Page 18 - Studio International - August 1966
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personal cost of what he wanted. His confidence allowed
                                                                                 him to appreciate the work of the modern masters with-
                                                                                 out being overwhelmed; he may have been conscious
                                                                                 of them as theorists, but he understood them as craftsmen.
                                                                                  Smith's serious acquaintance with modern art began in
                                                                                 his Art Students' League days. He started his painting
                                                                                 studies there with Richard Lahey; the following year
                                                                                 (1927) he met and was befriended by the abstract
                                                                                 painter, Jan Matulka, who had come to teach at the
                                                                                 League. It was Matulka who introduced Smith to
                                                                                 Cubism and Constructivism; as Smith put it, 'Then the
                                                                                 world kind of opened for me.'
                                                                                  What opened was, in fact, Smith himself. The late
                                                                                 twenties and early thirties were the years when the
                                                                                 American art world staggered under the impact of
                                                                                 Cubism. There were those who hated, but more who
                                                                                 adored and imitated. Smith's concern—if it were any-
                                                                                 thing so conscious—was to relate the new idiom to his
                                                                                 own sensibility. Technique stirred his imagination as
                                                                                 much as image (the Cubist image, the Cubist construc-
                                                                                 tion, was to be his point of departure, while technique—
                                                                                 the art of doing—was a creative stimulus, a source of
                                                                                 ideas, throughout his career). He told the critic Katherine
                                                                                 Kuh, 'I ... learned a lot... from just looking at reproduc-
                                                                                 tions mostly in European magazines. I first saw Picasso—
                                                                                 then his iron construction in Cahiers d'art—and  I realized
                                                                                 that I too knew how to handle this material.'
       Part of David Smith's metal   the best of my ability...' He went on, 'Not everybody   In another context Smith wrote, 'Before I had painted
      workshop—built and      does work to the extent of their ability, and not everyone  very long I ran across reproductions in Cahiers d'Art  of
      equipped by Smith himself
                              has the privilege—but anything one man does will have   Gonzales's and Picasso's work which brought my con-
                              some response by other people. That is enough.'    ciousness to this fact that art could be made of iron. But
                               The thirties, with its social programmes and foreign   iron-working was labour, when I thought art was oil
                              threats to freedom, threw Smith back upon himself and   paint.'
                              made him think of the virtues of American individualism,   Smith's first constructions, made in the early thirties,
                              its knack for learning through doing, its energetic, self-  were of wood (projected from the canvas). It was per-
                              sustaining pragmatism. His roots were in that very inde-  haps difficult to act all at once upon an enlarged notion
                              pendence and optimistic temper. He was mistrustful of  of what could be art. Metal—the material of the mundane
                              entanglements and dependencies, of governments and  world of work—appeared at first gradually as 'an intro-
                              academies—indeed, of any sort of restraint that was not   duction of metal lines and found forms'. There was a
                              self-discipline.                                   period when Smith soldered—a small enterprise for so
                               Smith was a product of the Middle America that had   large a man. At length, he began to weld; he painted his
                              moved from the farm and forge to the sprawling factories  sculpture, but his conceptions were truly of metal and
                              and railroad yards without loss of a belief in indivi-  not of colour. The material itself began to provide the
                              dualism. Here was labour that didn't have to fight for  raison d'être,  the material inseparable from the tech-
                               the franchise, that kept its dignity and appreciation of  niques for exploiting its properties. By the forties, he
                              craft in a shifting world of new machines and new ideas  developed an aesthetic, founded in technique, but not
                               and accepted these as a reasonable challenge.     dominated by it.
                               In an interview with Thomas B. Hess in 1964, he said :   In the symposium, 'The New Sculpture', held at the
                                                                                 Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1952, Smith
                               Well, let's remember my heritage. When I was a kid, I had
                                                                                 stated a mature case for 'the material called iron or
                               a pretty profound regard for railroads. I used to sit down on
                                the edge of town and watch the trains go through. I used to  steel' that he held 'in high respect' :
                                hop trains, ride on the tops of boxcars. We used to play on
                                trains around factories. I played there just like  I  played in   What it can do in arriving at form economically, no other
                                nature, on hills and creeks. I remember when I first sat in my   material can do. The metal itself possesses little art history.
                               father's lap and steered a car. In fact, I've always had a high   What associations it possesses are those of this century: power,
                               regard for machinery. It's never been an alien element; it's   structure, movement, progress, suspension, destruction, bru-
                                been in my nature.                                tality. The method of unifying parts to completion need not
                                                                                  be evident, especially if craft evidence distracts from the
                                As important as Smith's background to the under-
                                                                                  conceptual end. Yet the need to observe the virtue of the
                               standing of his art is the fact of his confidence in that   material, its natural planes, its hard lines, its natural oxides,
                               background. It gave him an ease and openness of regard;   its need for paint or its unifying method is only valid when
                               it made his ambitions seem possible and created in him   with concept. These points related to the steel concept are
                               the disposition to accept the responsiblity and pay the    minor, and depend wholly upon the conceptual realization of
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