Taking the Measure of David Smith

David Smith: The Art and Life of a Transformational Sculptor by Michael Brenson. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. 864 pages. $50.
David Smith with Hudson River Landscape, 1951, photographed outside his workshop at Bolton Landing, New York, c. 1951. Photo: The Estate of David Smith, New York. © 2022 The Estate of David Smith / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.

Michael Brenson’s David Smith: The Art and Life of a Transformational Sculptor, the first biography of the celebrated twentieth century artist, was published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux this week. Brenson contributed the lead essay to David Smith Sculpture: A Catalogue Raisonné, 1932–1965, published last year by The Estate of David Smith and Yale University Press. Christopher Lyon, its editor and a contributing essayist, spoke with Brenson recently about his Smith biography. Brenson, the artistic director of the Jonathan and Barbara Silver Foundation, was an art critic for the New York Times from 1982 to 1991 and served on the sculpture faculty of Bard College’s Milton Avery Graduate School of the Arts from 2002 to 2020.

CHRISTOPHER LYON: More than twenty years ago, the first person you interviewed for your biography of David Smith was his close friend the painter Kenneth Noland. I was struck by Noland’s first comment after the two of you sat down to talk: “No one has yet taken the measure of David.” Is that the goal of this book?

MICHAEL BRENSON: My consideration of Smith’s work and person is intended to give people a sense of the expansiveness, the sprawl, the complexity, the intelligence, and the beauty of Smith’s work—how extraordinary the work and the person are. By coming at Smith’s life and work from many different directions, I have tried to move from the inside out and from outside in. There are multiple perspectives in the book, as with Smith’s sculptures. I don’t know if, by the end of it, a reader would say, “OK, he’s taken the measure of David Smith.” But the book gives a sense—I hope—of the scope and magnitude of his work and what taking the measure of the work and person might mean.

David Smith with Hudson River Landscape, 1951, photographed outside his workshop at Bolton Landing, New York, c. 1951. Photo: The Estate of David Smith, New York. © 2022 The Estate of David Smith / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.
David Smith with Hudson River Landscape, 1951, photographed outside his workshop at Bolton Landing, New York, c. 1951. Photo: The Estate of David Smith, New York. © 2022 The Estate of David Smith / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.

What's the function of an artist’s biography? 

Here’s this extraordinary body of work; what kind of person did it take to make it? The life illuminates the work, but the work also illuminates the life. By spending so much time with Smith’s work over the last thirty years, a fuller sense of him as a person has come through to me; and with it, a sense of what it took to be David Smith. That’s why it’s so important in a biography to keep the work near the center of the project. Smith said, “My work is my life.” 

In biography, it seems to me, you’re obliged to come at it not just from different points of view, but through different kinds of writing: There is a relatively straightforward narrative, about a life or how people lived at a certain moment, which is different from writing about the artworks. That is different again from writing about the critical reception of them, which is different from writing about the social context. All this can shed light on both the pleasures and impossibilities of knowing. 

I am intrigued by the book’s organization and what that may say about how you understand Smith’s work. There are seventy-two chapters, but no further articulation into sections. One can imagine at least a two-part structure for Smith's career; you quote the painter and critic Fairfield Porter as saying Smith's career takes a profound turn in 1950. I wondered if you were trying to approximate Smith’s sense that his life and his art were integrated in a kind of work stream, that the work is a statement of his identity, as he often said.

I considered breaking the book up into sections because of its length. The first part might be up to 1926, going to New York. And then you might have 1926 to 1940 with Smith’s move up to Bolton Landing [1]. You could then go from 1940 to 1950. In 1950, the work becomes what we know of as mature David Smith. But those kinds of breaks made no sense to me. I think that his work is a continuous stream. It’s the nature of the conceptual framework that he developed for himself, where he’s always picking up from the work that came before, retaining forms, images, and themes, elaborating on them, reinventing and repurposing them, and, without leaving anything behind, moving on. 

Smith’s early series have obvious content—the “Medals for Dishonor,” 1936–40, through the “Spectres,” 1944–53, for example. But from 1951 on, beginning with the “Agricola” series, 1951–59, the formal direction of Smith’s series is toward abstraction. 

I’m thinking about the “Voltris,” 1962, the “Cubis,” 1961–65, the “Tanktotems,” 1952–60, and the “Zigs,” 1961–64: the great art-history-changing series. Each has its own integrity, identity, and reason for being. To move to them from the “Medals” gets me into the politics of the work. That’s a big question, because soon after Smith began making sculpture in 1932, his sculpture had a progressive dimension. The political energy and purpose, reflected in the faith in Communism that he and Dorothy Dehner shared in the ’30s, never left him. After the war, that energy and purpose needed abstraction. As his work became abstract, Smith’s vision of transformation and multiplicity became wilder and more compelling. 

In the “Medals for Dishonor” the political message is overt, and it remains so in the “Spectres” and in some of those other sculptures that he did right after the war, but the politics of his aesthetics goes deeper than this. It’s embedded in the way he thought about and made the work and in the kind of impact he wanted it to have. In the “Cubis,” there’s an enormously optimistic energy in the way that those sculptures explode in space and absorb and reflect light. Smith’s work is always moving out from itself. It’s always changing. It seems as if it can always be more than and other than itself. The “stopped image” was his enemy. Nothing seems fixed or final. Each sculpture is, to use his word, an “expectancy.” This would not have been possible without abstraction. 

My experience of the work is that it’s never less than you remember it. The work is always shifting, moving, open to discovery, and that brings us to the question of scale with Smith, where what we’re talking about is not just actual size, but the experience of size. We’re talking about an energy, a life force perhaps, that seems in the end uncontainable. I think this energy was radical. It was sculpture that did this! The energy might link him to Alexander Calder to some degree, but in Smith’s work, it’s bolder and more transformative. 

We’re back to the notion of measure, taking the measure of work that seems as if it always can be more. I mean, it wants to be more. It wants the world more, wants to project further, to be what it always was and yet go beyond.

At the end of your chapter on the “Tanktotems” is a passage where Smith, discussing Freud, tells Thomas Hess [in a 1964 interview with the former Art News editor], “A totem is a yes and a taboo is a no. A totem is a yes statement of a common occurring denominator,” calling his interpretation, “just plain Freudian references.” You continue, “Tanktotems III and IV, and indeed the entire Tanktotem series, and Smith’s art as a whole, subsume the no in the yes.” That was the part that struck me. You add, “Fairfield Porter saw the Tanktotems as hopeful, and they are.”

I think that to make the yes as potent as it could be, the sculptures also had to include and give credibility to the no. In terms of reading Smith’s work, that’s a wonderful and difficult challenge. What is the no that is in the work that’s being to some degree subsumed? 

But what makes the work strong also leads into the dynamics of his personal life. In other words, how did he know the no? How did the no function in his own life and then get absorbed in the work? He was someone who cultivated conflict because he had a sense that it was the lifeblood of his art. We’re in an art / life question: What is it that could make his life so difficult, for him and for people close to him, but that could be channeled in his work and even become a necessary element in a catharsis, a word he used? 

How much of his aggressive impulses or behavior toward women is the no that gets absorbed in his work? Rosalind E. Krauss, the author of the first monograph on Smith, believed—I’m considerably oversimplifying her argument—that those aggressive impulses, evident in the phallic cannons and images of rape and so on of the later 1940s, get sublimated in the post-1950 works. Do you agree that he was struggling with his aggressive impulses toward women, particularly Dorothy Dehner, who left him in 1950?

What exactly were his own attitudes toward his more noxious behavior? And how did those attitudes get absorbed in his work—or not? I think sublimation is not a bad word. I think the behavior that caused other people pain also did cause him pain. Dehner believed that he couldn’t help himself. We’re in complicated emotional and psychological territory here. I feel strongly that the knowledge of a certain kind of human darkness, of what human beings can do at their worst, was connected to his personal experience. Was aggressiveness toward women the defining element in how he perceived, let’s say, a darkness that needed to be acknowledged and risen above?  I don’t think so. The “Medals” and the “Spectres” show that he was aware of a larger cruelty, greed, and exploitation, an immensity of damaging human behavior. He read Freud and Marx, as well as Darwin. Class was a problem. “Civilization” was a problem. He saw life as a constant battle for survival. 

He even talks about steel, his primary material, as having two qualities: it is used for destruction and killing, and also for construction and building. 

Right, absolutely. 

There’s a transformation from actual to aesthetic going on. His actual behavior in all its varieties, noxious in some cases, is somehow being transformed into artworks with cultural and aesthetic resonance. I think, in very general terms, that was part of Krauss’s argument.

It’s probably essential to the purpose of the work, and to what art can do, that it can find a way to deal with stuff in the world that’s responsible for destruction and pain, and yet touch and look at it, turn it around, make it into an instrument of the imagination. 

Absorbing the no in the yes.

Right . . .  

What are your thoughts about how Smith was regarded at the time of his death, in 1965? At least through the end of the ’60s, Smith and Pollock were elevated as the twin gods of American art. But more than a half century later, while Smith remains a major historical figure, the art world has changed dramatically. Why is Smith important now?

I think it has to do in part with the question of identity. There is a forceful impurity in Smith’s work, even hatred of purity. In terms of his life and his work, everything is mixed, not just in his relationship to materials, bringing things together that were not thought of before as belonging together. Impurity was itself a part of his politics and his view of the future. The work is open to a flux of identity, an uncertainty of identity, that from moment to moment nothing is the same, and that this change can be extraordinary, even magical. This drama of change is part of modernity going back to the Impressionists, but I think that it’s there in more extreme form in sculpture, and in Smith’s work from 1950 on. No one has really understood Smith’s syntactical imagination. Smith’s sculptural syntax is amazing, and this syntactical mystery and fluidity is attached to visions of identity. 

You say that ending sculpture’s subservience to painting was central to Smith’s aesthetic mission, that in the process of winning that competition for sculpture, he helped make sculpture the umbrella artistic field of the second half of the twentieth century. I’m thinking of your book’s subtitle, “the art and life of a transformational sculptor.” Is helping establish for sculpture that leading role part of what makes David Smith transformational?

Absolutely. I think he, more than Calder, more than Noguchi expanded the notion of what sculpture could be. He gave it an intellectual and physical complexity—and a potential for discovery and fantasy—that made it the equal of painting. There’s American sculpture before David Smith and after. They’re not the same thing. 

I was, however, struck by the ways Smith was misunderstood during his lifetime. I knew that Pollock and Lee Krasner regarded him as a kind of naive artist or something like that, but I was really surprised to read in your book that his longtime dealer Marian Willard saw him as a “contemporary folk artist.” 

Tracking the trajectory of perception of David Smith, what it would’ve been like to encounter his work in 1945 or 1950 or 1955, is important. At what point does he really get accepted as being a great sculptor? When the painter John Graham saw some of Smith’s earliest sculptures, in the early ’30s, he thought he was a great sculptor, so Smith had crucial recognition from the start. His MoMA “mid-career” show in 1957 may be the moment when his sculpture became irrefutable: anyone interested in the place of sculpture in the contemporary world had to pay attention to it.

On the other hand, there is the mythical, larger-than-life Smith. David Smith as a kind of folk hero. You write about Smith’s persona as avant-garde, sophisticated, quick-witted, and incorruptible, but that the popular image of the don’t-mess-with-me, mass-public-be-damned artist was almost irresistible. Did that Life magazine view of Smith skew things, positively or negatively?

What attracted people in 1938 to Terminal Iron Works, Smith’s original workshop on the Brooklyn waterfront, was a different notion of an artist’s studio and a different notion of an artist: a man of steel, a real hypermasculine guy’s guy—as well as an artist steeped in art history, with special charm and secret knowledge. It was inevitable that people would turn against that and we’re a culture that would in many places be revolted by it. But I hope that readers of the book will pick up that in his work he also challenged that hypermasculinity, and even mocked it.

I’m thinking, for example, of that Cubi at Storm King, Cubi XXI, 1964, with the funny, oversized, puffed-up barbell. The vertical signifiers of masculine potency in Smith’s sculptures can seem ridiculous or unstable. He believed deeply in sculptural power, in all its ancientness, and this power could function as a critique of power. This comes back to the politics. The Life magazine kind of heroic male individualism in its 1962 feature on him has a certain kind of appeal, but there’s so much else going on in the work. And what you’re asking is, how do we get to this “so much else”? I hope the book contributes to that, because if Smith was just a stereotype, people wouldn’t, even in his lifetime, have cared so much about him and his work.

You write that at the memorial in Bolton Landing that followed Smith’s death, his friend the sculptor James Rosati spoke most eloquently. He said, “The measure of David Smith was a sum total of himself. Each effort was more demanding than the last. This, of course, became more and more apparent, and it was difficult at times for those around him to cope. Everything about him became gigantic: his sculptures, his working arena, his emotional life—all had to satisfy that insatiable measure.”

He is one of those rare artists who never repeated himself. His project required continuous assertions of self and continuous self-surpassing. His sculpture was a feat, right until the end.

Christopher Lyon, a Brooklyn-based art historian and critic, is the publisher of Lyon Artbooks.

[1] Smith and his first wife, artist Dorothy Dehner, bought a former fox farm near Bolton Landing, a small town on Lake George, New York, in 1929 and moved there full-time in 1940. Smith lived and worked there for the remainder of his career.