed when his truck overturned on a highway near Bennington, Vermont on May 23, 1965. Cubi XXVIII, one of the final trio sometimes called “The Gate,” was Smith’s last sculpture, finished two weeks before his death. It was bought by powerhouse dealer Larry Gagosian in 2005 for LA real estate mogul and art collector Eli Broad; it may well be the centerpiece of the proposed Broad Museum on Grand Avenue near the Disney Hall.
The Cubis are heroic statements from the end of a heroic age of American art that began with American Regionalism in the 30s and faded with the rise of Pop Art and Minimalism in the 60s. Smith’s work circumscribes those decades. I like to say the word “work” because Smith is not only America’s foremost sculptor and a major painter whose friends were artists and critics of the New York School, but from the beginning of his career, he was also a gifted photographer who took the best photos of his sculptures. A few years ago the Matthew Marks Gallery in Chelsea had a singular exhibition of Smith’s photography. It included photos of the studio, early assemblages of found beach detritus, female nudes, and intimate self-portraits at work and with family. There is also an evocative shot of three of the late Cubi in the field outside his studio, backlit in the winter sun. (I will do an essay on just his photographic work in the future.)
To discuss the full scope of David Smith’s art requires the kind of scholarship that one finds in the huge number of books about him. I have at least two-dozen catalogs and monographs covering every phase of his career, including an anthology of his writings titled “Smith by Smith.” There is supreme irony that though his art has been widely documented in these books and exhibition catalogs, there is not yet a single in-depth biography. Smith’s two daughters, Candida and Rebecca, exercise considerable control over the estate and are the de facto repository of his legacy, as well as keepers of the flame.
Smith left New York City in 1940, early in his career, and moved to upstate New York with his first wife, artist Dorothy Dehner. They built a home near Lake George at Bolton Landing. Smith’s large studio and the surrounding rolling hills were not only workshop and laboratory, but also an ever-changing ad hoc gallery. One well-known photo shows him in rear view gazing out over his sculpture field. What other artist ever had such a spacious exhibition space? At the time of Smith’s death at 59 in May of 1965 an overhead view drawing of the Bolton Landing home and studios showed about 80 pieces spaced throughout the property.
From January to May of 2006, the Guggenheim Museum in New York City devoted all of its spiral galleries to Smith’s centennial exhibition. This installation photo across the rotunda only hints at the scale of his sculpture field.
In his New Yorker review of the Guggenheim exhibition, critic Peter Schjeldahl, never known to write with rapturous prolixity, was beside himself with admiration:
It is beautiful, powerful in the way of classical ballet; consummation shivering at the brink of evanescence, which ensues, in this case, as the inevitable, swift breakdown of any aesthetic sensation—and enchantment—so intense and unalloyed.
Even Smith’s staunchest critical supporter, Clement Greenberg, would not have so waxed.
The catalog of this exhibition is fairly comprehensive and is beautifully illustrated.
The Storm King Art Center in Mountainville New York occupies a 500-acre tract of rolling hills near the Hudson River, across from the Dia Art Center in Beacon. Storm King presented a three-year retrospective of Smith’s sculptures from 1997 to 1999, many of them moved down from Bolton Landing. Storm King is the single most impressive sculpture art park in the world and a perfect exhibition space for artists like Smith, Mark di Suvero and Richard Serra.
In June of 1962 Smith was invited to the Fourth Spoleto “Festival of Two Worlds” to create sculpture on site. After visiting the abandoned Italsider steel factory in nearby Voltri, he amazed everyone by making 27 welded works in thirty days, from cast-off tools and scrap metal; the sculptures were exhibited in the local Roman amphitheater. As he had done back at the Bolton Landing studio, Smith photographed the installation. Then, he scavenged the remains of the factory and shipped tools, machine parts, loose scrap steel and iron back home; from these he created another twenty-five sculptures.
Many years later, in Washington D.C.’s National Gallery East Wing, I saw a re-creation of the Spoleto installation; the close-up intimate setting of the skylit Tower Gallery gave viewers an emotional immersion into Smith’s work. I say “work” once again because Smith spoke of himself as a “worker.” A young artist during the Depression at Manhattan’s Art Students League, he aligned himself with the artistic political left of the 30s. The worker/proletarian bent in his character found perfect grounding in his passionate embrace of metallurgy and welding as unlikely media for artistic expression.
Smith has said in an interview that despite the toughness of the iron and steel with which he worked, he sees his art as essentially feminine. In fact, his two daughters are the subjects of many sculptures, as well as snapshot portraits.
LACMA has posted an excerpt on YouTube from an interview with Smith made the year before he died. Poet/art critic Frank O’Hara is seen in a TV studio with the burly Smith, dressed in coat and tie, clearly not his usual sartorial mode. Although known mainly for his sculptures of raw, uncolored, iron, steel and stainless—Smith loved what he called “raw” colors,” strong primaries. And many pieces of the mid 50s, such as the Circles and Zigs, are color saturated. In an egregious act that can only be called “arrogant desecration,” critic Clement Greenberg thought he knew the artist’s intent better than the artist himself. He had the paint removed from many pieces that were in the sculpture field at the time of Smith’s death.
Later in the video O’Hara walks with Smith in the sculpture field outside the Bolton Landing studio. Although Smith photographed his sculptural “personages,” as he sometimes called the pieces, actual film of him is rare. Here is the video:
And here’s a photo that defines both form and color of more than a dozen sculptures against a foggy sky, just a small section of the field.
The installation at LACMA’s Resnick Pavilion presents Smith’s sculptures against the gallery’s white walls and translucent white scrim dividers. It is about as close as a museum environment can provide in duplicating the starkness of a winter’s day in the snow field outside Smith’s studio—
Conversely, you can imagine Smith’s sculptures transported to the other side of the continent, the tall, serried ranks of Los Angeles palm trees as an equally appropriate backdrop.
In the late 90s the great Australian art critic Robert Hughes published a magisterial history of American art called American Visions— a survey from the Colonial era of artists like Copley to Andres Serrano’s controversial “Piss Christ.”
It was also, like his previous history of modern art, The Shock of the New, a television series on the BBC and PBS. In a segment that evaluates the New York School of Abstract Expressionists, Hughes includes David Smith. He equates Smith’s place in that hierarchy as the artist in metal whose importance is parallel to that of Jackson Pollock’s in paint. The following clip opens with a still of Pollock’s fatal car crash on a road near his Long Island Springs studio. Smith’s death in a truck crash a decade after Pollock’s is uncannily echoing. After talking about Mark Rothko’s luminosity and Barnett Newman’s aridity, Hughes moves on to Smith. The two-minute sequence begins at 3:40 with a tilt down from trees to reveal sculptures at the Storm King Art Center. Rare color footage of Smith at work punctuates Hughes’ placing him into art history context as the American realization in an artistic medium begun by the Spaniards Gonzalez and Picasso.
Hughes says of Smith, “Big American metal was nature to him.” Shots of the artist welding, torching, winching the raw metal “clay” of his pieces, a ubiquitous cigarette dangling from his lip, are testament to the worker/artisan image he cultivated. He even named his studio in Bolton Landing “Terminal Iron Works” after the Brooklyn Navy Yard factory where he once worked as welder.
I have always loved Smith’s work for its eclectic ranginess and sheer American virility. Watching film of him at work evokes for me memories of my father, dormant images of my youth surging to the fore. My father was a machinist, a leftist, proletarian firebrand: a man forced to open his own metal machine shop because he had such a low flashpoint for company stooges and foremen. As soon as I was old enough to be trusted around a small drill press, I was set to punching holes in stainless steel aircraft parts set in template jigs. By high school, I had graduated to whirring lathes; over the course of the summers, I earned enough money to begin college. The smell of viscous cutting oil on steel, of smoke rising into fluorescent fixtures hinged above the lathe beds, and the slap-slap of belt-driven vertical mills, all returned to me as I watched the brief shots of Smith in his shop/studio. My father had the same oversized hands, thick fingers, and trim mustache as Smith. An aesthetic appreciation of art is one thing: such a visceral connection to that art–as work– is something else.
My father never went to high school; he was keenly aware of the barriers he encountered from a limited education. He made me promise not to seek a career in what he called “sweatshop trades.” I always had more regard for the hard physical work that he and his pals performed than they did themselves. Though I started film school with the intention of learning to write about cinema–distancing myself from my own frayed, blue-collar origins– my first exposure to the machine movement of the motion picture camera was a powerful draw. As a camera assistant, the donkey work of lugging equipment was always tempered by the sheer delight of stuffing my hands into the camera box, pulling and checking the gate, oiling the movement, threading the film magazines. The physicality of any machine as an instrument to create art is addictive to anyone who has been there.
Recently, as I have been speaking in public forums about our industry’s transition to HD digital video, I’ve reflected on the twilight of analog cinema’s machine age, usurped by ever shrinking video cameras. But part of me, perhaps steeped in personal nostalgia, has been a bit bored by the DV camera’s indifferent, encased appearance: a mostly sealed container with a lens portal, its intricate electronic innards not inviting of hands-on troubleshooting. Perhaps it is just a sense of false security, but a film camera, its machine guts exposed by simply opening the door, feels that maybe you can fix many problems on set; perhaps that’s only a palliative but for someone come of age in a handyman ethos, still reassuring. Even a tape-driven video camera has the comfort of your seeing a mechanical recording transport. Output to a card or hard drive via electrical pulses somehow leaves one feeling a bit disengaged from the recording (photographic) event. Is it absurd to think about a film camera’s intricate, intermittent movement with the kind of feeling that some attach to their cars? If you’ve ever been a film camera assistant, you understand.
I don’t mean these personal reflections to be a saunter back into steampunk, revisionist musings. We are now several decades deep into the digital age of ubiquitous on-set laptops, intricate cable interfaces, waveform monitors, and the Avid Adrenalin—and there’s no looking back. Many of us have even retired our light meters. Fewer and fewer of us, even many artists in traditional media, are engaged in real “manual labor.” Today, many conceptual artists draft “ideas” of art, rather than making material objects; others have their art “fabricated” in factories, art that they may never even touch.
On the movie set, the rhythms of intense physical work still prevail: electricians, grips, special effects, on-set dressers, props are some of those crafts that demand concerted effort. For me, this kind of focused labor demonstrates a continuing proud tradition of hands-on work in the service of art, a visceral connection of man’s eyes, brains, and hands. I wonder how germane, how central the concept of hard, tactile experience of physical work is to our sense of a complete self. In an information/digital age many of us feel increasingly disengaged from what we produce. Many of us create information and streams of data.
The irony of this speculation about art and artifact— is that a movie is not, whether on analog film or on digital drives, a real physical product. A motion picture’s true existence is, after all, nothing more than the abstract play of light, shadow and color on a viewing surface— a thing far more ephemeral and elusive than the solid, totemic icons of David Smith.
Next week’s essay will be up for two weeks: The ongoing “Cuba” exhibition at the Getty, seen mainly through Walker Evans’ 1933 documentary portrait of Havana, and the poetic vision of Alexey Titarenko, exactly seventy years later.