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David Smith: No One Thing    Late Sculptures

Hauser & Wirth Gallery, New York (22nd Street)

By Jonathan Goodman, February 29, 2024

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David Smith (1906-1965) worked during the high point of abstract expressionism, primarily but not completely a painting movement, in the 1940s and 1950s, he was thoroughly a sculptor rather than a painter. Press documents make it clear that for the last five years of his life, he worked in a white heat. The seven pieces on exhibition illustrate the brilliance of this very late period; curated by Alexis Lowry, the works of art are slightly taller than the height of people, and demonstrate rounded, organic designs rather than the right-angled planes that dominate the “Cubi” series, made roughly at the same time. The sculptures on show look, at first glance, like marvelous abstractions of the figure, but they stand independent, formally and thematically,  of realism at the same time. Shown together on a higher floor of the Hauser & Wirth Building on West 22nd Street, these works are evidence of  the extraordinary gifts Smith evidenced at the end of his career. Unfortunately, Smith was often the poor relative at the dinner table; its wonderful capacity to be what it is and no more enables the object to a high independence–as a homage to the idea that a thing can remain so without inevitably connecting to realism. Smith’s art here indeed joins in a dialogue with forms suggestive of life, but this is not always so. It can be argued that his forms, late in his life, communicated a self-containment that owed little or nothing to the context surrounding him. 

 

Modernism, looked at historically, feels more like a painting movement than a three-dimensional one. Smith's final pieces, made after the middle of the century, reify earlier 20th-century insight by making it palpable.  This does not mean that the artist evaded ignoring the surface, which he would cover in paint, in his art. But his focus was on three dimensions.--the size and body of his forms–were very much an advance not only in the shapes of things but also in concepts that understood volume as a presence in its own right. Thus, sculpture, denying the front alone as important, turns into an object whose actuality staggers us a bit–unlike painting, which, when not non-objective, takes on a verisimilitude we understand and accept. Good art pays attention to the gap between the two forms of expression, and volumetric art leads us toward a self-standing realism that does not rely on likeness to make its point. Ninety Som (1961) does look very much like the simplified form of a standing person, with an oval, concave shape for a head, a tallish, narrow stem meant to express the body (lacking discernible limbs), and a rounded pedestal keeping the form off the floor. It is hard to ignore the piece as a highly realistic abstraction, not to mention a work in close conjunction with a consciously painterly surface: dots of orange against a dark brown background. Other works are not so transparently people in their overall gestalt, reaching for shapes not indicative of anything but themselves. So it is true that Smith’s extraordinary architecture rests on a cusp where his visionary, abstract insight has some tendency to refer to what we can understand.

 

Thus, at the end of his life, Smith found deeply original ways of working. Coming out of the industry–Smith had been a welder in an automobile factory–he became an inspired exponent of the shape of things for their own sake, inevitably linked to the working life that had first formed him.  Unlike words, which inevitably denote meaning and are tied to those meanings, abstract imageries can be freed from the ties of recognition and offered completely in their own right, evading any realist significance. Somehow, Smith never lost his gift of elegance, even as he aligned his persona with the working man. If we look closely at this small but remarkable show, we find Smith both experimented and established his penchant for self-sufficiency in art. The beautiful, measured, and restrained horizontal work called Primo Piano II (1961), which finds an echo in art by the late British sculptor Anthony Caro, has a white support system, with a bar some three or four feet off the ground pedestal holding up, from left to right, a piece two steel white plane connected at their right-angled edges. Other visuals, presented frontally and aligned across the horizontal bar on which they rest, present an amalgam of shapes: a brown teardrop shape, its point attached to the white steel plank resting on poles rising from the ground on either end; and, on the right, a rest to lay a book on, looking much like an open book itself; and, finally, the bowl of a spoon without its handle. It is a marvelous work of art, bridging to the public an advance in conceptual insight, the relations between a part, and the whole; and an awareness of how a sculpture might use the frontal exterior of a painting. 

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Zig I (1961) is equally achieved. It is constructed of reddish-brown curved metal and flat planes. The former look like the halves of circular pipes and the flat planes are simply what they are, with lighter marks embellishing the surface of all the work’s components. The construction mostly builds upward but also across, becoming as inspired by walls separating people as by art. The combination of curved and flat exteriors is stunning, their edges touching but no more. Yet Zig I cannot be tied to anything we might call actual, but the arrangement of the different parts excuse the masterful confidence that we see in Smith’s later art. Each part of this piece stands alone, its contour fully separate from the contours of the other parts, but all the elements also exist in conjunction with one another to create a wall-like form interrupted by curved pieces. So one can gaze at the single element or as a puzzle set in place by the artist. Maybe one of the most interesting things about these works is the intuitive relationship they point out between the part and the whole; often the exterior of the parts are decorated with small markings, and because of this decoration, it is fair to say that each discrete piece carries its interest. It is like a fractal, in which the smaller pattern accurately echoes the greater one.

The final piece to be discussed is Rebecca Circle (1961): the head of a daisy with a dark brown circle in the center. The fringe is white, red, brown, and green, adding to the sculpture’s floral touch. The flower rests on a brown stem, also fringed, with a part bending over the vertical piece. The work succeeds completely as a summation of innocence; the rough-cut head of the flower comes close to art brut; but something else happens as well; the work uses its deliberately idiosyncratic form and arbitrary, somewhat jarring coloring to convey the force of a child’s imagination, as well as the conscious roughness inherent within Smith’s imaginations. Working from a child’s outlook is not easy for an older sculptor. But Smith's mastery is so complete, that he can move between adult sophistication and childlike innocence with ease. Most all the forms in this memorable show are mixed, ranging from simplicity to intricacy; they build on each other.–about form, 

 

Smith did not work in conscious oppositions necessarily. His methodology simply happened. Instead, The artist’s duality of innocence and experience was best adumbrated through form, and Smith was a master of form. The outsized flower we have taken note of is not indicative of his practice, but it does show how capable he was in mastering emotion. Formal measures enabled him to do so. One doesn’t think, at first glance, of feeling in Smith’s art. Instead, we tend to read his works as arrangements in shape–shape beholden to modernism promoted into an abstraction true to the time. This makes Smith’s art not only a gift of materials and forms but also a presentation of ideas–even if the ideas are hard to see, given the simple directness of his art. Inevitably, the “Cubi” group would serve as a precursor of minimalism, a sculptural movement dominated by intellectual abstraction. So the beauty of Smith’s work looks ahead to its rigorous rejection, in favor of a detached emptiness Smith did a lot to usher in. We might call such a transformation eccentric or even strange, but it is more accurately something else: an idea hidden within the subtle non-objectivity of Smith’s art. We can only praise the achievement of a man who pretty much by himself ushered in a new vision of sculptural thinking. The figure in Smith’s work slowly moved from something recognizable to something beautiful but foreign to conventional understanding. His work is remarkable in its jump from objects to shapes outside of literal meaning, Smith produced a new way of seeing.

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Images:

Header: Installation view, ‘No One Thing. David Smith, Late Sculptures’ Hauser & Wirth New York 22nd Street1 February 2024–13 April 2024 © 2024The Estate of David Smith / Licensed by VAGA at Artists RightsSociety (ARS), NY Courtesy the Estate and Hauser & Wirth Photo: Thomas Barratt

Center:

Primo Piano II, 1962; Steel, bronze, stainless steel, paint; 225.1 x 408.3 x 79.4 cm / 88 5/8 x 160 3/4 x 31 1/4 inches; Photo:Ron Amstutz

Above (Clockwise):

Rebecca Circle,1961; Steel, paint; 215.3 x 124.5 x 61 cm / 84 3/4 x 49 x 24 inches; Photo:Ken Adlard

Zig I,1961; Steel, paint; 245.1 x 144.8 x 81.9 cm/ 96 1/2 x 57 x 32 1/4 inches; Photo:Stefan Altenburger Photography Zürich

GondolaII,1964; Steel, paint; 278.8 x 274.3 x 45.7 cm / 109 3/4 x 108 x 18 inches; Photo:Jon Etter

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

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