Saturday, March 10, 2012

David Smith's Plane Geometry

David Smith, Cubi I, 1963
Stainless steel, 124 x 34 1/2 x 33 1/2 inches. Detroit 
Institute of Arts, Founders Society Purchase, Special Purchase Fund

© The Estate of David Smith/VAGA, New York. Photo: 
David Smith, courtesy The Estate of David Smith
Most of us have seen David Smith's geometry-based sculpture at least in photographs: his perilously piled cubes with insanely shiny surfaces, giddily balanced on a dime; graceful assemblages of flat and curved steel: climbing structures for a giant's playground. Fantastical and powerful, the sculptures of this Indiana native—who sometimes earned his living as a riveter and spotwelder in a Studebaker factory—can be looming, intimate, and illogical, but they are always very friendly. 

David Smith: Cubes and Anarchy, a show organized by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, is currently visiting the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio through April 15. Smith considered himself an ally of the working man, and this show is certainly a testimony to his industrial skills and his workmanship as well as to his exuberant aesthetic invention. Aesthetes, metalworkers, and any lover of magic and illusions has to see this show, with the happy expectation of surrender to its fanciful allure.

It's great to see so much of Smith's sculpture, but it's especially wonderful to get close to each piece, to see its surfaces and to enjoy it from all angles. His sculpture always excites with its declarative geometry, balance, and interplay of positive shapes (the cut or bent metal) and negative ones (the ones that result from the spaces between the metal pieces). Why look for anything else when all this is so satisfying?

But unless we're lucky enough to see this show or to have had a life that's led us to many of Smith's works, we will know his oeuvre through catalogues and other photographic sources. Photographs of even the largest, most shapely works instill a kind of pass-over mentality that allows us to miss the other, delicious, close-up life of these works. Smith attended to details: to the surface, edges, and to the effects of the viewer's movement on the experience of every piece. Where these works are largely characterized by monolithic shapes represented in photographs, their protean, dynamic lives, lived in small details, seem to go unremarked.

David Smith. Zig III, 1961 (detail)
Painted steel
93 × 124 × 61 inches
The Estate of David Smith, New York; courtesy Gagosian Gallery
© The Estate of David Smith/VAGA, New York
Photo: Jerry L. Thompson
Any photograph of art is half-truth; art history as pictured in books is an exceedingly approximate enterprise since the images it's based on are only shades of their living counterparts. When you visit Cubes and Anarchy and stand beside Zig III, right, what actually strikes you is the painted surface. In this official photograph, if it even occurs to you that the surface is important, you must squint to find any of that drama created by dark red under-painting, roughly covered in black. 

Photographs of just eight are made available to the press from the forty-four sculptures in this show. Very strict conditions discourage attempts to take more (my best supervised efforts failed to yield anything permissible). What's more, no close-up shots are allowed, so a crucial half of the story cannot be illustrated at all: the surface surprises, and shifts between line and plane that I find so interesting in Smith's work. 

In fact, it's his "two-dimensional" sculptures that particularly strike me in this show. There are several on view. "Why," I wonder, "would a sculptor create work that is essentially two-dimensional; work in which the bases have more volume than the sculptures they support?"

Smith is the man who thought of geometric forms as the visual subject that everyone could relate to—the basis for his utopian vision of a worker-artist alliance. Cubes and Anarchy includes both sculpture and drawing, but some of the work melds the two, as in Steel Drawing I. One of my favorites, it is among the many that may not be pictured here. You can view it , however, in a wonderful picture, at the website of its home, the Hirschhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. The dimensions of Steel Drawing I are  22-1/4 x 26 x 6 inches. That 6" depth, though, is the depth of the base. The depth of the art itself—the steel plate—can't be over one-quarter inch. 

Steel Drawing I looks like a drawing, in the sense that it features marks (incisions) on a flat surface. It's tempting to think that if we laid it on paper and traced through its incisions, we would get  essentially the same drawing.

Even the Hirschhorn's photo shows us, though, that this drawing is unlike any that could be made with pencil or ink. The medium Smith uses is light traveling through three-dimensional slits. From the camera's ideal point-of-view, the regularly-cut slits do not produce lines of even width, though we can plainly see that they were cut with the same tool. The lines show many levels of brightness and darkness or, stated differently, they appear as lines of various widths. Our binary vision prevents our seeing all the lines in the same way: Look at that frontal photograph and you will not see a series of identical black lines as you would see on a sheet of paper, executed with pencil or pen.

The appearance of those lines will change, moreover, as we change our position relative to them. Sculptures—even flat ones—are to be examined in the round. Every motion we make changes the aspect of each mark and the whole design on Steel Drawing I. It's like walking past vertical blinds. The landscape we see between the slats may not change much as we cover a small distance, but our perceptions of the width and brightness of the slats will change greatly, step by step.


#2, moving right

#3, moving right
A Drawing with slits in steel makes us think about sculpture in a new way. Sculptors are always fine draftsmen. How does sculpture arise  from drawing? Does it ever leave drawing behind? From Smith, the sculptor of geometry, shouldn't we expect investigation of planes in reality, not only in concepts? After all, when we investigate Steel Drawing from all sides and get to the vantage point of either end, then we see not a plane at all, but: a line!

Wexner Center for the Arts, cover of calendar for March/April 2012,
featuring David Smith's 
Untitled (Candida), 1965,
stainless steel, 103 x 120 x 31 inches,  The Estate of David Smith.
Smith's magnificent Untitled (Candida) is featured on the current Wexner calendar in its handsome installation that takes advantage of the gallery's own geometry. This work continues the investigation of the two-dimensional—planes and lines—as sculpture. Again, the 31 reported inches of its depth refers to its base; seen from the edge, the soldered sheets—some to the left and some to the right of the upright—can be no more than one and half inches. Viewed from the edge, it is a line that wobbles in and out, composed, what's more, of foreground and background since it includes the  edge close to the viewer yet contains the edge of the other side, which distance makes appear less focused. (Alas, no photograph of this is possible: Be sure to notice this when you go!)

I think that Smith expected us to look at that never-photographed view because it's one more of the several ways this sculpture plays with the margin of flatness and depth. Not only is the linear edge a wobble of fused planes at two focal distances, but from the classic position, above, the sculpture forms a frame at the perfect height for looking through; it's a sort of of hole in the wall at a construction site. We look through the flat sculpture to a pop-up world of three dimensions. 
David Smith: Cubes and Anarchy at the Wexner Center for the Arts, 
The Ohio State University, 2012
Photo: Mark Steele Photography
The surface here, and in so many of Smith's work, is brushed stainless steel that is both directionally scored underneath and then brushed with the energetic loops and swooshes. That surface treatment, along with shapes energized by acute angles and directional feel, makes it difficult for us to experience this as "flat." In fact, in a wonderful observation, a friend who saw this show with me said that the surface is like a hologram. This is the perfect comparison for a work that shifts dimension depending on how you approach it—from what angle, what distance, or at what speed you move around it. Large and four-square, it is a mercurial work that plays with our understanding of sculpture as a three-dimensional art form, and suggests that we consider three dimensions both as real space and as illusion.

David Smith: Cubes and Anarchy at the Wexner Center for the Arts, The Ohio State University, 2012
Photo: Mark Steele Photography
David Smith: Cubes and Anarchy at the Wexner Center for the Arts, 
The Ohio State University, 2012
Photo: Mark Steele Photography
The whimsical Circle IV seems like a geometry project gone wrong, or a middle-school shop project that gets a failing grade. It's a painted circle on a curved base, split vertically in the same plane by a wedge, which is itself split at ninety degrees by a rectangle. Each element is flat, a plane.

"David Smith: Cubes and Anarchy," installation view of exhibition
 at Whitney Museum of American Art until January 8, 2011.
 Left to right: Tanktotem VII, 1960, Construction in Rectangles, and Circle IV, 1962
(all: painted steel). Photograph by Jerry L. Thompson
From Indiana University Library website.
This is another work which seems to be photographed perennially from the same view; some close-ups from a past show at the Gagosian Gallery help with the orientation and detail. New York Social Diary presents last fall's installation of this show at the Whitney. You can find a rare photo of the opposite side of Circle IV if you scroll about half-way  through the enviably thorough documentation of the show (clearly made under a less strict set of rules than prevail in the provinces).

Circle IV, so logical-seeming in its assemblage of bold. basic geometrical forms, is in fact anything but. Starting from the base, it's clear that the two bases do not sit on the same line, but go off on different trajectories. When we look at the line that "bisects" the red and white halves of the circle, we see that it's not a straight line, but a curved one. It's easy to see up close that the explanation for this is that we have here not one circle, but the halves of two, the red being larger than the white. The rectangle at the top is not evenly balanced, nor does it sit parallel to the base. Where colors meet, where they are overlaid, the painting is rough, casual almost. So where the sculpture appears from a distance to be all balance and symmetry, up close, it is not: it is perilous bravado, a tease of flat forms that dissolve into lines and reemerge, reshaped by the angles at which we approach them in our tour of its flat and linear three-dimensions. This photo of the Whitney Museum installation from the Indiana University Library, though distant from the piece, gives an idea of the way the sculpture "disappears" when the circle is viewed from its edge.

I wish I could find simpler and more elegant language to describe my perceptions with, and I certainly wish I had pictures that could take the pressure off of language. Most of all, I hope as many people as possible will take advantage of the chance to see this show. Approach it as a magic show, as a show wherein disciplined sleights of hand create beauty, wonder, and a lot of fun.


  1. Thanks for review, it was excellent and very informative.
    thank you :)


  2. Thank you for the information, and this is very helpful for me.David Smith