Methods and Materials: Yale publishes new book on artist David Smith

Yale University Press has published David Smith Invents, the first book to focus on American Abstract Expressionist artist David Smith’s works from the 1950s, explaining the methods and materials used in the creation of his signature large-scale, geometric sculptures, as well as his paintings, drawings and photographs.

Abstract Expressionist artist David Smith (1906-1965) was one of the most important American sculptors of the 20th century, best known for creating large steel abstract geometric sculptures. Characterised by the use of industrial materials, especially welded iron and steel, his work revolutionised the art of sculpture in the United States and beyond. His most famous work is probably Cubi XXVIII, the last of his Cubi series of large metal sculptures, which became the most expensive work of contemporary art ever sold at auction, selling for $23.8 million at Sotheby’s.

Cubi XXVIII

Cubi XXVIII

Tanktotem III, 1953

Tanktotem III, 1953

Smith grew up in Indiana, the son of an engineer, and from an early age was enthralled by trains and railroads. Whe he was 19 he worked as a welder and riveter in a car factory, developing a deep respect for iron and steel. Growing up during America’s transition from a rural and agricultural society to an urban and industrial one, Smith aimed to capture this new age of mechanisation with his work, believing that artists should embrace industrial materials and techniques.

Early in his career, Smith was influenced by the work of European sculptors such as Pablo Picasso, Julio González and Alberto Giacometti, assimilating some of their techniques into American sculpture for the first time. By the early 1950s he had developed his own unique vision, which he pursued for nearly 15 years.  Among the most famous examples of Smith’s endeavours from this period are his steel sculptures of monumental scale-like his series Tank Totems, open, personage-like forms welded from steel tanks and pipes bought by the railcar load as industrial waste. It is this period which Susan Behrends Frank focuses on in her book David Smith Invents.

Frank’s book opens a window onto the unusual working process employed by Smith, who was once a welder on an automobile production line. In spite of his industrial methods and materials, his works blurred the boundaries between sculpture, painting, and drawing, and his sculptures during this period were created in a pictorial fashion, in a single plane. One of his practices was to draw a white rectangle on the floor and position the metal parts of his sculpture within its boundaries. Featured throughout the book are extraordinary photographs taken by Smith of his sculptures, along with an enlightening essay on the photos by Sarah Hamill. Peter Stevens discusses Smith’s materials and surfaces.

Pages from 'David Smith Invents'

Pages from 'David Smith Invents'

About the Authors
Susan Behrends Frank is the Associate Curator for Research at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. Sarah Hamill is Assistant Professor of Modern and Contemporary Art, Oberlin College. Peter Stevens is Executive Director of the Estate of David Smith.

 David Smith Invents is available now from Yale University Press

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