David! You are as delicate as Vivaldi and as strong as a Mack Truck.”
did painter Robert Motherwell (1915-1991) characterize his close
friend, David Smith (1906-1965). Smith and Alexander Calder
(1898-1976) were the great innovative American sculptors of the 20th
man of titanic presence and energy, Smith lost his life at the age of
59, when he had already scrambled to dizzy artistic heights and
obviously was going higher.
week before his death he refused to let two visiting youngsters ride
with him on his new motorcycle. He wasn’t yet sure of himself
on it. He also drove a top-heavy, canary-yellow delivery truck to
haul his work and raw materials. This, not the motorcycle, crushed
out his life a week later.
Smith did not work with stone and chisel, or clay and trowel, or mold
and molten metal. His materials were iron and steel, his tools the
cutting torch and welding flame. Long ago, in an issue of Art
Herman Cherry said, “Smith always wanted to be the No. 1 man in
the arts. I can say that he has achieved that. In his work one can
see the glare of the reality of the twentieth century.”
Smith learned welding in a Studebaker factory at South Bend, he did
not start out to be a sculptor. He wanted to be a painter. He went to
Ohio University for a year and to Notre Dame for two days before
moving to New York City in 1926 to study at the Art Students League.
Discovering the welded sculptures of Pablo Picasso, he became
interested in combining painting with sculpture.
and his wife bought a farm in Bolton Landing, where, in 1932, he
installed a forge and anvil. He began creating sculptures with found
objects — wood, scrap objects, soldered metal, coral. Soon he
began using an oxyacetylene torch to cut and weld metal heads, which
are thought to be the first welded metal sculptures ever made in the
World War II, he worked as a welder for the American Locomotive
Company. He built locomotives and M7 tanks. The war over, with
prodigious energy and output he turned again to his art. Most
sculptors working in metal use molds to cast their creations in
bronze. This allows multiple copies. Smith welded pieces of metal
together, creating unique pieces.
working in hard metal, he considered himself a painter. Some of his
early pieces were influenced by Surrealism. “I belong with the
painters,” he declared. He was painting in three dimensions —
landscapes and still lifes. Some work was described as “drawings
David Smith, Hudson River Landscape, 1951.
1950 Guggenheim Fellowship gave him the financial freedom to move on
to bigger and more expensive creations using stainless steel.
was becoming famous. His works were being read about in art
magazines, talked about, and seen in museums on both sides of the
Atlantic. When the Italian government invited him to make sculptures
for the 1962 Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto, he was given use of
an abandoned steel mill and a group of assistants. In 30 days he
produced 27 pieces.
content with this, he had tons more steel shipped from Italy to
Bolton Landing, and over the next year and a half he produced 25
David Smith, left to right, from the Cubi series, XVIII, XVII, and XIX, 1963-64.
before Smith’s fatal accident, President Lyndon B. Johnson
appointed him, the only artist or sculptor selected, to the National
Council of the Arts.
the 53 years that my wife and I lived in Maryland suburbs of
Washington, D.C., the National Gallery of Art mounted two huge
one-man sculpture retrospectives in the East Building. These
represented two different centuries, two different countries, two
dissimilar artists: Auguste Rodin (1840-1917), figurative, and Smith,
Abstract Expressionist. Each was revolutionary for his time, and
each was monumental.
various places I had seen and admired individual Smith pieces. The
huge National Gallery exhibition allowed me to admire his work in
depth. It was dramatic, beautiful, and exciting.
premature death robbed art of a powerful and compassionate champion.
Lawrence Jeppson is an art consultant, organizer and curator of art exhibitions, writer, editor
and publisher, lecturer, art historian, and appraiser. He is America's leading authority on
modern, handwoven French tapestries. He is expert on the works of William Henry Clapp, Nat
Leeb, Tsing-fang Chen, and several French artists.
He is founding president of the non-profit Mathieu Matégot Foundation for Contemporary
Tapestry, whose purview encompasses all 20th-century tapestry, an interest that traces back to
1948. For many years he represented the Association des Peintres-Cartonniers de Tapisserie and
Arelis in America.
Through the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service, the American Federation of
Arts, the Museum of Modern Art, and his own Art Circuit Services he has been a contributor to
or organizer of more than 200 art exhibitions in the United States, Canada, Japan, and Taiwan.
He owns AcroEditions, which publishes and/or distributes multiple-original art. He was co-founder and artistic director of Collectors' Investment Fund.
He is the director of the Spring Arts Foundation; Utah Cultural Arts Foundation, and the Fine
Arts Legacy Foundation
Lawrence is an early-in-the-month home teacher, whose beat is by elevator. In addition, he has spent the past six years hosting and promoting reunions of the missionaries who served in the French Mission (France, Belgium, and Switzerland) during the decade after WWII.