David Smith's steely determination

Abstract expressionist sculptor's retrospective makes its way across America
David Smith alongside his metal sculptures at his studio

1 / 14 David Smith alongside his metal sculptures at his studio

David Smith, Blue Construction (1938)

2 / 14 David Smith, Blue Construction (1938)

David Smith, Big Diamond (1952)

3 / 14 David Smith, Big Diamond (1952)

David Smith, Saw Head (1933)

4 / 14 David Smith, Saw Head (1933)

David Smith, Suspended Cube (1938)

5 / 14 David Smith, Suspended Cube (1938)

David Smith, Untitled (1946)

6 / 14 David Smith, Untitled (1946)

David Smith, Untitled (1963)

7 / 14 David Smith, Untitled (1963)

David Smith, Zig III (1961) (detail)

8 / 14 David Smith, Zig III (1961) (detail)

David Smith, Sentinel II (1956–57)

9 / 14 David Smith, Sentinel II (1956–57)

David Smith, Untitled (1961)

10 / 14 David Smith, Untitled (1961)

David Smith, Unity of Three Forms (1937)

11 / 14 David Smith, Unity of Three Forms (1937)

David Smith, Untitled (on ship), (c. 1932–35)

12 / 14 David Smith, Untitled (on ship), (c. 1932–35)

David Smith, Steel Drawing I (1945)

13 / 14 David Smith, Steel Drawing I (1945)

David Smith, Cubi I (1963)

14 / 14 David Smith, Cubi I (1963)

Widely considered one of the greatest American sculptors of the 20th century, David Smith (1906-1965) conceived himself to be not only an artist, but "a labourer of the modern-age".

This idea of Smith as working class artist-labourer is reflected in photographs of him (above) at his studio in among the welding tools, hacksaws, tyres and metal sheets that became the tools of his craft. Following a hugely successful debut at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in spring 2011, his retrospective show Cubes and Anarchy moved on to the Whitney Museum in New York (where it will remain until January 8). It's then due to open at the Wexner Centre for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio, January 28 2012.

Often thought of as a 3D counterpart to abstract expressionist painters like Franz Kline, Jackson Pollock and Robert Motherwell (with whom he was friends), it was steel, rather than paint that became the vehicle for Smith's expressions.

The sculptor began working with metal when he spent a summer while at Art College working at a car assembly plant and then later (in the 1940s) when he supplemented his measly artist’s salary with welding work. When he came across Picasso and Julio Gonzalez’s welded iron works, Smith realised this was an industrial skill he too could bring into his artwork (Like Smith, Gonzalez had been trained to weld in a car plant). Smith also had a strong interest in the hard-edged geometry and ideas of constructivism. 

Sadly, Smith's career was cut short by a fatal car crash at the age of 59, but his sculptures which marry together his interest in geometric shapes and social and political concerns, have more than stood the test of time. Flick through the gallery above to get a picture of the 80 works included in Cubes and Anarchy.

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