David Smith review – self-made man of steel


David Smith, the leading sculptor of abstract expressionism, was born in 1906 in Indiana and raised in Ohio. His great-great-grandfather was a blacksmith, his father was an inventor, and his first job, in the summer of 1925, was on the Studebaker factory assembly line. Two decades later, unable to serve in the war due to sinus problems, he worked the graveyard shift at the American Locomotive Company assembling trains and (in spite of his pacifism) M7 tanks. There, he joined the United Steelworkers union.

For an artist, this was (and is) an unlikely backstory – Smith was never really formally trained – and it duly took its effect on his practice, his essential dreaminess wonderfully moderated by his passion for welding and all manner of industrial bricolage. If Smith created things – strange, totemic, numinous things – then he also built them. In this sense, at least, there’s something mighty about his work, a strength that goes beyond its scale. Even at its most peaceful and contemplative, you can somehow hear its workshop beginnings: a subliminal rattle and clang that to me is the sound of the 20th century.

“Sculpture,” Smith wrote in 1951, “is as free as the mind; as complex as life.” A survey of his career at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park tries hard to capture this freedom, not least by making sure that each of the more than 40 works on display are able fully to breathe (the verb is apt, given how many of his sculptures resemble human forms). Space and landscape were vitally important to Smith – from 1929 until his death in a car crash in 1965, he worked in a studio on his 86-acre farm at Bolton Landing in the Adirondack Mountains, New York state, where his then unsellable sculptures eerily populated the hills like silent crowds – and in the YSP’s pristine Underground Gallery, as well as on the grass outside, you can see almost everything from almost every angle.

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Sentinel V, 1959 by David Smith at Yorkshire Sculpture Park.



‘Here is a robot’: Sentinel V, 1959 by David Smith at Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Photograph: © 2019 the Estate of David Smith/ARS/ courtesy YSP/Jonty Wilde

But there is a problem here, too. Inside, nothing is labelled. To discover what exactly you’re looking at, and when it was made, you must take a room plan from a box at the door, and then try to fathom where you’re standing in relation to the piece in question. Maddeningly laborious, this undoes in an instant all the curators’ good work, your brain struggling to map-read when it should really be free-associating in front of some peculiar confection of shells, wire and nails; some extraordinary wagon whose wheels will never roll.

Nevertheless, this is an exhilarating, mind-expanding show, and perhaps it will do something to make Smith better known in this country. (It’s striking that people who talk of his contemporary Alexander Calder as if he were a close friend seem hardly to have heard of Smith.) It begins with his earliest, most intuitive work, made of wood and found objects, and concludes, outside, with his largest sculptures, formed of painted and burnished steel (the latter are reflective, and thus change their appearance with every passing cloud). En route, you can see his Medals for Dishonor from 1939-40, inspired by German first world war medallions he saw in the British Museum, as well as by Picasso’s Guernica: a series of “commemorative” bronze plaques that express, via teeming, Bruegel-like tableaux, his opposition to, and disgust for, the war.

David Smith’s Gondola II (1964).



‘A satisfying sense both of stasis and motion’: David Smith’s Gondola II (1964). Photograph: Jonty Wilde

Almost every piece draws you in, either by being simply a lovely object – the Viking delicacy of Untitled (Lead Head, 1932) is curiously poignant – or because you wonder at its construction; the half-man, half-insect steel upright that is Tanktotem III (1953) defies gravity by not falling down. But there are masterpieces here too, and you know them when you see them, whether labelled or not. Among Smith’s more obvious influences are Giacometti and Julio González, but he is at his most formidable when he is his own man. Hudson River Landscape (1951), a prime example of his conviction that sculpture is “drawing in space”, is made of welded steel, and based on numerous sketches of the scenery on the journey between Albany and Poughkeepsie. It looks like some prehistoric map, rudimentary and imprecise, and yet it is somehow readable in an instant: here are factories and bones, railway sidings and feathers.

His best work is not always quite what it seems. At first sight, Sentinel V (1959), which is made of stainless steel and stands outside, is a barely there assemblage of oblongs and squares. But as the sky switches from blue to grey and back again, it hits you: the way it seems to move. Here is a robot. The only question is: does it presage life or death? The abstraction of Gondola II (painted steel, 1964), like that of Primo Piano III (steel painted white, 1962) before it, brings to mind the artist’s time in the locomotive factory: here is a carriage, and here is a wheel. Again, a satisfying sense both of stasis and motion.

Art, Smith once noted, is made “least of all from things that can be said” – a notion that all these pieces embody. Certainly, I struggle precisely to describe the effect that they had on me. All I can tell you is that I thought about them all the way home. They dazzled more than the late summer sun on the motorway, repeating themselves in patterns in my mind’s eye, their persistent, ongoing thrum almost as loud as the engine of my car.

● At Yorkshire Sculpture Park until 5 January 2020

Watch a trailer for the David Smith exhibition at Yorkshire Sculpture Park.



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