David Smith (1906-65) drew in space. Instead of carving or constructing volumetric sculptures, he assembled small metal shapes on the floor of his studio and arranged them to create linear forms with open centers. He then welded the metal elements together into free-standing sculptures. Because of his additive, collage-like creative process, Smith produced few preparatory drawings. His works on paper are independent creations that he considered just as important as his 3-D work.
Smith’s drawings are a species of diary. Drawings preserved his ideas, even the most fleeting ones, at their most intense. After all, a sculpture takes a long time to build, “I am content to leave hundreds of sculptures in drawings which time, cost, and conceptual change have passed by,” Smith once said. Many sculptors fight gravity as they work by propping up parts of a piece to see how it looks. Smith overcame this by working on the floor, also by testing ideas in drawings.
Chronology means little in understanding Smith’s drawings because he did not make bodies of them that indicate expressive development. He drew what was on his mind at the moment and his works on paper show a variety of influences. Among these are Pablo Picasso and Julio Gonzalez whose work he saw in 1935-36 when he visited Europe. Other influences include Andre Masson’s automatic drawings, Surrealism, and Arshile Gorky and Willem de Kooning, whom he knew in New York.
Russell Bowman Art Advisory is exhibiting 24 works on paper by Smith until early January. The works range in date from 1931, when Smith spent a year in the Virgin Islands, to 1963, when he was internationally known. All were made with a brush or pen in ink, egg ink, gouache, oil, tempera, or spray enamel. Most are untitled and signed with the Greek letters delta and sigma for David Smith.
Untitled (1952, above) is a loose, network-like image in blue ink that suggests vines or landscape forms. Smith brushed curving, intersecting lines of varying thickness onto the paper. The lines are translucent with traces of Smith’s brush strokes, which gives them a texture and makes them seem to move.
Untitled (1958, above), in black ink on paper, shows abstract sculptures at left and right with two totem-like figures standing between them. The sculptures look like pieces that Smith could have made and this drawing may preserve his ideas for works that he never had time or money to build.
Untitled (1961, above and at top) is one of the most sculptural drawings in the show. Smith laid objects on the paper and sprayed on enamel from several angles, producing a slightly blurred sculptural image in reverse that recalls the photograms of Lázló Moholy-Nagy. Smith uses four colors of spray paint—bronze, white, dark blue, and pale blue—in differing densities to produce a very active image.
"David Smith: Works on Paper" is one of the best shows of the season, truly a holiday gift. See it slowly. Then go back to see it again.
--Victor M. Cassidy
(all images courtesy of Russell Bowman Art Advisory)