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No One Thing

David Smith, Late Sculptures Hauser & Wirth, New York​

By Saul Ostrow, February 20, 2024

By the early 60s, when most of the works in this exhibition were being made, David Smith was amongst AbEx’s pantheon of “Greats” — critically, he was considered the only sculptor of note. The painter/sculptor/architect Tony Smith did not receive significant attention until the 1960s when his work came to be viewed as a precursor of Minimalism and he came to be included in its roster. Meanwhile, there were such NY School sculptors as Philip Pavia and Rueben Natkian, neither of whom though acknowledged at the time, despite the fact they were both formally innovative did not sustain their critical stature. Pavia’s informal stacks of roughly chiseled chunks of marble and stone were precursors to post-Minimalism’s scatter pieces, but because his vision was erratic in that he moved back and forth between abstract and figurative themes he failed to leave an indelible critical legacy. Likewise, the same holds true for Natkian who gained for his large-scale, black sculptures of heavily textured, fragments forms. The other sculptors of note at the time were Louise Nevelson, Herbert Ferber, and Ibram Lassaw all of whom never really shed their Surrealist roots. So, in the critical record, only Smith’s works are said to resonate with those of Barnet Newman, Ad Reinhardt, Clyfford Still, Jackson Pollack, and Mark Rothko.


By retaining its industrial aesthetic and abandoning its strict geometry, Smith was able to wed the formalism of Constructivism to the improvisational ethos of AbEx. This synthesis provided him with a critical framework for rethinking sculpture as literally an assemblage of forms and planes devoid of anecdotal associations. This led him to increasingly flatten his sculptures and eventually use his constructs as a substratum to be painted. If there was a conceptual problem with Smith’s work, it was that they continued to be illusionistic in that the welded-together parts often defied gravity and the painting made them pictorial. The British sculptor Anthony Caro in the early 1960s, would resolve these problems by resting his sculptures directly on the ground and orientating them horizontally which permitted him to build his sculptures in such a manner that they were stable constructs even before they were welded together. This also allowed Caro to do away with the plinth-like footings that Smith employed. Likewise, by using a single color to unify his assemblages’ diverse industrial materials, Caro dispelled the illusionism inherent in Smith’s use of paint. As such Caro advanced the process of turning sculpture into a literal object; all that was left to do was for the Minimalists to do away with the subjectivity embodied by relational compositions.


By the late 1950s, with the abandonment of the traditional notions of sculpture as a three-dimensional object, the works of Constantine Brancusi and Smith supplied an index of what sculpture as a literal object should and shouldn’t be. Yet, by the mid-1970s, given the introduction of new media and materials, sculpture came to be further de-defined as everything that was not a painting. With this, large-scale sculptures such as Smith’s seemingly had, had their day and came to exist mainly as commissioned works for office building lobbies and shopping plazas. In the States today, Carol Bove is the only name that comes to my mind when making large-scale abstract works without ironic intent. Others of her generation such as Ugo Rondinone and Urs Fischer approach sculpture as an exploration of a historized category, which they can rummage through. Younger artists such as Bat Ami Rivlin who makes post-minimalist-like assemblages and installations from discarded and scraped materials, ability to produce on a large scale is limited by such practical questions as the costs of studio space, materials, storage, and in the present market what to do with the work once it’s made — in Rivlin’s case most often the materials are returned to a scrape-yard. 


Setting aside such historical considerations as the foreclosure of sculpture, let’s consider what this show of late, mid-size pieces titled, No One Thing, David Smith, Late Sculpture showcases today. Though the title implies that this selection of seven pieces is meant to represent the diversity of his late work, in actuality, they are not that diverse. All of these works are welded steel sculptures made using industrial materials — they are all strongly two-dimensional. One gets the sense that works such as Rebecca Circle (1961), Primo Piano II (1962), Grandola II (1964), or Circles Intercepted (1961) were assembled on the ground (horizontally) and lifted into place, given a footing and then painted, others were assembled using hoists and clamps. All are polychromed —the one exception is Untitled (1963) a minimalistic, vertical of intersecting planes, one of which is punctured by a series of circular holes. This sculpture is painted with a pristine white primer coat. All (with the exception of Zig I, 1961) have clearly defined fronts and backs. This flatness is reinforced by the installation in that all the works are arranged in three staggered rows facing the gallery’s entry. 


It is at this point I feel it’s necessary to open that really old can of worms; the question of whether to paint or not to paint? engendered by Smith’s decision to create a type of hybrid of painting and sculpture. We know Clement Greenberg said no, because polychrome is not an inherent quality of sculpture, while his nemesis Rosalind Krauss said there is no reason not to — after all an artist can do whatever they want to extend the potentiality of their work. But seeing this show provokes a more specific question about illusionism versus the literalness of form. In some cases, Smith doesn’t just use paint-color to articulate and re-enforce his structures but uses it to introduce planes and shapes that do not correspond to their underlying forms. Among the sculptures presented, “Rebecca Circle” can be said to be the most pictorial, calling to my mind Adolphe Gottlieb’s paintings. Elsewhere, given their forms and how they are painted, I find references to painters such as Kenneth Noland (“Circles Intercepted”), Jackson Pollock (Zig 1,1961), Conrad Marcarelli and Robert Motherwell (Gondola II, 1964), etc. By highlighting the physicality of the painted surface and its ability to distort, Smith pits the literalness of his works against the illusionism introduced by how they are painted. After the advent of post-modernism the relevance of such debates concerning formalist imperatives might seem a mindless exercise, in that sculpture is no longer an object nor does it have any apriori specificity, yet… if we think of sculpture as an event (an investigation of perception, cognition, experiences subjected to states of change rather than a thing, an object) or mode of presentation, such nitpicky differentiations take on new meaning. 

As a particular kind of phenomenological event, sculpture more than painting can be understood as an analogy (a link that bridges a gap) or a simile (a comparison) that informs us concerning our being in the world, rather than as a metaphor (a representation) which comments upon it. Given both our present state of being informed by immaterial and disembodied experiences and that of sculpture as a catch-all category, Smith’s work today is either meaningless, or it offers the possibility of reflecting on the question of how might sculpture be rescued from being merely a dumping ground for all modes of presentation and redeployed as a source of self-reflective, and embodied experiences,  which cognitively challenges the viewer and gives them a sense of being present — a realm of operations that is typified by the work of artists such as Richard Serra and Tony Cragg.


All images: © 2024The Estate of David Smith / Licensed by VAGA at Artists RightsSociety (ARS), NY Courtesy the Estate and Hauser & Wirth

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