The Guggenheim fellowship in 1950 clearly defines an artistic period of David Smith's development as a sculptor. His earlier pieces are framed and bordered; his later pieces move toward being unframed and unbordered. Of the forty-seven works illustrated in the exhibition catalog produced before 1950, nineteen are forcefully--and I would say, brutally--framed and bordered just like a painting in a frame. After 1950, the frames mostly disappear. I believed that Smith expressed the importance of the Guggenheim fellowship in two sculptures of 1950, the charming "Structure of a Small Concept Possessing a Big Power" (1950, plate 48 in catalog of sculptures), and "The Letter" (1950, plate 52 of the catalog of sculptures). "The Letter" is a contained and bordered piece. I thought it symbolizes the excitement and anticipation of the Guggenheim letter informing him that he had won the fellowship, but it actually is a love letter to a friend after a lovers' quarrel.(1) "Structure on a Small Concept" appears to depict a mailbox!
At all events, Smith's sculptural work opens up and references external space beginning in 1950. He clearly is not in the position of realizing the concept that mass defines space and gravity; but he is in a position to move to this concept, he is open to it without necessarily realizing that he is. "Australia" (1951, plates 58 two views in the catalog of sculptures, also my photographs, here) exemplifies this revolutionary step. It is not unanticipated. Other pieces in 1950 include free-standing, unframed columns and points (such as, "Sacrifice" [1950, plate 49 in catalog of sculptures], "17 h's" [1950, plate 53 in catalog of sculptures], and "24 Greek Y's" [1950, plate 54 in catalog of sculptures]); but "Australia" bursts with energy, bursting frames, spiking into space and (through the archaeological and fossil references) time.
On the basis of the conceptual breakthrough in "Australia", Smith builds the "Agricola" series several years later. (He produced "Agricola Head" in 1933 [plate 6 in the catalog of sculptures], but I do not know the relationship, aside from the title, to the 1952-1953 series of the same name. It is, anyway, a very different work, looking like a helmet on a head, thus bordered and defensive, completely contrary to the later Agricola series.)
Having made the leap to the traditional, Western mode of sculptural reference to space, Smith now explored the Western tradition of sculpture. That is how I read the Tanktotem series ("Tanktotem I", 1953, plate 65, and "Tanktotem III", 1953, plate 66 of the catalog of sculptures) and the Forging series ("Forging III" through "Forging XI", 1955, plates 68-75, catalog of sculptures). These vertical columns/figures take Smith back to ancient Greek sculpture, to the caryatids, which were usually attached to columns supporting lintels and other structural beams in Greek temples and buildings. Eventually the caryatids evolved to become free-standing figures; but their historical reference remained the structures they supported. Hence, the caryatids are metaphors for the way mass creates and supports the structure of space. (There is more, too. The caryatids embody certain values of civic order, so as to say that the social and civil space in which humankind lives is created and structured by values.)
Having made his conceptual breakthrough, there was no turning back for Smith. He began to explore the power of traditional modes and concepts of Western sculpture. He made his figures with blocks (e.g., "Five Units Equal," 1955, plate 75, and "5 1/2", 1956, plate 76 in catalog of sculptures), with representative persons ("History of Leroy Borton", 1956, plate 77, and "Running Daughter", 1956-60, plate 78, catalog of sculptures), with sociological-symbolic personages ("Sentinel", 1956, plate 80, catalog of sculptures).
Importantly, he began to think of sculpture in astronomical terms, as in "Tanktotem IX" (1960, plate 82, catalog of sculptures) and "Tanktotem X" (1960, plate 83, catalog of sculptures), which have references to the moon and the earth. This development, too, is Smith's discovery of ancient Greek perspective. I do not mean Greek myth. I mean the ancient Greek cosmology, which viewed the universe as a God-created machine, in which the heavens and the earth and human beings on earth are all integrated as parts of the machines. Humans are gifted with the divine spark of rationality that enables them to understand and create in this world. The ancient Greeks unified mathematics, science, cosmology, mechanical arts and crafts, and mechanical machines in a world view and a unified scheme of values. Now Smith was the Greek apprentice.
All the work that Smith does after the mid-1950s sprang out of his recovery of the beginnings of Western sculpture in the ancient Greeks. The famous Voltri series began when he took a commission to work in the Voltri foundry and metal works in Genoa, Italy, in 1962. Here Smith was in the heart of classical civilization, working as metal smiths might have worked two thousand years earlier. He was now creating in iron and steel classical sculptures that explored and translated concepts the ancient Greeks had worked in stone. He began to reference the craft of iron work explicitly (and not ironically), no doubt because the craftsman represented the center of the Greek mechanical cosmology (I am not ignoring the strict Greek distinction between the philosopher/scientist/mathematician and the craftsman [who was often a slave]). Tools appear in the Forging series. Bits of found materials were incorporated. The texture of the iron became important to him. I believe art critics are mistaken who interpret this experience for Smith in terms of modern industry. Rather, Smith has traveled two thousand years back and discovered the great concepts that produced the wonderful tradition of Western sculpture.
The last artistic development that I would like to comment upon is Smith's placement of his pieces in the fields around his Bolton Landing studio. I have not visited the studio, so I cannot be certain of my interpretation here; but I have viewed some photographs and the outdoor sculptures are well depicted and discussed in the exhibition catalog.
As I indicated earlier in this article, both in modern cosmology and in Western sculpture, mass creates, defines, and structures space. This concept is extended to landscape. Sculpture (and architecture) creates the landscape. We can understand this point by referring to Henry Moore, who used this concept profoundly. When Moore placed his regal seated figures in an outdoor setting, it was not because they looked good there, or because the visitor had a better view of them in natural light, or because there was space for them. In fact, they were not even "in" the landscape. He placed them where they are, because his sculptures create the landscape. When the king and queen are out on the land, the land is their dominion, their landscape, their place, their location. Their ownership, power, and dominion over the land creates a royal landscape out of the land, out of the scenery, out of the verdant greenery, grasses, hedgerows, copses, streams, and rocks.
I do not believe that Smith had fully made that leap to the notion of the figure creating the landscape at Bolton Landing. He appears to have placed his pieces out-of-doors because he needed room to store them. He obviously organized them in an archival manner, as well as in serial order. They were in and on the land; but they did not create the landscape. In a way, the framed fields (thinking of aerial images of his studio and the land around it) are another frame and border, just as the early sculptures of the 1930s and 1940s are framed and bordered. But I am convinced that the later work in its outdoor locale was not simply a macro-version of Smith's miniatures from the early decades. They were, rather, the artistic platform on which Smith would have, had he not died in 1965, made the breakthrough to a full conception of sculptural mass, space, gravity, and motion. All his energy, potential, and trajectory pushed him in that direction. He was obviously a great sculptor. Had he lived to make the next breakthrough, he could easily have taken Western sculpture to new conceptual grounds.
1. The exhibition catalog states, "The Letter can for practical purposes be considered the first of the 'drawings in air' .... The Letter was made after a lovers' quarrel with Jean Freas and was intended to speak for Smith in hs attempt to bring her back." (p. 307)
Carmen Giminez (Curator of the Exhibition), David Smith: A Centennial (Guggenheim Museum Publication, New York, 2006).