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American Master David Smith Featured in Exhibition at the Phillips Collection in Washington
David Smith. Untitled, 1950. Black and yellow egg ink and green ink on paper. Baltimore Museum of Art, Gift of Edward Tuck, New York. © Estate of David Smith/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

WASHINGTON, DC.- This winter, The Phillips Collection showcases the work of modern master David Smith (1906–1965). The exhibition shines a spotlight on a pivotal moment in the artist’s illustrious career, revealing the evolution of his personal aesthetic. The exhibition remains on view through May 15.

David Smith is widely considered one of the most important American sculptors of the 20th century. He was the first American to make welded steel sculpture, infusing this industrial material with a fluidity and imaginative creativity that is at once beautiful and muscular. In doing so he transformed the nature of sculpture in America and won for sculpture the respect in American art previously reserved for painting.

David Smith Invents, the first exhibition in Washington of the artist’s work in more than 25 years, explores Smith’s creative process from the early 1950s into the early 1960s through 39 works. Featuring six sculptures, the exhibition takes its inspiration from Smith’s welded steel Bouquet of Concaves (1959), a recent gift to the Phillips. This work is shown for the first time with Smith’s Bouquet of Concaves II (1960) and Black Concaves (1960), a group which Smith saw as seminal experiments with, in his words, the mystery of concave and convex. These sculptures are displayed with works on paper and paintings from the same period. In addition, the exhibition showcases the artist’s own photographs of these sculptures on his property in the Adirondack Mountains near Lake George, N.Y., revealing how Smith invested them with new meaning by placing them in the natural landscape. The exhibition highlights how Smith, working in a variety of media, explored ideas over time in both two and three dimensions.

Smith grew up in Indiana, the son of an engineer, and from an early age was enthralled by trains and railroads. By age 19, he worked as a welder and riveter in a car factory, an experience that would later influence his work as he tried to capture the spirit of America’s transition from a rural society to an industrial one. He ran his studio like a factory, stocked with large amounts of raw material. On steel as a medium, he said: “What it can do in arriving at form economically, no other material can do. The metal itself possesses little art history. What associations it possesses are those of this century: power, structure, movement, progress, suspension, destruction and brutality.”

The 1950s marked an extraordinarily fertile period for Smith. After working on an assembly line welding locomotives and tanks during World War II, Smith received a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship in 1950 that enabled him to devote himself to his sculpture full time. His engagement with steel, bronze, oil paint, commercial aerosol spray enamel, ink, and tempera allowed ideas and images to follow from one medium to another. He once said, “In my own case, I don’t know whether I make some pieces as painted sculpture or paintings in form.”

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