An Unexpected, Even Ferocious

For aficionados of modern sculpture, it’s a stroke of good

fortune that the traveling exhibition devoted to the early work of the American

sculptor David Smith (1906-65) has come to New York-the

final stop on its national tour-at a moment when the Alberto Giacometti

retrospective (at the Museum of Modern Art) and the Henry Moore retrospective

(at the National Gallery of Art in Washington) are still fresh in our thoughts.

Moore, Giacometti and Smith were the pre-eminent sculptural talents in the

generation that came of age in the period between the two world wars, and they

went on to dominate modern sculpture in the post–World War II years. It is

therefore of immense interest to see how differently they responded to the

spirit of the age-an age in which the disparate aesthetic impulses of Cubism

and Surrealism constituted the principal artistic challenge, and the

catastrophic political developments of the 1930’s and 40’s inevitably played a

role in shaping their response to that challenge.

The show that has now come to the National Academy of Design- David Smith: Two into Three Dimensions ,

organized by Karen Wilkin-is not, alas, a retrospective. Yet it has the great

merit of concentrating for the most part on the least familiar aspects of

Smith’s copious oeuvre : the work of

the 1930’s and 40’s, which was mainly devoted to paintings, painted

collage-reliefs, bronze plaques and related studies on paper. This is not the

David Smith that is well-known to museumgoers, the Smith who gave us that

extraordinary succession of heroic open-form welded-metal constructions that were

sometimes characterized as “drawings-in-space.” Those undoubted masterworks

were mainly created in the last two decades of the artist’s life. Yet, as we

can now see in this survey of his earlier work, the later welded-metal

constructions owed much to the artist’s early exploration of both abstraction

and representation in a variety of media not usually associated with his art.

As Ms. Wilkin correctly observes in the catalog for the current

exhibition, “more than 30 years and several retrospectives after Smith’s death,

a considerable part of his work still remains all but unknown:

a large and varied group of relief sculptures …. They range from disturbing

narratives in cast bronze to expressively worked ceramic plaques to playful

assemblages of unexpected materials.” The scale is intimate, the imagery often

ferocious, and the materials are indeed unexpected at times-painted reliefs,

for example, in which actual bones are incorporated as

“real” biomorphic forms.

Perhaps the best-known of the bronze plaques-to the extent that

any of them are known to today’s art public-is the series of reliefs called Medals for Dishonor (1938-39), described

by Ms. Wilkin as “an angry politically engaged series of 15 bronze reliefs

encapsulating antiwar, anti-fascist sentiments.” Politically, Smith was clearly

captive to the Popular Front sentiments of the day, a political allegiance that

abruptly evaporated for many of its followers with the signing of the

Hitler-Stalin pact in 1939. Artistically, however, the Medals remain an extraordinary achievement. Notwithstanding their

miniature scale, they are the most successful effort at sculptural narrative in

20th-century art. I, for one, know of nothing in this vein that even approaches

their mastery, and some of the subsequent bronze reliefs devoted to more

traditional subjects- Plaque: Woman in a

Room , for example, and The Studio

(both 1945)-are also terrific.

The early small paintings and painted reliefs are less even in

quality. Smith started out as a painter and was indeed trained as a painter,

and it was through the process of building up the pictorial surfaces into

three-dimensional relief that he found himself more and more drawn to sculpture

itself. He continued to work at painting for the rest of his life, as this

exhibition also reminds us. My own view is that he never attained the same

level of quality in his paintings that distinguished his sculpture almost from

the beginning. The drawings are another story, however. Both in his drawings

and in his sculpture-from the meticulously detailed iconography of the Medals to the most purely abstract later

welded-metal constructions-Smith showed himself to be a master draftsman.

Indeed, some of the later black-and-white abstract drawings in the current

exhibition strike me as better”paintings”thananyofthe paintings themselves.

Color remained a lifelong challenge for Smith, both in painting and in

sculpture. But color was never his aesthetic forte.

All the same, he was certainly the greatest American sculptor of

his generation, and in my judgment, anyway, he was the

only sculptor of that generation to rival-and even, at times, to surpass-the

accomplishments of Moore and Giacometti. David

Smith: Two Into Three Dimensions does much to give us a more complete

understanding of his early artistic development, but what we need now is a

comprehensive retrospective on the scale that has currently been lavished on

Moore and Giacometti. Meanwhile, the exhibition that Ms. Wilkin has brought to

the National Academy of Design under the auspices of the Pamela Auchincloss

Arts Management remains on view through Jan. 6, and Karen Wilkin’s catalog is

essential reading for anyone with an interest in Smith’s achievement.