“Raw Color: The Circles of David Smith,” Opens at The Clark This Summer
“Raw Color: The Circles of David Smith,” the first important exhibition of the sculptor’s work to be presented in the Lake George region since a retrospective at The Hyde Collection was organized in 1973, will open at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts on July 4.
The exhibition brings together nine sculptures from the Circle series, which Smith created in Bolton Landing not long before his death in 1965. The painted steel constructions will be displayed inside and out of doors at the Stone Hill Center, built in 2008 and located on a wooded hillside above the museum.
According to the show’s curator, David Breslin, the setting was chosen because it is similar to the Bolton Landing fields where Smith created and installed the sculptures.
Smith’s intentions are difficult if not impossible to discern without taking into account the environment in which he installed the sculptures, and the relationship of one piece to one another, Breslin said.
“I sometimes think of Smith as the first installation artist,” said Breslin.” These sculptures were constructed to stand in concert with the dramatic Adirondack landscape of Bolton Landing, where he placed them in the fields surrounding his house and studio. It was important to respect that. Even in the gallery, the Circle sculptures have been installed just as they were in the fields, where the viewer could look through their open spaces toward other sculptures and to the natural surroundings.”
“It feels exactly right to show these sculptures here,” said Rebecca Smith, the sculptor’s daughter and an artist in her own right. “The big outdoor sculptures can be seen in relation to green trees and a big sky; even the works installed in the building take part in the landscape because of the wonderful design of the Stone Hill Center’s interior, which allows you to experience the outdoors even though you’re inside. I think the way the sculptures really breathe in nature — they seem to come alive in relation to living things — is a message we need to pay hear these times of climate crisis.”
According to Breslin, the Clark’s presentation is the first to assemble all five of the essential Circle sculptures since the National Gallery of Art’s exhibition in Washington, DC more than thirty years ago. The show is also a rare opportunity to see one series of the sculptor’s work in one place at one time.
“These works were meant to be seen together,” said Breslin. “They’re a family.”
For Breslin, who is the Associate Director of the Research and Academic Program at the Williams College Graduate Program in the History of Art and Associate Curator of Contemporary Projects at the Clark, ‘Raw Color: the Circles of David Smith,’ is also an opportunity to follow, visually and intellectually, Smith’s explorations of the relationships between painting and sculpture.
“I think viewers will be fascinated by the the bold, industrial paints that Smith applied to these sculptures, whose colors are unlike anything found in nature,” said Breslin. “These works not only upset our notions of Smith’s sculptures, which we tend think of as burnished steel pieces, but of sculpture itself.”
Smith’s painted sculptures “contradicted the critical consensus that sculpture and painting were different media and that an artist had to be one thing or another, that he couldn’t define himself for himself. Some of the most influential critics of the day didn’t like these pieces,” said Breslin.
At the time the Circles series were being made, “people thought only a construction like a chair or a car was meant to be painted. But David was very interested in the exchange between painting and sculpture and explored it in several aspects of his work, by brushing on paint or by making sculptures that were so front-and-back in their address that they were almost two-dimensional,” said Rebecca Smith.
“David Smith was never anything less than a risk taker, an experimenter,” said Breslin.
“In one sculpture after another, Smith made the point that sculpture could outdo painting. It could encompass painting,” writes Smith’s biographer, Michael Brenson, in an essay for the catalog that accompanies the exhibition.
Brenson also remarks that when he saw Circle series at the National Gallery in Washington, he noticed that “these sculptures were crowd pleasers. With their slicing shapes and brisk colors and their hints of obstacle courses, parades, carnivals, shooting galleries, and signalmen, children loved them. Adults, too, liked mugging for one another through the apertures.”
David Smith may not have intended the Circles to have that effect on people, or to appeal to children especially, but he no doubt came to appreciate those effects as he watched his own two young daughters interact with the pieces.
“I don’t remember my father encouraging us to play on them, but it was understood that we could do so and we did,” said Rebecca Smith. “His way was to put things out there and we could find out what we wanted to do with them. “
“Raw Color: The Circles of David Smith,” which includes three paintings related to the series, will remain on view at The Clark through October 19. For information, call (413) 458-2303.