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Art: Dream Sculptures in Ink and Paper

5 minute read
Robert Hughes

In New York, the graphic intensity of David Smith

When David Smith was killed in a car accident near Bennington, Vt., in 1965, America lost the best sculptor it had ever produced. In a quarter-century of work, Smith had taken the constructivist tradition of sculpture—images built up from rigid planes—from where Pablo Picasso and Julio Gonzalez had left it in the ’30s, and given it an extraordinary richness and amplitude. Indeed, his work in three dimensions was so magisterial that it blotted out the rest of his output. For Smith was not only a sculptor, but a draftsman, and his drawings, thousands in number, were an integral part of his life and thought. How important they were in relation to his sculpture can be gauged from the first exhibition of Smith drawings ever held, a showing that opened this month at New York’s Whitney Museum. Organized by Art Historian Paul Cummings, this exhilarating show consists of 139 works spanning the period from 1928 to 1963.

As a draftsman, Smith was fecund, prolific to the point of garrulity, and very uneven. In front of many drawings in this show one is made to feel that, had they not been created by one of the leading modernist sculptors, they would not command much attention on their plain aesthetic merits. Most of the work from the late ’30s and early ’40s is pastiche of one sort or another: a heavy line, now dogmatic, now uncertain, grinding across the paper, paying its digestive homages to Picasso, Gonzalez, constructivism generally and, rather surprisingly, to the bonelike figures of Moore and Arp. One of the ear lier drawings is a hole-in-the-head figure clearly derived from Moore, whose own interest in totems would presently be assimilated, to new effect, into Smith’s work.

An artist of stronger social engagement than most of the abstract expressionists, Smith tried his hand at political propaganda with a set of Medals for Dishonor inspired by the Spanish Civil War, later with a number of drawings that tried, in effect, to do a Bruegel on fascism. These desolate landscapes, populated by knotty women copulating with cannon, are postsurrealist cliches—although they make clear Smith’s erotic feelings about steel. Even so, they are full of the harsh, graphic intensity that would soon burst forth in his sculpture.

Smith’s whole achievement as a sculptor was bound up with the constructivist tradition of cut-and-build assembly: planes welded to planes and, instead of closed mass, open intersection. In 1951 he described his work in a splendid phrase: “I would prefer my assemblages to be the savage idols of basic patterns.” He was fascinated by metamorphosis, by the unfolding sequences of identity that Picasso could produce out of one given shape: bone into tooth into phallus into head into harp. This sense of the breeding of images was borne out at all levels of Smith’s work. He drew, not to produce “well made” drawings, but to keep his pipes clear. The special value of his drawings was not in themselves, but in their evidence of process—how he thought and felt, how he arrived at the decisions about imagery, content and shape that found such triumphant expression in the cut and welded metal. He jotted, made notes, abandoned them and got the half-usable ideas out of his system before they could waste steel. And so the drawings exhibit the sometimes incoherent ground of imagery from which his sculptures were refined: looking at them is rather like seeing Walt Whitman’s galley proofs. What are your influences, he was repeatedly asked, and some time in the ’50s he wrote a rambling free-verse answer that ran, in part,

from the way booms sling

from the ropes and pegs of tent tabernacles

and side shows at county fairs in Ohio

from the barefooted memory of unit relationships on

locomotives sidling thru Indiana,

from hopping freights, from putting them together and

working on their parts in Schenectady

From everything that happens to circles

and from the cultured forms of woman and the free growth of mountain flowers Such lines are not, of course, a description of any particular Smith sculp ture. But they poignantly evoke the spirit of his work, an oeuvre rooted in the broadest recapitulation of memory, phys ical sensation and hard manual labor. In the same way, the drawings establish a parallel harmony to the sculpture. Sometimes they deal directly with the formal problem of cutting sheet metal: a drawing like Eng #6, 1952, could be transferred directly into steel. But more often they transpose and extend the kind of linework present in Smith’s sculpture into the more ethereal and speculative realm of drawn calligraphy. Not many of his best drawings could be used as blueprints for sculpture, but one sees in the spatter and twist of their knotted scrubby lines an unappeased curiosity about how a drawn motif might be transformed into welded plate. They are dream sculptures, unrealizable, standing on the boundary that divides drawing with ink on paper from drawing with steel in space.

−Robert Hughes

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