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DEC 22–JAN 23

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DEC 22–JAN 23 Issue

Michael Brenson’s David Smith: The Art and Life of a Transformative Sculptor

Michael Brenson
David Smith: The Art and Life of a Transformative Sculptor
(Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2022)

Some of us love David Smith, arguably our preeminent postwar American sculptor. Not that we know him. We know David Smith by David Smith, a near-indelible self-portrait, cut and pasted by his friends shortly after his death, from Smith’s own notes, lecture texts, and unsurpassed photos of his own work. It looks like cinema and reads as if broadcast live from Bolton Landing, the artist slouched in his Lazy Boy, cigar smoke curling, looking over his pieces as they single-file down the fields, freewheeling out loud over everything. The voice is recklessly confessional, but the story he tells is true only to his persona. Less than half the whole story, or the truth.

At his sudden death at fifty-nine in his truck, May 1965, the stuff on his desk was the book all but written—of course it was: his one subject, lifelong, was himself. Every waking morning Smith stepped out on his terrace (before dressing) and bellowed at, or to the skies. His barbaric yawp was an unanswerable question. As was his best work, piece after piece after piece, asking Who am I? This one? Or him? Or this?

If you love Smith, as I do, you love a boy trying to be man of the house. He belongs to the young, swinging a door to an untouched new world, always morning, all possibility—for artists, only. He insists bravely, even in the face of no opposition at all, on artists’ rights, prerogatives, privileges, and needs—as he believes them usurped and denied by critics, historians, curators, administrators and assorted fastidious snobs. And he clarion-calls on other artists to vow themselves to their art so exclusively as to either make or ruin a life—or both—as he did his own.

For fifty-four years David Smith by David Smith stood in for his life. Practically every Smith publication since, whatever its business, has been little more than a cutting of some length convenient to the task. The only alternative to the book was his works. The two are at some variance.

David Smith, ca. 1954. Photographer unknown. The Estate of David Smith, New York © 2022. The Estate of David Smith / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.
David Smith, ca. 1954. Photographer unknown. The Estate of David Smith, New York © 2022. The Estate of David Smith / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.

Gutsy persona notwithstanding, his works are remarkable for their delicacy—in every kind of facture, their modesty in scale (often smaller than one expects, or remembers), and their emotional tone. They aren’t ever loud, or ever simple. Even his most straightforward pieces casually claim mutually contradictory feelings and occupy an artistic position or two, often someone else’s—his originality is ravenous. Though coquettishly self-involved, he has no vanity in acknowledging grotesqueries of his own person, as well as implicitly personal limits, failings and existential error, about which he is by reflex self-deprecating, and funny. Let’s just put Cubi XXI (1964) opposite Lysippos’ Farnese Hercules, leaning on his club for a well-deserved rest. The stainless Cubi is no figure, but nevertheless another hero, this self-important lounger just one moment from an imminent topple. It’s big, and the subject would be bigness of some big kind, but the humor is light—if one hasn’t chuckled with it, one hasn’t seen the thing, and met the artist. Why is it so curiously affecting? Because everything about it is an urgent and contingent matter of person. Smith’s person is at risk here, and somehow it always will be. Fifty-eight years on, his work still seems to happen before our eyes, and no one can know how it will turn out.

Whatever his ostensible subject, Smith’s tone is often rueful, always tender and frequently sad. He was neither as boldly extroverted nor as plainly declarative as his persona proposed to be. He had things to hide, but helplessly compelled to expose himself—which he obviously enjoyed doing, he became a master of self-dissimulation. He might have said I belong with the poets, rather than the painters. His iron-working life is better analogous to Wallace Stevens on the page, than to Hemingway (whom he admired) or any of his Ab Ex colleagues, in the arena. Smith delighted in all-but literary games of rhetorical gesture and signage that undermined his own self-importance via outrageous visual puns and ludicrous reversals of size and scale. “Minor” gambits of antithesis and inversion are the means of major achievement in his later work. The conspicuous effervescence of many “Voltri” (1962), the “Voltri-Boltons” (1962–63), and even plenty of “Cubi” (1961–65) is a high state of playfulness. They were more serious when I was a kid. They get funnier every year.

Smith craved attention, but he was just not all that interested in the great themes, nor the big statements that were making great careers all around him, in the first fulness of our celebrity civilisation. The slippery little matter of his own identity was theme enough. Would he ever have looked beyond it, to an interest in the Human Condition? Who knows, first things first, but he might have come around to it, eventually.

He proclaimed Identity so hard that he practically demanded a biography by someone else. He might have been rather looking forward to it. Lucky Smith, he gets Michael Brenson’s David Smith, the Art and Life of a Transformational Sculptor, a life that opens paths to his art. It is that way around—some may complain that this Vita is not led by his art, but thanks to Smith himself, implacable biography had to come first. His persona had stood, boorishly, really, between us and his art, but attending his work, one heard his cigar-enriched velvety whisper, as if at a half-open door … there’s more. This is our chance. We want the rest, whatever it is, come what may.

So Brenson’s Life had to be a vast labor of inclusion. Twenty years in the making, a mere 732 pages, with almost one hundred pages of notes, from what legend has it was a typescript twice that size. A more or less authorised biography—Smith’s daughters opened every avenue and must have decided with him that their father’s life, very far from a pretty story, is in fact necessary to his achievement. Deprived of his errors, he would be a lesser artist. To a degree unusual even among artists, Smith’s character and destiny, work and life are one thing.

Starting with Bolton Landing itself (Smith’s Adirondack home/studio for thirty-six years, 1929–1965), Brenson has seen and read and heard everything, including, crucially, a long round of last best oral interviews with witnesses never to speak out again. No one will ever know more than Brenson does now. The story would begin with an out-of-towner hurrying to fill up and fit in as quickly as he can—but Smith (b. 1906, Decatur, Indiana) was no ordinary Hoosier. Generation by generation previous, a terrible warp was cut into his fabric. His inner life was already uncertain and dangerous at birth.

His biographer’s task little less so. This artist’s life stares back at the would-be biographer, like a gorgon. The author turned a mirror on it. The tale is made to tell itself, witness by witness, snapped off in an unblinking chain of hard short chapters, almost voice by voice. By conscientious decision, maybe a matter of self-preservation, Brenson is a laconic guide rather than interpreter and thankfully, no explainer.

The style is mostly plain, but the narrative contains many revelations, some set-pieced, most fallen casually, like knots in a string, zig-zagging into a labyrinth. Revelation-zero, well behind Smith’s birth, is a fire-lit ancestor story out of Plutarch, or Aeschylus. Smith was tickled with his notional self-made, self-reliant “pioneer” origin, but left not a single surviving word about his grandfather David Stoler, his namesake, whom he knew, and whose character uncannily prefigured his own. It seems Smith’s talismanic physical energy, his sexual appetite, and grasping material possessiveness, his Odyssean detours to falsehood and fraud were Stolher’s hair-raising unfinished business, revisiting Smith marriage by marriage, crisis by crisis like the pre-dawn apparition in Brutus’s tent. Stoler’s daughter Golda tried mightily to curtail the legacy by inverting it, and her son, whom she intended for a schoolteacher, or a secretary.

The boy-Smith seems a brainy silent Huck, sans Pap, faced off against his strait-laced Pillar of Sunday (1945), with a bible. Boy-Smith has to get away. He needs us, as the man-Smith always would, but boy-Smith had yet to feel sorry for himself. The child/father to this man is a quiet hero concealed within the self-assertive bluster, ringing ever more hollow, of the artist to come. The artist never shuts up, except to work. Always complaining, always demonstrating. Here I am, here I am. Look at me, look at me. We call that charisma. One can live without it. I’m hungry for Smith, but I can’t read David Smith by David Smith anymore, can you?

Post-Indiana, the essential event of Smith’s youth is his marriage to Dorothy Dehner. Just arrived in New York, his landlady said “I have another artist,” so he knocked on Dorothy’s door. Smith, twenty years old, love at first sight, they mated for life. Dehner, heroine, whom Smith blamed for her infertility, and eventually drove away in a hail of abuse, all but bore the Smith we know. His long foreground of industrious youth and middle age, their friendships, travel, all their various making ends meet, and buying their hardscrabble “farm” in Bolton Landing, were done as one.

David Smith became our David Smith well into his middle age, hardly recognising when he had passed that bar. Edward Fry noted that before 1950, Smith had been a minor and even arty artist. Australia (1951) is the hinge in Smith’s working life, and the biography—the style races here, and as it does work by work, exemplary pieces are quoted as if witnesses to the action. A skyborne glyph, well larger in scale than in actual size (over ten feet in length, supported once, midway), Australia hangs in the sky like a transparent brushstroke, utterly fictive, a formidably physical but visually see-through image. It stands alone even among all the other spectral sculpture of the fifties, for bony psychic realness, elastic grace, and menace. In Smith’s oeuvre, it is scarcely followed-up, and never surpassed.

The insubstantiality so wonderfully conquered by Australia is for Smith a means of possession. Having snatched the emptiness of Picasso’s Apollinaire monument, he was ever after a hewer of transparency. Smith had a peculiar native horror of the round, and opacity—one could infer he was afraid of something. He preferred open space to closed surfaces, automatically, even compulsively posing voids for solids, enclosing space by little more than racing lines, artfully forged in varying section, inhaling and exhaling diameter—like the singing cursive of Blackburn: Song of an Irish Blacksmith (1949–1950). He implies wholes by parts, and posits presence by absence. Mass vanishes and leaves only a sign. There, Smith comes to himself.

He would say “I belong with the painters” because he had suborned painting conventions (mostly cubist) to get a sculpture as much suggested as existent, more collage than enclosure, more cutout and contiguous than ronde-bosse, and more propositional than fixed, or defined. Yet Smith has a tangibility all his own: even with no substantial mass (that dirty word) to speak of, he retained a luscious modelling-effect—even his merest tack welds are things in themselves. But day by passing day, Smith drove at every available means of intangibility. His allusive, metaphor and simile-rich pictoriality—harmonic, rhythmic and tonal (mostly minor keys) approaches the holy grail of visual art—the condition of music. He is surely the least literal and most musical of American sculptors, next to Saint-Gaudens. And the least Greenbergian.

In the chapters that follow Australia and the demise of the Smith-Dehner partnership, work and life run neck and neck. He had one more marriage to go—another disaster. This time a younger woman, a former student, a rush job. Our hero feigned a fatal illness to clinch the deal. But Jean Freas, a generation younger than Dorothy, gave as hard, maybe harder than she got. Five years later, in 1958, she got out in one piece, with the girls.

Smith, however, simply could not be alone. He gloried in solitude, when he could take it. It seems so him—living for himself, work first and only, all day, into the night, alone in the snowed-in darkness of the mountains. With the house just up the hill, a shower, desk, books, cigars, Courvoisier, and maybe a few hours of drawing—could it ever have been better than that? Or worse?

Post-Jean and before sixty, Smith felt his age keenly but no emotional gravity came with it. Nothing like a kid anymore, he suffered a near-infantile need for company. His obvious desperation troubled friends. He spent uncounted hours on the phone to New York, bending ears, and by this book he is known to have proposed to a half dozen women, all ages—after his second marriage, including re-proposing to Dorothy. There were obviously even more pleas unreported, plus his casual propositions, the on/off relationships, and the prostitutes.

His work became company that didn’t talk back. Frank O’Hara got that—their televised interview (1964) closes with the matchup between man and made. Intrigued by the one-sided confrontation, O’Hara asked “what are they?” Smith leapt to “Well, they’re all girls, Frank.” “Really?” O’Hara chuckled, but Smith’s sense, speaking poet to poet in their own language, came out to “They become kind-of personages. And sometimes they point out to me that I should have been better or bigger. And, mostly, they tell me that I should have done that ten years before—or twenty years before.” The gender puzzle really isn’t hard to figure— Smith was not to be baited by the guys but was content to be accused and scolded, teased and giggled over by his work, in the voice of mother, wives and daughters—“girls” only, if he could help it.

O’Hara said Smith’s work were charms against “catastrophe” which if failing, would enact a “sinking beneath it in a grand way.” Apotropaic charms, sure, but I don’t agree that such “makes, as with the Greeks, Smith’s… a tragic art.” His project was perilously self-centered, and fraught, but having outlasted David Smith by David Smith, I say his was not a tragic muse, Smith’s is decidedly not a grand art, and for all his troubled darkness, it’s rarely a night art, either.

His waking life was a lover’s embrace. The freshness of morning in the mountains is in all his work, waking to the relentless combat, Smith versus Smith, that he didn’t lose but could not win. His was a hero’s life and his work is an elegy that smiles at itself—I won’t ever be done with this. Here we go again… me, me and me.


Brandt Junceau

Brandt Junceau is a sculptor, currently teaching at the New York Studio School. Instagram: @brandtjunceau 


The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 22–JAN 23

All Issues