At “Cubes and Anarchy” at the Whitney, learning to see the art, rather than the legend, of David Smith
Here on Lake George, there are more stories about David Smith than examples of his work.
To be sure, those stories are entertaining, and they may even be illuminating; we’ll find out if that’s the case when a forthcoming biography by Michael Brenson, who interviewed local residents in the course of his research, is finally published.
Smith moved to Bolton Landing in 1940 and, for a flatlander, was accepted quickly by the small year-round community, despite rather than because of his obscure activity on the hill. After Smith’s death in 1965, his reputation as America’s greatest sculptor universally acknowledged, Bolton folks liked to boast they couldn’t make head or tail of his work, and didn’t care to. (A perverse boast, if ever there was one.)
Locally, Smith’s legend still looms large, so much so that it sometimes seems to overshadow his singular, epic achievement as an artist. That’s not entirely our fault. To see the work he created and installed in the hills above Bolton Landing, local residents must travel farther afield, to cities with major museums and galleries. (The last major exhibition of Smith’s work in this area was in 1973, when The Hyde Collection mounted “David Smith of Bolton Landing: Sculpture and Drawings.”) And except on rare occasions, the work will be displayed in ways that make it difficult for us to see it as Smith intended us to. “I want you to travel, by perception, the path I traveled in creating it,” he once wrote. To truly follow that path, we would first have to travel back in time and view the works displayed in groups, against the landscape, as they were in Bolton in the 50s and 60s. At the very least, it’s helpful to see a piece in relation to others. The power of Smith’s work is, in part, cumulative. There’s so much, and so much that’s different from anything else. And yet every piece seems flawless and somehow perfectly realized.
“David Smith: A Centennial,” at the Guggenheim in 2006 was an opportunity to comprehend the magnitude of Smith’s achievement through one exhibition, an opportunity not likely to come again in our lifetimes. But for some reason, the curators of that survey all but ignored (some might say snubbed) the stainless steel sculptures of the 50s and 60s.
The new show at the Whitney, “David Smith: Cubes and Anarchy,” will, perhaps, lead critics to re-assess those astounding creations.
This show, which originated at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, includes the largest grouping of Smith’s late, stainless steel Cubi to be assembled in one place in decades. The curators of “Cubes and Anarchy” want us to see these pieces in relation to Smith’s other work; the Cubi and the kindred, painted steel sculptures from the Zig series, are surrounded by sculptures from other series as well as drawings, paintings, and photographs.
As soon as the elevator door opens onto the gallery, we are met by two stainless steel pieces, “Lectern Sentinel” and “Untitled (Candida)”. “Cubi V” has also been installed in this room, along with related spray paintings and the painted, steel “Circle III.”
Although each Cubus may weigh as much as a ton, they look remarkably weightless, or “buoyant,” as his daughter Rebecca has remarked.
Out of doors, where they were originally placed, they might even appear to be an aspect of nature, their polished surfaces changing as the light in the sky changes.
The stainless steel pieces are also less massive than you might expect. Printed on this page is a photograph of “Untitled (Candida)” which Walt Grishkot shot for the catalogue of The Hyde’s 1973 exhibition. It’s an example of how intimidating Smith’s sculptures can appear in photographs, especially when shot from below. (Grishkot may have been following Smith’s own example when he photographed the sculptures from below. The famous photograph of “Cubi I”, in which it appears to tower in the sky and loom over the viewer, was taken by Smith himself. Why did Smith photograph the stainless steel sculptures from that angle? If I were to hazard a guess, I’d say that he was trying to emphasize the fluid relationship between the sculpture and the sky, a relationship that might be missed in a gallery. The photographs that he shot with his eye level to the sculptures, on the other hand, emphasize the relationship between the sculpture and the landscape. )
“Cubes and Anarchy” is a good place to start learning to see David Smith; and I’m referring to the art, not the local legend.
Smith himself is probably the best teacher. “The sculpture possesses nothing unknown to you,” he once wrote. Perhaps. We cannot see the world as he saw it, but by learning to look at his sculptures as closely as we can, we begin to apprehend what it might be like to shut up, look up and see. That, to my mind, is David Smith’s great gift to his fellow residents of Warren County, and it’s a more valuable one than a barroom full of stories.
“David Smith: Cubes and Anarchy,” through Jan 8 at the Whitney Museum of American Art, 945 Madison Avenue at 75th Street, New York, NY.