Page 11 - Studio International - August 1966
P. 11

David Smith : a major American sculptor

                                A personal appreciation by Robert Motherwell

        The David Smith (1906-1965)   `I hope you can interpret—try ... you know me and how I  stout. We left each other late at night, wobbly but
        Retrospective opens at the   speak—add it up and guess when in doubt.' David Smith,  walking. In those days I was full of French Symbolist
        Tate Gallery on August 19.
     	                          the great contemporary American sculptor, wrote that  aesthetics, of Rimbaud and Mallarmé, and of Andre
        Captions with this article
        are based on material supplied  to an English critic in a letter. Smith was referring to his  Breton, of the possibilities of representing reality in-
        by Robert Motherwell.   handwriting, which, in fact, was clear enough. And so  directly but passionately in one's medium. I still can see
                                was his sculpture, based as it was on the Cubist collage,  David saying, with his characteristic bluntness and inal-
                                with welding replacing glue, with three dimensions func-  terable sense of his own identity, 'I don't know about
                                tioning instead of two, with an aesthetic weight and large-  those guys, I don't read French, but I don't need them.
                                ness of scale that Parisian Cubists never dreamed of. That  I've read James Joyce!' He was right, all of it  is  in
                                in turn made Smith not only the sculptor most related to  Ulysses,  and I looked at him with a sudden intellectual
        David Smith, a noble and
        hard-working artist of   our native Abstract Expressionism, but a major American  respect that did not diminish as my affection for him
        tremendous appetites and   sculptor of international esteem and influence.   continually grew.
        stamina, in welding clothes.
        He produced much more    I knew him for more than fifteen years, ever since that   When, as a young American sculptor in the 1930's, David
        sculpture than was physically  afternoon that we met by prearrangement (but unknown  added Picasso to Joyce for his points of reference, when
        and economically possible to   to each other) in 1950. We instinctively tried to drink  he was possessed of a continual fascination with the
        exhibit: 'because I have to'.
        Photo : Alexander Lieberman   each other under the table on Irish whisky and Guinness   ancient sculpture of the Near East, and, when from
                                                                                   economic necessity, during the Depression, he learned
                                                                                   the welding of iron in locomotive and automotive works,
                                                                                   he had as economical, relevant, and adequate back-
                                                                                   ground for making an essential contribution to modern
                                                                                   art—with its proper obsession with the nature of the
                                                                                   medium—as could be imagined. That background served
                                                                                   him well. When you saw his burly figure in workman's
                                                                                   clothes, you sensed a cultivated man who knew his
                                                                                   ancient and modern art intimately, including all the
                                                                                   most recent developments. When you saw him in Irish
                                                                                   tweeds and with Monte Cristo cigars those past years,
                                                                                   you were aware still of a man who spent most of his days
                                                                                   cutting and welding hunks of steel often far too heavy for
                                                                                   a single man to lift, driving his professional helpers as
                                                                                   hard as himself, knowing that the workings of the greatest
                                                                                   national economy the world has ever known were inade-
                                                                                   quate, not only to absorb his prodigious amount of
                                                                                   work, but even to exhibit much of it. Some of his last
                                                                                   great iron 'wagons' on wheels were too large and heavy
                                                                                   even to be moved unless there had been a fantastic
                                                                                   private railroad spur to his Adirondack mountain place
                                                                                   where he lived and worked.
                                                                                    He bought hundreds of acres in mountains there for a
                                                                                   few dollars during the Depression. He himself built the
                                                                                   studio-house out of concrete blocks and iron, to which in
                                                                                   recent years he had added further factory-like studios.
                                                                                    It was not an especially comfortable place, especially
                                                                                   for women, but on its grounds, like sentinels, stood the
                                                                                   greatest permanent one-man show of heroic contempor-
                                                                                   ary sculpture in the Americas. A folk song runs: 'It takes
                                                                                   a worried man to sing a worried song'. Well, it took an
                                                                                   iron will to have made all those weighty iron sculptures
                                                                                   strewn about his mountain landscape, each silhouetted
                                                                                   against an enormous sky.
                                                                                    Typically, his bitterness about his years of struggle
                                                                                   during the Depression and the 1940's was mainly about
                                                                                   his inability to afford then to make as monumental
                                                                                   sculpture as he could later on.
                                                                                    Eventually he bought up ancient tractors with gigantic
                                                                                   steel wheels, and even an enormous old road grader. He
                                                                                   wanted to incorporate them into sculpture, sculpture so
                                                                                   tremendous that this industrial machinery would have
                                                                                   no larger role in the whole sculptures than the clock-
                                                                                   works have in a grandfather clock, or the elevator in an
                                                                                   elevator shaft.
                                                                                    He was originally a Hoosier from Indiana, and a streak
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