Modernism Found

David Smith's "Study for Tanktotems" (1952), top, and "Beach Scene" (1949)

The sculptor David Smith once declared that "the truly creative artist deals with vulgarity." In that statement of heroic debasement, one hears Smith's booming, stentorian voice summoning forth a new age of epic abstract form at midcentury. His words were spoken on the defensive and fired at a Massachusetts audience trying to get an understanding of his gangling snarls and stout masses of steel form. Smith's improvisational sculpture, made of fused steel scraps, was part of a broader avant-garde wave storming forth; new American art would never again be the stuff of a pretty-pretty, genteel European academic past. Nor would it perform social and political pandering. While indeed an antidote to the social realism of the 1930s, both here and abroad, non-objective art was also a bulwark against the propagandistic imagery of the Soviet Union in the Cold War present. Smith believed himself to be a rebel with a cause. "The artist deserves to be belligerent to the majority," he warned New Englanders, letting them know that if they didn't like what he made, that was their problem. A Marlon Brando with a welding torch and leather apron instead of motorcycle and chaps, Smith reinforced that "masterpieces are made today."

It wouldn't be long, though, for such radicalism to become normative and for Smith to shift from standard breaker to bearer. Just as he fortified himself as something of a forlorn outsider, his fringe position as an artist was on the decline. Smith inched his way toward art-world centrality. By that point his currency had been on the rise for more than a decade, with no less than Clement Greenberg declaring him, along with Jackson Pollock, the most important artist of the era. By the late 1960s, the one-time rebel-dissident had become canonical: The conceptualist and earth-work artist Robert Morris, in fact, dubbed him "the greatest American sculptor." It is to this version of Smith--the artist as brave man, stalwart inventor and genius--that David Smith: Drawing and Sculpting, now showing at the Nasher Sculpture Center, pays homage.

In our own moment it would seem that Smith offers little new insight. The frank integrity and seriousness of his work are worlds away from the pervasive irony of today's artistic climate. What is for so many artists today a rite of passage, engaging the mass media and popular culture, was of little interest to Smith. While because of his age we wouldn't expect him to have done much with video, we might look askance at him for not having had more interest in photography. Smith's "spray series" looks a bit like Man Ray's photograms, or what Ray called "rayographs," but they couldn't be further from such technology. Even beyond his work, there is the unwieldy if not boorish demeanor of Smith the man. His burly machismo and Cold War patriotism comes across today as unwarranted egoism. Without a doubt, his steel-toed welder's boots and cigar-hung maw are far different from today's Dolce & Gabbana-clad metrosexual--the proverbial man as style maven who exchanges one oral fixation for another in self-consciously popping Altoids instead of smoking.

Seen in this light, from the clever cyber-view of the present, Smith's work seems quaint, perhaps even obsolete. Yet it is precisely such obsolescence that makes the sculpture and works on paper by Smith so fresh. Like yesterday's surrealist found object that becomes playful and perverse because of its uselessness, his work gains a new power and profundity that is specifically borne of its out-of-fashion status. Smith's work becomes oddly enticing in its fall from hipster grace. Walking through the show at the Nasher, one rediscovers Smith's brand of modernism, and a defiant sort of novelty flickers in its antiquation. With pundits of postmodernism and smart alecks of theory having moved on to the next chic rhyme, the rest of the world's art-takers are free to consider David Smith without constraint--allowing for reverie, deliberation and sheer delight.

The show at the Nasher revisits Smith through an expansion of his oeuvre: by showing the artist's sculpture next to his drawings and paintings. The intention here is to lay bare the way in which things are never really as they seem, or that medium purity and autonomy, often touted by Greenberg himself, were but myths and tools of rhetoric. As Smith pithily put it, "Sculpture can be painting and painting can be sculpture." Though not exhaustive, the show is powerful. There are 15 sculptures and 70 drawings and paintings culled from the Nasher Collection, the Davis Smith Estate and other public and private collections.

Running chronologically, the exhibition begins in the basement gallery and continues into the first of the two galleries on the main floor. One finds downstairs Smith's surrealist-inspired drawings from the '40s interspersed with a few sculptures. The synergy among media, drawing and three-dimensional objects is altogether evident, with the totemic doodles of the ink and pencil on paper drawing "Pillar of Sunday" (1945) and an untitled series of sketches done in gouache, pen and pencil on paper of the same year coming to fruition in form both downstairs in the three-dimensional "Perfidious Albion (The British Empire)" (1945) and "The Forest" (1950) and upstairs in "Anchorhead" (1952). Similarly, the cubic forms set in relief in the untitled "sprays" in the gallery upstairs reveal Smith's process of intellectual and manual creation combined, as they were realized in full-body form in works such as "Cubi VIII" (1962) and "Cubi XVII" (1963).

The enamel-sprayed works on paper and canvas are some of the best by Smith at the Nasher. Highly suggestive of the artist's physical gesture, they nevertheless seem photogenically charged, though they are in no way photographically rendered. As actual paintings instead of photos, Smith's "sprays" are more craftlike and hands-on than Man Ray's X-ray images. Smith here deployed a process of addition and negation combined. First he sprayed paint atop various forms on a flat surface of paper or canvas. Then he removed the forms, leaving behind vestiges of shapes set in subtle relief by adjacent painterly splatter. On paper, Smith's spray works were sketches for sculptures to come. The monochromatic paint-splattered paper surfaces offer so many flat cartoonish objects for steel oddments that he would soon piece and weld together. On canvas, they are works in their own right. With "Main Prierlot" (1959) and "2 Circles on Yellow and Green" (1959), Smith ratifies this technique by realizing form in color on large canvases.

Ultimately, though, the satisfaction in this show is found outside the synergistic play among media. It's in our ability to make connections between flat drawing and corporeal sculpture but not being forced to do so. It is not only that we see the intricate junction between Smith's dainty drawings and rough-and-tumble objects, but that we are able to see and respect the objects before, after and beyond linkage. The glory of this show is in experiencing painting and sculpture separately: in scrutinizing the paint splatter and elusive white form of a "spray" here and the scrub and burnish of steel surfaces there, the whimsical flourish of inky Martian creature-species here and the precision of a welded steel seam there.

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