David Smith, Welded

Inside the Art Market: David Smith, Welded

Smith’s most conspicuous trait was a furious, passionate, even violent energy. His capacity for sustained hard physical labor was astonishing.

—Garnett McCoy

Gazing out my fifth floor window at the University Club in Chicago, through the leaded panes and across the street to the sculpture park below on the grounds of the Art Institute, I can’t help noticing one work in particular, though far off. It’s Cubi VII (1963) by David Smith, mammoth and dazzling in stainless steel.

Walking along Michigan Avenue and taking in the façade of the museum, with the names of Leonardo, Canaletto, Giotto and other famous artists through the centuries etched into the stone high up near the roofline, one senses the scope and grandeur of the art that lies within this hulking, neo-classical fortress. Cubi VII is thus like a teaser for the Art Institute and its vast, diverse riches. But tucked away in the park in the shadow of the museum it also seems an apt, if unintended, metaphor for David Smith’s own life and career.

For this poetic sculpture, done at the height of Smith’s creative powers after long years of struggle and sacrifice, is almost hiding in plain sight, well away from the crowds and the buzz of the museum, as if removed from the mainstream and thus, as a consequence, mostly unseen, underappreciated.

Of course one might well ask: “What better showcase for it than in a sculpture garden? After all, doesn’t MoMA have the very same outdoor display of its own Cubi?”

Yes, all true. But the placement here still seems to me pure David Smith.

For here was an artist who appeared to revel in his long-running feuds with the art market, with museums, dealers and critics, his resentments long-lingering and deep. He declined to accept prizes, squabbled endlessly over the price of his work, wrote angry letters, gave dogmatic and hectoring speeches, tore up agreements in a rage and generally distrusted, even loathed, the art market and all of its protocols. Rather than rely on art shippers, for example, whom he felt were untrustworthy and had broken many of his sculptures in transit, he would often deliver them to clients himself in his pickup truck.

Fiercely protective of his rights as an artist, on one occasion he lashed back at a collector who had dared to strip and repaint one of his sculptures, 17 h’s, the original cadmium aluminum red appearing to the collector more like pink.

Smith fired off a letter that was printed in Art News along with a photograph of the work, thundering: I renounce it as my original work and brand it a ruin,” Its value now, he added, was “only its weight of 60 pounds of scrap steel.” Anyone involved in this act of vandalism, he warned, “will be, to the best of my ability, prohibited from acquiring any more of my work.”

The Cubi series proved to be the capstone of his turbulent career. For two years after producing Cubi VII, driving home alone in the dark from a visit to his artist friend Kenneth Noland in Vermont, Smith lost control of his pickup truck and it rolled over, killing him at age 59. A cruel irony is that he was just then hitting his stride as one of the most acclaimed sculptors in America.

The accident itself was an eerie echo of Jackson Pollock’s death in 1956, also late at night, when he crashed his Oldsmobile convertible on a road in Long Island, flipping it over and killing himself and a passenger. Pollock, too, was an artist tormented by demons and hungry for the art market’s affirmation of his talent.

Tall, burly and gruff, Smith seemed to exult in fashioning himself a working-class stiff, as someone who had labored in factories and worked with his hands in a way most artists would never know. He was quick to take offense, and he brooded on revenge.

There was, for example, the showdown in 1943-44 with The Museum of Modern Art and its esteemed director Alfred H. Barr. Smith was keen on winning MoMA’s stamp of approval and selling a work to them; and all the better if he could have a one-artist show and establish himself there, in his own words, as “the number one boy.” But Barr was none too keen on the work of David Smith, and he came across to the artist as dismissive and condescending. They were, in fact, polar opposites in regard to breeding, formal education, temperament and style.

Somewhat begrudgingly, then, Barr acquired an early cast-iron piece by Smith entitled Head (1938), not perhaps because he liked it so much but more to provide an American counterpoint to the European metal sculpture already well represented at MoMA. If it was a cold curatorial decision, it was one that still pleased Smith, at least initially. As his agent, Marian Willard, said with relief after negotiations with Barr: “Here endeth our first bout with them.”

But the bout wasn’t over. Barr ordered his assistant, Dorothy Miller, to obtain a ten percent museum discount on the $300 purchase price, despite having plentiful funds on hand from the financier Charles Merrill to pay for the sculpture.

It was Smith’s very first sale to a major museum, and yet it left him in a rage.

A year later, though, he got his revenge. Sailors on shore leave visiting the museum had knocked over Head, causing the brittle cast iron to break and chip. Smith was asked his price for repairing the work, and he quoted an inflated figure calculated precisely to make up the difference from the original purchase price.

Barr and the museum balked. They would go elsewhere to have the piece repaired.

But Smith would have none of this. He claimed that only the artist himself was qualified to do the work, and anyone else’s repair might, he intimated, cause him to disavow the piece. Smith even threatened to call in a third party to adjudicate the matter—the fearsome United Steelworkers Union, of which he was a proud member. This must have shocked Barr and the museum, as it foreshadowed ugly, even bizarre publicity. Hence they backed down, hoping to avoid any further combat with an artist who behaved like a bull in a china shop.

Smith was indeed rough around the edges, but he was hardly uncultured. He was born in 1906 and raised in Decatur, Indiana, a small town his ancestors had helped settle, his father an occasional inventor and part-owner of a telephone company. Smith was sent off to college at Ohio University, but it proved for him a waste of time. And so, in 1926, keen on the career of an artist, he made his way to New York City.

There he began taking classes at the Art Students League. While he studied painting and drawing and was exposed to the work of modernists such as Kandinsky and Mondrian, Smith’s true talent as an artist was more in line with machines and manual labor. At heart he was a welder.

He began making constructions from scrap metal, stone and other found materials. Having worked one summer back home at a Studebaker automobile factory, he knew riveting, spot welding, soldering and operating a lathe. He thus had the makings of a sculptor—only one with an acetylene torch in his hands rather than a hammer and chisel.

While at the Art Students League he married a fellow student named Dorothy Dehner, and the couple begin dividing their time between a studio in Brooklyn and a run-down house and barn on eighty-six acres deep in the Adirondack Mountains, in the remote village of Bolton Landing, New York. This would eventually be Smith’s full-time residence and studio, but it would take years to get settled in there permanently.

He would first have to earn his independence from factories and assembly lines, especially during the war years, when he was forced to seek backbreaking employment with a locomotive manufacturer while still pursuing his art in what little spare time he had. Teaching jobs also helped him make ends meet, but sales of his work were rare and modest. Still Smith persisted, gaining more notice.

This early part of David Smith’s career, in the 1930s and 40s when he and his wife were struggling just to survive, is perhaps the most compelling and romantic part of his story. Later, in the 50s and 60s, when he was hunkered down in Bolton Landing and making his own way, he seemed in a fever of non-stop production, often raging at the art world but still gaining greater recognition and respect. After all those years of working in real factories, Smith had built one of his own, but now he seemed indentured to it. Early on, though, during his time in Brooklyn in the 1930s, he seemed to find a contentment and serenity that abandoned him entirely later in life.

The source of his contentment in Brooklyn was found one day when he and Dorothy were out for a stroll. Reaching the rough-and-tumble docks of Atlantic Avenue, they wandered into a place called the Terminal Iron Works, a modest metal-making firm. It was owned by two Irishmen, and Smith asked them straightaway if he might be permitted space there to do his welding as an artist, for he could no longer work in his studio at home without setting the place ablaze. The men quickly welcomed Smith.

And so each day Smith repaired to the waterfront factory, working for no one but himself, welding together scraps of metal and consorting with dockworkers and stevedores at the local bar. Smith would later say these were the happiest years of his life. As a tribute to this experience, when he established his own studio in Bolton Landing he called it the Terminal Iron Works.

His sketches from this period are often on letterhead bearing this name, and the sense of doing business under his own Works must have pleased him no end. In this regard, he was perhaps ahead of his time as an artist in the 20th century, doing on a smaller scale what Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst are doing today, only with armies of fabricators working in shifts on assembly lines. One wonders what Smith would have made of this development.

The toll on Smith’s personal life in the 30s and 40s was a ruined marriage, the result of non-stop working, of money woes and career uncertainty, combined with Smith’s often raging personality. Dorothy Dehner thus left him in 1950. Smith then married Jean Freas in 1953 and fathered with her two daughters, Rebecca and Candida. But in 1961 Freas also left. Ironically, this was the year Smith embarked on the glorious Cubi series, a turning point in his career that brought him great acclaim.

Around this time Smith was invited by the Italian Government to produce sculptures for the Fourth Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto. Perhaps intimidated by the challenge of working abroad without his own tools and materials, he at first declined. But the Italians persisted, and Smith agreed on the condition that an opera at the festival be dedicated to his daughters. In a curious way he couldn’t help bartering and seeking an advantage, even when the famed conductor Gian-Carlo Menotti came calling with such a prestigious offer.

For this commission Smith was given an abandoned factory in the town of Voltri along with six assistants and various tools, scrap metal and machinery. All he had to do was produce new sculptures from the raw materials at hand in the factory. The creative process was akin to a scavenger hunt and a jigsaw puzzle, and while Smith could not even communicate with his assistants it didn’t seem to matter. He took to the challenge with a kind of fury, ingeniously solving the problem of what to make from all the scrap metal at hand while supervising his factory hands and getting pieces made with lightning speed. One of the pieces, for example, Voltri VII (1962), was fashioned after a mammoth old foundry cart that still functioned.

As Stanley Marcus explains in his eloquent book David Smith: The Sculptor and his Work (1983), many of the Voltri figures were deeply personal, revisiting “old impulses” from Smith’s chaotic personal life:

The dominant theme, as it had been since The Letter of 1950, was the combining of male and female symbols in a violent relationship that was characterized by repeated violations of circular forms by steel bars of various shapes. In Voltri XV Smith brought back his familiar image of the female as predator . . .

 Whether or not the experience at Voltri proved good therapy for Smith, when the month ended he had produced an astounding twenty-six sculptures. The Italians were thrilled, arranging an exhibition of all the pieces in an ancient coliseum. Smith then had the remnants in the factory—tools, rods, forgings, plates and assorted metal scraps—crated and shipped home. There he produced an additional twenty-five sculptures for yet a new series, Voltri-Bolton.

Thus in the final years of his life Smith was at a new creative high and gaining momentum. With the Cubi and the Voltri series he had moved deeper into a sort of monumental phase, and one wonders where he would have headed had he lived longer.

One of these striking and totemic pieces, Voltri-Bolton X, came up for sale at Sotheby’s New York in November 2017, and it immediately caught my attention. It was illustrated on a postcard announcing an evening sale of Contemporary Art, and I was fascinated to see how it was presented in the sale catalogue. There was a sketch of the sculpture done by Smith, along with twelve riveting black-and-white photographs taken in 1963 by the photographer Dan Budnik showing the work in progress, with Smith assembling its pieces on the floor of his studio in Bolton Landing, walking around and examining it, rearranging before it would all be welded together. It was a brilliant lead-up to the other photographs, in color, showing Voltri-Bolton X now finished and installed in the fields outside, clustered in front of the studio with a colorful jumble of other sculptures, and on formal display at the Guggenheim during the David Smith: A Centennial exhibition in 2006. Here was a mini-documentary of Smith at work.

The exhibition and literature citations were lengthy and impressive, but these barely prepared one for the explosion of rapturous, head-spinning praise of the piece, and of Smith, in the dense catalogue note that followed, including this impressive bombardment:

Exuding a bold tenacity and breathtaking formal dexterity, the commanding silhouette of Voltri-Bolton X fiercely claims the space it inhabits, serving as an enduring testament to the astounding innovation, ambition, and unparalleled creative genius of David Smith at the dazzling apex of his iconic sculptural practice.

The piling up of adjectives in the note—brawny physicality, expressive dynamism, arresting frontality—seemed to me less an expression of auction house salesmanship than perhaps delayed recognition. Thus, in a booming art market hungering for iconic works by the most branded artists, one so exquisitely filling the bill like Voltri-Bolton X, coming fresh to the market with great pedigree and plaudits, deserved all this praise and perhaps more. Surely David Smith would not have been offended by it.

Perhaps it was then no surprise to Sotheby’s that Voltri-Bolton X exceeded its high estimate in the saleroom and brought the robust price of $8,695,500. Those grainy photographs of Smith at work on the piece up at the Terminal Iron Works in Bolton Landing proved a thrilling and vivid endorsement of its value, not to mention its brawny physicality.

In the dead of winter, Bolton Landing can be a frigid and bleak setting, despite the beauty of Lake George and the soaring Adirondack Mountains. When my children were younger, I would occasionally take them for a few days of vacation in August at the Sagamore, the grand old resort on the lake in Bolton Landing. At the time I didn’t give much thought to David Smith and his studio up the road, even though I had been involved in the sale of two of his sculptures at auction for clients and knew he had lived and worked hereabouts. One of these sculptures was Walking Dida (1959), a lyrical table-top piece in bronze and green patina named after his daughter Candida; and the other a larger, more muscular piece titled Albany VIII (1960) made of black painted steel. Walking Dida was perhaps the more intriguing to me, for our client had bought it directly from Smith and owned it ever since. We had looked in vain for correspondence with him among her papers, but could find nothing. Had she actually gone to the studio and dealt directly with Smith? It was charming to think of such an encounter, but we had no proof of it. Still, I continued to be curious about the David Smith property.

So one recent December, when my daughter and I returned to the Sagamore for a Christmas holiday vacation, I determined to find the place, which is now maintained by the David Smith Foundation. A local acquaintance said that his elderly father knew where it was, and so off we drove. After getting lost twice we found it, some three miles out of town, up past the recycling center and tucked away on a remote road. The grounds were covered in snow and it was well below freezing. But I got out of the car to walk up the driveway and have a look out over the rolling fields.

This is where Smith had placed dozens of his sculptures, a whole forest of them, and he would come out on a rest from the studio and gaze out at his masterwork. Now the fields were empty except for a few random sculptures. But the old Terminal Iron Works studio was there, way up the driveway at its summit, nearby the house where Smith lived.

It was quiet now, with no one in sight, and I imagined how eerie it must have been on late winter nights back in the 40s when the place was but a small, primitive encampment. But Smith survived and flourished here, stubborn, irascible and fierce to the end. And so in time he came to earn all of the pumped-up adjectives that are now so prevalent in the art market but which, in his case, actually mean something.

I got back in the car and we drove away from this haunting place.

—Ronald Varney

(Image: David Smith with an Unidentified Sculpture, Bent Blade Construction, 1936, Construction in Bent Planes, 1936, and Sculptor and Model, 1937 (here unfinished) at Terminal Iron Works, Brooklyn, c.1937. © 2019 The Estate of David Smith / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY)