David Smith: Follow My Path
On ViewHauser & Wirth
April 27 – July 30, 2021
The David Smith show on view at Hauser & Wirth’s uptown outpost is both lively and unusual. Alongside 13 sculptures executed between 1937 and 1961, you’ll also find drawings, paintings, and photographs by Smith as well as a range of documentary materials that reveal various ways he transformed figurative imagery into Modernist abstractions. Consequently, gallery-goers have the rare opportunity to view both the “way before” and the “much after” aspects of this group of metal constructions.
Without the various visual aids, most viewers probably would not realize that they are regarding three-dimensional works inspired by, among others, actual dancers, pianists, and billiard players. As it is, the earliest pieces in the show are also the most complicated. While they’re smaller in size than Smith’s tall, late sculptures, these are the ones with complex angles and volumetric components that recreate their source material. As his abstract personages grew in size, the work became simpler and more elemental with, say, just a disc denoting a head and a slender vertical shape suggesting a torso. See Ninety Father and Ninety Son, both from 1961, in this exhibition that runs through July 30.
To some extent, Smith treated his constructions as if they were flesh and blood entities. He filled the fields at Bolton Landing with them, calling to mind attendees at a concert or a cocktail party. Take The Hero (1951–52), which was borrowed from the Brooklyn Museum, and is installed by Hauser & Wirth’s entrance. If it were turned around with the welded marks of its “face” visible, it would be greeting you as indeed it did when Smith had the sculpture positioned near the door of his home in Bolton Landing. I’ve loved The Hero for years, and even borrowed it for an exhibition I curated at the School of Visual Arts in 1973. Museums and galleries, I’ve noticed, never exhibit this wonderful steel piece with its “lined” face turned toward viewers, preferring instead to show its blank Minimal side. And though it was fabricated during the Korean War, no one ever relates its title to the contemporaneous Asian conflict, even though The Hero’s spine resembles a bayonet and the shoulders seem to be sporting epaulets.
By featuring a selection of drawings and paintings, including an oil on cardboard from as late as 1960, the show also calls attention to Smith’s long history working with color. When he applied pigment to steel, as is apparent in this show, he treated metal planes as if they were canvas surfaces. The way Smith approached Personage from Stove City (1947) is a case in point. Like the sculptures that belong to the drawing in space period with which he was engaged a few years later, this seated figure with pronounced knees and streaming hair is composed from an intricate linear network. Before creating Hudson River Landscape (1951) or A Letter (1952), however, the artist strategized differently. He completed Personage from Stove City by applying a vibrant, multi-hued palette to the character’s body, much the way he had visualized this image the year before in a study consisting of oil, tempera, and pencil on paper that hangs on the wall nearby.
And then, there’s the matter of Smith constructing his abstract personages by welding them from steel. What had once been a radical procedure practically seems old-hat these days. Young—and perhaps middle-aged—sculptors once again not only carve and model, they mostly compose figures, not abstractions. Welding now belongs to a historical moment associated with the rise and wide-spread acceptance of 20th-century Modernism. It’s partly why it’s a joy to encounter Lunar Arcs on One Leg (1956–62) in the gallery’s rear space. Mysterious and beguiling, the sculpture is comprised of two vertical, almost nine-foot-high curves and two squat, half arcs that crown the piece. It’s the sort of work that reminds you of the way things once were: what initially can seem like a painted abstraction, might, if you blink, turn into an elegant, agile figure. Moreover, in a framed black-and-white photograph, you see how the artist could visualize what he was about to weld by merely studying elements he laid on the floor of his Bolton Landing studio.
In the end, this revelatory exhibition returns gallery-goers to a moment in time when making abstract figures involved manual labor, imagination, grit, confidence, and a bit of magic.