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Advancing Abstraction in Modern Sculpture at the Baltimore Museum of Art
Ibram Lassaw. The Planets. 1954. Copper alloy on a wire armature. 36 H x 38½ L x 17 5/8 W inches. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Charles and Elsa Hutzler Memorial Collection, BMA 1956.293. ©Estate of Ibram Lassaw.

BALTIMORE, MD.- One of the earliest examples of David Smith’s welding is shown for the first time in this exhibition of approximately 40 works drawn from the BMA’s collection, the Estate of David Smith, and private collections. Once considered “lost” by the Smith Estate, Head with Cogs for Eyes came to the Baltimore Museum of Art last year as part of a generous bequest. It is joined by works by Hans Arp, Naum Gabo, Julio Gonzalez, Henry Moore, Louise Nevelson, and other modern artists who moved beyond the figure to create sculptures based on a new language of abstract forms. Some artists like Smith explored welding—a uniquely 20th-century technique that revolutionized sculpture—while others included the use of new industrial materials, found objects, and assemblage. Each of them demonstrates engaging approaches to sculpture liberated from representation.

Abstraction has played a significant role in figurative sculpture since Paleolithic times as the Venus of Willendorf attests. It was not until the 20th century, however, that artists felt free to abandon the figure altogether and develop fully abstract or “non-objective” sculpture. In 1914, inspired by Pablo Picasso’s collage sculptures, Russian artist Vladimir Tatlin began experimenting with completely abstract, three-dimensional constructions that he called “corner reliefs.”

During and after the Russian Revolution, Tatlin’s discovery influenced artists called “Constructivists” who sought to invent a new culture for a transformed society. These artists shared the belief that representational art was obsolete and that the new art needed to be autonomous. It should stand on its own like nature rather than copying the world around it. The sculptor Naum Gabo and his brother Antoine Pevsner participated in this revolutionary moment and disseminated Constructivist ideas in the West.

This exhibition presents a survey of abstract and nonobjective sculpture from the 1920s to the 1970s drawn from the collection of The Baltimore Museum of Art and from local and national lenders. It includes non-objective works by Gabo, Pevsner, Hans Arp and Louise Nevelson, among others. It also features sculptures by Julio Gonzalez and Henry Moore, who developed abstract idioms without fully abandoning the figure. Finally, a range of figurative and non-figurative works by David Smith examine his move toward abstraction and early use of metal welding.

David Smith began his artistic career by taking painting classes at the Art Students League of New York in 1927. He studied European modernist art and befriended artists including John Graham, Arshile Gorky, Willem de Kooning, and other future leaders of Abstract Expressionism. In 1932, he began to make sculpture using painted wood, plaster, and found objects. These early works, which he called “constructions,” were attempts to translate the Cubist collage aesthetic into three dimensions. The following year, he discovered illustrations of welded iron sculptures by Pablo Picasso and Julio Gonzalez in the French art journal Cahiers d’Art. Inspired by this example and drawing on his experience as a welder at a car assembly plant, Smith began producing his own welded metal sculptures in 1933.

His earliest foray into this radical new form of sculpture included four heads. Two of them, Chain Head and Head with Cogs for Eyes, are reunited in this exhibition.

Over the next decades, Smith produced an astonishing body of work as he explored the expressive potential of welded metal. Increasingly, the representational elements that link his early works to the human figure disappear or become sublimated within Smith’s private vocabulary of form. Such is the case with the gyrating abstraction Arc-Wing (1951).

Smith advocated enthusiastically in favor of abstraction, which for him encompassed psychological concerns of Surrealism and represented “the language of our time.” In a public lecture from 1940 he observed: “A great abstract work is like a dream. It presents beauty or its associate imagination. It does not interpret itself. The dream. . . is the product of both the conscious and unconscious factors of the mind.”

Baltimore Museum of Art | Hans Arp | Naum Gabo | Julio Gonzalez | David Smith |

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