Why Clement Greenberg Defaced David Smith’s Sculptures
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The Estate of David Smith will include this work in the forthcoming fully revised and updated catalogue raisonné, David Smith (1906-1965): A Catalogue Raisonné of Sculpture to be published by Yale University Press.
From the Catalogue
A pioneer in the field of sculpture, David Smith consistently challenged and ultimately redefined the recognized boundaries of sculptural expression throughout his prolific career. The development of Smith’s oeuvre is marked by several critical thematic developments, each expanding upon his preceding innovations. The 1938 sculpture, Ad Mare, represents an artist at the threshold of catalyzing a paradigm shift in sculpture. The present work is an exceptional example from Smith's early output and was illustrated on the exhibition brochure of his 1940 show at the Neumann-Willard gallery, the fourth one-man show of the artist's sculptures. Marian Willard is particularly important for Smith's rise to artistic prominence as she held his first solo show at her East River Gallery in 1938. Ad Mare was held in the same Private Collection for over fifty years and has been exhibited at such prominent institutions as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C. Translated from Latin, the sculpture is titled “To Sea” and evokes the crescentic half-moon base of a vessel, visually anchored by peripheral poles that evoke the shape and motion of a taut sail and raised bow. Ad Mare marks a crucial pivot point in Smith’s approach to balancing mass and space within his sculptures. With this 1938 work Smith “began to systematically exploit his open frameworks and in the process subverted the monolithic block’s domination of sculpture” influenced by his exposure to the works of Pablo Picasso and Julio González (Stanley E. Marcus, David Smith: The Sculptor and His Work, Ithaca 1983, p. 18). In Picasso’s dot and line motif, Smith found inspiration to employ the use of thin, wire-like rods to create multiple planes, eschewing the heavy density of solely solid components. The welded gestural lines of Julio González’s sculptures had a profound impact on Smith’s understanding of collaborating volume and line to create balanced movement, particularly within the context of Cubist influence.
Born in Indiana, Smith’s relationship with art was fraught with complications of exposure and class. His rural upbringing limited his access to art beyond the traditional classroom context, and he struggled to establish a creative outlet that combined his artistic talent with the skills he learned working in industrial factories. Originally Smith perceived himself as a painter, a foundation that enriched his approach to sculpture “in part because of his painter’s background, he… never accepted the traditional separation of pictorial and sculptural approaches” (ibid., 18). In the mid-1930s Smith began to move “away from the early amalgams of objects assembled in roughly the form of the human figure and into the first truly creative art of his career” (ibid., 39). To Smith, this was a natural progression in his development: “After my student period in painting….my painting had turned to constructions which had risen from the canvas so high that a base was required where the canvas should be, I was now a sculptor” (Cleve Gray, David Smith: Sculpture and Writing, London 1968, p. 68). Smith’s oeuvre has been confirmed to be largely self-referential and heavily dependent on preceding innovations; in the welded steel planes and wire arches of Ad Mare can be found the vocabulary of Smith’s future series. The representational graceful movement of the Agricola series, and the balanced geometry of both the Zig and Cubi works are presaged in Ad Mare. The dynamic focal point inviting the possibility of collaboration with the viewer would also become a trademark of Smith’s work.
In Ad Mare, Smith incorporates thin sweeping rods into the pieces, constructing lines in the air, akin to drawing in space. He diverges from the monolithic solid standards of the era with purpose, rooted in his admiration of Picasso, González, and Giacometti. Avoiding a conventional core, Smith moves toward the periphery, establishing planes and poles, and ultimately creating a multitude of viewing experiences based on perspective. Ad Mare has two distinct poles that interact through the juxtaposition of shapes and motion. The crescent shape of the base is rendered sharp and delicate by the thin sheet of steel from which it is formed. The base works expertly with negative space, creating awareness of an absence of the material that has been carved away with acute precision. The solid block-like elements of the work stabilize it, adding counterbalanced mass to each of the two peripheral poles of the sculpture and rooting the composition of the image presented. From each solid element, there are proportional counterbalances. Nimbly winding wires burst forth from a dense block, evoking movement and momentum. The two sharp cones both end in a tapered apex that beautifully couple with the planar solidity of the mass from which they arise. Through his use of arching and thrusting wires emitted from slabs of steel, Smith creates and harnesses action, drawing the viewer’s eyes toward, not simply the various elements of the work, but the interaction and collaboration between the elements, as well as between the viewer and the work.
—Courtesy of Sotheby's
Signature: incised with the artist's signature and date 1938 on the prow
New York, Neumann-Willard Gallery, David Smith, March - April 1940, cat. no. 4, illustrated on the cover of the brochure
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Artists for Victory: An Exhibition of Contemporary American Art, December 1942 - February 1943, p. 31
New York, Buchholz Gallery; New York, Neumann-Willard Gallery, The Sculpture of David Smith, January 1946, cat. no. 3
Washington, D.C., Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden; San Antonio Museum of Art, David Smith: Painter, Sculptor, Draftsman, November 1982 - June 1983, pl. no. 1, cat. no. 35, p. 48, illustrated (incorrectly listed as not in the exhibition)
Elizabeth McCausland, “David Smith’s Abstract Sculpture in Metals,” The Springfield Sunday Union and Republican, 31 March 1940, p. 6E
Ernest W. Watson, “David Smith—From Studio to Forge,” American Artist, Vol. 4, No. 3, March 1940, p. 22, illustrated
Robert M. Coates, “The Art Galleries: Past and Present,” The New Yorker, Vol. 21, 12 January 1946, p. 50
Ben Wolf, “Steel and Iron,” Art Digest, Vol. 20, No. 8, 15 January 1946, p. 20
Robert Cronbach, “About Artists by Artists,” New Masses, Vol. 58, No. 8, 19 February 1946, p. 27
Exh. Cat., Washington, D.C., American Association of University Women, David Smith, 1946, cat. no. 9
Lura Beam, “David Smith,” Journal of the American Association of University Women, Vol. 43, No. 3, Spring 1950, illustrated on the back cover
Hilton Kramer, “The Sculpture of David Smith,” ARTS Magazine, February 1960, p. 27, illustrated
Joan Patchner, "Theodore Roszak and David Smith: A Question of Balance," Arts Magazine, February 1964, fig. no. 15, p. 104, illustrated
Exh. Cat., Cambridge, Fogg Art Museum (and travelling), David Smith, 1906-1965, 1966, cat. no. 49, p. 66
Garnett McCoy, David Smith, New York 1973, pl. no. 18, illustrated
Rosalind Krauss, The Sculpture of David Smith: Catalogue Raisonné, New York 1977, fig. no. 112, p. 21, illustrated
Stanley E. Marcus, David Smith: The Sculptor and His Work, Ithaca 1983, p. 50 and 53
ARTS Magazine, Vol. 58, Issues 6-8, 1984, work cited with incorrect date
Exh. Cat., New York, Independent Curators Incorporated, David Smith: Medals for Dishonor, 1996, p. 35
Aurelie Barnier, “Une Revue de l’expressionnisme Abstrait Americain: Possibilities (1947-1948),” Les Cahiers du Musee National d’art Moderne, No. 71, Paris, Spring 2000, p. 112, illustrated
Exh. Cat., Paris, Centre Georges Pompidou, David Smith: Sculptures 1933-1964, 2006, p. 43
Katy Siegel, Abstraction Expressionism, New York 2011, p. 41, illustrated in color
Paula Wisotzki, "Constructing Meaning: the Albany Exhibition of David Smith's Medals for Dishonor," Left History, Vol. 15, No. 2, Chicago 2011, p. 31
Willard Gallery, New York
Sibley Smith, Wakefield, Rhode Island (acquired from the above in 1946)
Silbey Smith Jr. and Cecile Cohen, Wakefield, Rhode Island (by descent from the above)
Acquired from the above by the present owner in 2013
Abstract Expressionist sculptor and painter David Smith worked as a riveter and welder at automotive factories before devoting himself to art. Interested in the painterly potential of sculpture, he built his works by welding together found objects, machine parts, and forged metal. His style evolved from early Surrealist and Expressionist tendencies (influenced by Pablo Picasso, Russian Constructivism, Piet Mondrian, and Alberto Giacometti's biomorphic forms) to late masterpieces of geometric abstraction. His last work, Cubi XXVII (1965), part of a series of towering stainless steel sculptures meant to be installed outdoors, broke the auction price record for postwar art at Sotheby's in 2005.
American, 1906-1965, Decatur, IN, United States, based in South Shaftsbury, VT, United States
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