LOS ANGELES, CA.- The Los Angeles County Museum of Art
(LACMA) presents David Smith: Cubes and Anarchy, the first major thematic exhibition devoted to the renowned twentieth-century American sculptor David Smith (1906-65). Organized by LACMA, the exhibition brings together over 100 works, including the largest grouping of Smiths monumental Cubis and Zigs brought together in more than twenty-five years. Cubes and Anarchy, for the first time, places these acknowledged masterpieces in context with his earlier works. The show reveals Smith as a sculptor whose identification with the working class motivated him to adopt the geometric forms of the constructivist avant-garde (modernist artists who used hardedged geometries to express utopian optimism) from the very first years of his career in the 1930s until his untimely death in 1965. Cubes and Anarchy includes sculptures, drawings, paintings, and photographsmany provided by the Estate of David Smith, which lent not only significant sculptures but also revelatory sketchbooks and photos, only a few of which have been exhibited previously.
"David Smith is a protean talent who created sculptures that Donald Judd once described as 'some of the best in the world, yet there has not been an exhibition of Smiths work on the West Coast since a memorial show at LACMA in 1965," says Carol S. Eliel, exhibition curator and LACMA curator of modern art. "David Smith: Cubes and Anarchy considers for the first time the entirety of the artists career while focusing on the theme of geometry in his work," she added.
Widely heralded as the greatest American sculptor of the twentieth century, Smith has often been presented as a counterpart to the abstract expressionist painters or as a draftsman in space. Most scholarship has viewed Smiths early work as developing in a linear fashion, from the European influences of Picasso and cubism in the 1930s, to a figuratively based, highly detailed, American surrealism in the 1940s, to a lyrically abstract, expressionist expansiveness in the 1950s, culminating with the seemingly disconnected breakthrough embodied in the reduced, geometric monumentality of his final works.
Cubes and Anarchy offers a fresh interpretation of Smith, revealing geometric abstraction as a constant focus throughout his career, a leitmotif that was deeply connected to the artists self-definition as a workingman and his need to reconcile that, through his interest in constructivism, with his pioneering commitment to forging a unique personal identity as a modern artist. From his earliest small-scale sculptures to his last monumental works, what Smith called "basic geometric form" was a powerful touchstone for the artist. LACMAs exhibition title derives from Smiths recollection that his concept of "cubes and anarchy" stemmed from the painter John Sloan, his teacher at New Yorks Art Students League in the 1920s, who exposed him to cubism, constructivism, and progressive social movements. As art critic Dore Ashton noted, Sloan "not only brought [Smith] into the modern art world, but also into the world of political commitment."
Politics and Art
Smiths sympathies for the cause of the American worker came in part from his own experiences. While a college student, Smith worked as a welder and riveter at the Studebaker automobile factory in South Bend, Indiana, a formative experience that introduced him to manufacturing techniques and processes. Smith worked again as a welder in the early 1940s, supplementing his meager income as an artist by making army tanks at the American Locomotive Company (ALCO) in Schenectady, New York. A member of Local 2054 United Steelworkers of America, Smith deliberately retained his union membership for years. He later explicitly affirmed the parallels between his working methods as an artist and those used by factory laborers. In his own words, he had learned from manufacturing "to assemble the whole by adding its unit parts," the same method of direct metal construction Smith used for his sculpture: "The building up of sculpture from unit parts
is also an industrial concept, the basis of automobile and machine assembly."
On seeing reproductions of Picassos and Julio Gonzálezs early welded iron constructions in 1932, Smith immediately realized that what he had previously considered to only be an industrial material and technique could also be used to make art. Knowledge of their workespecially that of González, who like Smith, was trained to weld in an automobile factoryliberated Smith to make welded steel sculptures such as Saw Head (1933), combining a workers tool (the saw) and methods (welding) with his interest in found geometries (the circular blade).
Smith was similarly fascinated with the Russian constructivists use of industrial materials as well as their artistic vocabulary of abstract geometries used in service to populist ideals. The influence of Vladimir Tatlin, El Lissitzky, and others can be seen in Smiths sculptures ranging from the 1930s (Unity of Three Forms, 1937, and Suspended Cube, 1938) to the 1960s (Three Planes, 1960-61 and Zig IV, 1961).
Constantin Brancusi, Piet Mondrian, and Vasily Kandinsky likewise provided Smith with models of the avant-garde artist interested in geometric forms who also had populist roots or utopian aspirations. Smith paid homage to Brancusi, whose sculptures reflected roots in his native Romanian folk art and architecture, in various sculptures including The Hero (1951-52) as well as in drawings such as Untitled (1946). Smith alluded to Mondrians strict geometries and made specific references to the Dutchmans compositions and palette in sculptures such as Zig III (1961) and Bec-Dida Day (1963). Smith and Kandinsky both understood and revered the circle in the sweeping context of human history. Smiths Bec-Dida Day demonstrates not only this shared love but also Smiths knowledge of Kandinskys color theory and his specific correlations between particular shapes and colors.
As David Smith: Cubes and Anarchy makes clear, Smith adopted and adapted, throughout his short but significant career, the pure geometries of the constructivist avant-garde, creating a body of work that remains among the richest and most powerful ever made. The exhibition is organized by Carol S. Eliel, curator of modern art, LACMA and is accompanied by a richly illustrated catalogue with a lead essay by Eliel and additional essays by curator Christopher Bedford and scholars Alex Potts and Anne M. Wagner.