A Renaissance man creates alchemy with paint and steel


David Smith was a Renaissance man: brash sculptor, audacious painter, passionate lecturer. In his early twenties, he riveted Studebakers on an assembly line; later, in art school, he was amazed to discover that the Cubists had begun working in steel, using what he called “the material and machines that had previously meant only labor and earning power.” In his late thirties, already an important American sculptor, he worked welding M7 tanks in a defense plant, his contribution to the downfall of the Axis.

Smith’s insight into European modernism, his grasp of the long traditions from which it emerged, and his blue-collar American ethos combined to bring forth an alchemy of metal and paint. He would lay slabs of steel on the floor, “toeing in” his elements, composing the way a painter blocks in a charcoal sketch. Studio detritus arranged on paper became makeshift stencils, which Smith spray-painted, leaving behind atmospheric studies for his sculptures. Along with altered photos, calligraphic ink drawings, and sculpture, the Gagosian show exhibits a number of these sfumato images. A Renaissance term for blurring contours—literally, “turned to vapor”—sfumato is that mysterious, eternal moment where the Mona Lisa’s figure morphs imperceptibly into hazy landscape. Smith masterfully traverses this realm between dimensions: The white shapes left by his stencils fill a 17-inch spray drawing with voluminous geometries that become the soaring struts and wedges of a 16-foot brushed-steel sculpture. Immediate as graffiti, these works resonate with more recent art—Terry Winters’s slathered grids and Sigmar Polke’s ethereal spray-paintings of guard towers spring to mind.

The beautiful ambiguities manifest in this mini-retrospective bear out Smith’s own view of his art: “This work is my identity. . . . why should you expect understanding when I do not?”