“I declare the sculpture’s value to be only its weight of sixty pounds of scrap metal.” That’s how the American abstract expressionist David Smith disavowed one of his works in 1960 after learning that his dealer, Leo Castelli, had stripped it of its paint to suit the tastes of a collector. Smith was rightfully livid: What right did Castelli have to change the piece once it had left the studio?
The episode would haunt Smith’s work even after his death in 1965. By the 1970s, an executor of his estate, the art critic Clement Greenberg, had five more sculptures stripped. Three of them, Primo Piano III, Circle and Box, and an untitled work, all since repainted, are now on show in the exhibition “David Smith: The White Sculptures” at the Storm King Art Center.
Greenberg’s defense, when he was discovered, was that the paint was only primer and that the works were unfinished. But it was clear that he preferred sculptures that did not hide their materiality. He was simply more drawn to Smith’s raw, metal pieces, which he felt were more truthful to their media.
The works now sit at the top of a short but serious hill just next to the sculpture park’s museum. One of them, Primo Piano III, is part of a trio that no one — not even Smith — has ever before seen together. All three in the group (Primo Piano I, Primo Piano II, and Primo Piano III) were made in 1962. But Smith, who kept them until his death, elected to separate them, putting only one within eyesight of his studio at Bolton Landing, the hamlet seventy miles north of Albany where he lived and worked. He kept the others in a field he would walk past regularly.
At Storm King, it’s clear why he needed them apart. For one thing, they’re enormous. The most striking of the group, Primo Piano II, clocks in at more than seven feet tall and more than thirteen feet across, so that the painted white work stands out like a radiating beacon against the park’s verdant foliage. The other sculptures, also white, are just as vibrant, and they gently vie for space, even when there is so much of it. They are perfectly titled — in Italian, primo piano means “center stage” or “foreground” — and each has large circular shapes, rectangular sheets, and curved metal panels that stand out like semaphores. For the artist, they could signal clearly when apart.
The exhibition is a revelation. It is the first to focus extensively on Smith’s interest in the color white, and includes black-and-white photographs by Smith of his own work, a small group of his abstract paintings, and two of his first sculptures, which he made to look like little men out of small handfuls of white coral in 1931 to ’32.
Smith was born in 1906 in Decatur, Indiana, and moved to New York twenty years later. After the war, he became close with artists like Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Mark Rothko, and like them was labeled an abstract expressionist. Greenberg was one of his earliest supporters; in 1947, the critic called Smith “the greatest sculptor this country has produced.” But collectors could be slow. A solo show in 1956 at the Willard Gallery led to no sales.
Perhaps the problem was Smith’s flexibility; he was always open to new avenues. While Pollock, de Kooning, and Rothko realized clear mature styles, Smith was always experimenting. At the same time that he was making the white works, he was carefully balancing polished stainless steel cubes and cylinders in works like Cubi XXI, from 1964, and making curious still-life sculptures like Voltron XX, from 1963, a reddish steel piece that looks like a blacksmith’s table with tools. Both works are on show from Storm King’s collection. (In New York, the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum have earlier works by Smith currently on view.)
The six white works in the show (which are largely isolated from the rest of the Storm King collection) pop vibrantly against the green landscape but are always respectful of the space — which is precisely how Smith wanted it. When he died, he left nearly 100 large-scale pieces (including eight white sculptures) dotting his property. All of them are highly artificial, man-made things, yet Smith had a sense for harmony with nature, largely because he was at heart a figurative artist, no matter how extravagant or refined his cubism became. Smith’s Portrait of a Lady Painter, a cubist sculpture that depicts its title, is just across the way from the Primo Piano works, which brings to bear how much the white works look like men holding flags in a field.
Greenberg is often faulted for advocating for abstraction over representation, but in fact, he preferred the latter. What he admired about Smith were his pictorial tendencies, which are visible at every turn of the show. In front of the white pieces, especially the repainted ones, it’s impossible not to reflect on his influence. Greenberg was one of Smith’s earliest supporters — a man without whom Smith’s work, as we know it, would not have been possible. Yet how odd the idea that if Greenberg had had his way, this exhibition would have looked quite different — wrong, even. As it stands, the opposite is true. Outside, amid the trees and greenery, on the hills of New Windsor, it is the closest we can come to seeing directly through Smith’s brilliant vision.