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David Smith's CUBI XXVIII Sells for $23.8 Million
David Smith, CUBI XXVIII. Hammer Price with Buyer's Premium: 23,816,000 USD.

NEW YORK.- David Smith’s CUBI XXVIII sold for $23.8 million at Sotheby’s New York, breaking the record price for a post-war art work that was set 24 hours before. American sculptor David Smith died in 1965. David Smith embodied an independence of spirit that characterized many of the American artists who emerged at the midpoint of the 20th Century. Smith combined a refusal to choose one convention or form above another with a forceful determination to achieve a singular vision and artistic identity. The sculptor created one of the most consistently confident and individualistic bodies of work from the mid-century, establishing a new kind of sculptural invention that used innovative techniques and material to express a fusion of abstraction and figuration. Combining modern technologies and materials derived from machinery and industry, Smith conveyed volume through an innate genius for organizing negative and positive space. Smith also possessed a love for landscape and Surrealist lyricism that brought a vibrantly poetic linear element to the overt Cubist solidity of his art.

The Cubi series is the culmination of Smith’s sculptural alchemy, in which welded metal becomes a composition of elegant yet weighty and volumetric presence, created around open spaces rather than carved from solid form like traditional stone or wood sculpture. Smith’s genius for balancing void and solid, form and content, crude material and poetic spirit is the hallmark of his Cubi masterpieces. Created from 1961 until his untimely death in 1965, Smith’s Cubi sculptures are a cohesive group – of which Cubi XXVIII was the last – whose sleek geometry of boxes and columns allowed Smith to experiment with real rather than implied volume, exploring all its permutations. This spectacular group of sculptures is not only the culmination of Smith’s illustrious career; they are acknowledged masterpieces of American art that constitute one of the most radical developments in modern sculpture. The importance of the Cubis is confirmed by the fact that twenty-one of the Cubis have entered museum collections, many within just a few years of the artist’s death.

The linear genius of Smith’s earlier work of the 1940s and 1950s was a form of drawing in space, while literal volume was largely abandoned. With the work of the 1960s, including the Cubis, Zigs, Wagons and Circles, Smith celebrated form and mass in three-dimensional space, as he accepted the challenge of creating monumental sculptures that could inhabit the rolling vista of the hills surrounding his studio in Bolton Landing. The 1960s were a time of creative ingenuity and interplay among simultaneous series, unparalleled in Smith’s oeuvre, and the flow of ideas freely informed one series with the innovations of the other. As the artist’s daughter, Candida Smith described his process, "Again and again he referred to his `work stream’; each work of art being as a vessel filled from the stream while never wholly separate. I understand his term to mean the flow of his identity made physically manifest – the process by which images and ideas from decades or days before inform a work in progress or yet to be made." (Candida N. Smith, The Fields of David Smith, New York, 1999, p. 17) This particularly fecund period was informed by the artist’s visit to Spoleto, Italy to participate in the Festival of Two Worlds in 1962. Working in five abandoned factories in Voltri, Smith made a prodigious amount of sculpture during his short stay of thirty days, incorporating found objects and scraps of metal from his surroundings into works that were displayed throughout the city. As Candida Smith recalls, "My father returned home that summer invigorated and jubilant. …It was after his return from Italy that the fields began to burgeon at an amazing rate. It was as if the creative explosion and the resulting enormous installation in Spoleto ignited a fire that did not burn out. The Voltri-Boltons were made along with the painted circle pieces, Primo Pianos, Zigs and Cubis.’’ (Ibid., p. 30-32)

As a mature work in the series, Cubi XXVIII embodies the many influences of these various series of the early 1960s. The more figurative element of the earlier Sentinels is evident in the rectangular "torso’’ atop one of the columnar sides of the composition of Cubi XXVIII. The painted brushwork on the surface of the Circles is mirrored in the polished arcs and swirls that play across the stainless steel, bringing a bursting vitality to elements such as the central diamond shape of Cubi XXVIII. But it is perhaps the series of Zigs that are most closely related to the mature compositions of the Cubi series such as Cubi XXVIII. The Zigs are unequivocally three-dimensional and towering structures, consisting of strongly differentiated interplays of convex and concave planes. Smith’s similar concentration on the volumetric potentialities of the Cubis is demonstrated by the photograph taken by Dan Budnik of cardboard models Smith used to explore geometric variations and compositions. In the Zigs, the surfaces are painted, often in combinations of strongly vibrant colors such as red, yellow or blue, that accentuate a composition’s disparate parts, and at other times with a more unifying tone of brown or black as in Zig III. The overall rough, brushy strokes and the monochrome palette of Zig III is deliberately at odds with the complicated, angular structure of the sculpture, a marked difference to the Cubis in which shape and surface treatment are perfectly congruent.

In creating outdoor sculptures, Smith had concerns about the durability of his materials and surface treatments, and through much experimentation with various techniques and materials, stainless steel became Smith’s preferred medium. Stainless steel is more resistant to the elements than standard steel or iron, but for many years, Smith could not afford large quantities of this more expensive material. However, increased critical acclaim and commercial success that began with a 1957 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, freed Smith to liberally utilize stainless steel, beginning with the Sentinel series (1957-1961) and ending with the Cubis (1961 to 1965). The reflective qualities of the polished surface created an optical synthesis of the plastic form with the pictorial composition. "Smith…was enthralled by the idea of surfaces that would change as the light of day changed, and so, in a sense, they are the final development of his lifelong preoccupation with the possibilities of color in sculpture. But the burnished, light-diffusing surface of Smith’s stainless steel sculptures serve both to focus attention on those surfaces and to make them seem insubstantial. We have seen the handwriting of the burnishing before – in…the Zigs for example – but here the skin of paint, which often seemed at odds with the structure of the work, has been replaced by an optical dazzle that appears to be an inherent property of the material itself’’ (Karen Wilkin, David Smith, New York, 1984, pp. 85-86) In Cubi XXVIII and its related works, Smith fully exploited the sheer beauty of his material. These brilliantly polished surfaces reflect light in expressionistic swirls which seem to be both within the steel as well as on it, creating a sculpture of monumental scale which appears to be filled with air and light.

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