Issue Number: 92
The largest-ever exhibition of David Smith’s sculpture in Europe reveals his protean ability to turn almost any material into art, says David Anfam
In a lifetime of less than 60 years, David Smith transformed modern sculpture. If this claim sounds mythic, it only reflects the magnitude of his actual achievement. Certainly, Picasso had begun to unravel conventional sculptural form in the early twentieth century with his cubist assemblages and then, in collaboration with Julio González, iron constructions. But Smith swiftly took their lead to new limits. The outcome was a prodigious body of sculpture that radically altered the medium from an art of solid stone and carving to one of steel, welding and eloquent spaces.
David Smith, Voltri XII, 1962
The sheer range of Smith’s repertoire voiced his belief that sculpture should be as ‘free as the mind, as complex as life’. Thus he crafted delicately lyrical drawings with metal in three dimensions, alongside massive, chariot-like juggernauts and witty riffs on the figure. He also made abstract arrangements of architectonic planes and dark patinas or rusty surfaces that confront dazzlingly burnished stainless steel. Nothing was alien to Smith. From sources as diverse as ancient seals, the Hudson River landscape where he lived and modernist photography, he forged strange yet compelling syntheses.
As installed last February at New York’s Guggenheim Museum, ‘David Smith: A Centennial’ harmonised well with the undulant rhythms of architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s spiral fantasy. In contrast, the Centre Pompidou in Paris regimented their display into a modish yet bizarre plan of straight rows. It is now Tate Modern’s turn to make their just response to this most protean of latter-day Vulcans.
David Smith: A Centennial, Tate Modern, London (020 7887 8888), 1 Nov–21 Jan