The Defining Gesture: Modern Masters from the Eppler Family Collection
This work will be included in the forthcoming revised and updated catalogue raisonné, David Smith (1906-1965): A Catalogue Raisonné of Sculpture, being prepared by the Estate of David Smith and published by Yale University Press.
The preeminent sculptor of Abstract Expressionism, David Smith transformed industrial materials into elegant elegies of balance and composition. Indicative of his mature style, Voltron XXIV clearly exhibits the artist’s interest in geometric abstraction on a large scale. Inspired by his time in the Italian city of Voltri in 1962, this striking example of Smith’s work was among several standout pieces in a series that found the artist reinvigorated and renewed after a time abroad. Combining both his interest in vertical, figure-like structures and a knack for incorporating negative space, Voltron XXIV stands as a testimony to the artist’s prodigious talent for melding welded steel into spatial poetry.
Anchored visually by a central circle, Voltron XXIV extends upward from the ground with a decisive motion. Two equal strips of steel converge at the pivotal oculus, creating a linear path for the viewer’s eye as it travels to the top. Seeming to float on either side of this focal form, triangles and bars tumble upward like semaphore flags in the wind before ending in an assortment of small curves and horseshoe forms. Though slender overall, Voltron XXIV has an imposing presence. Smith’s use of enclosed negative space to highlight his constructions lends each work an existence beyond its singular parts. By employing simple forms and immaculate welding technique, the sculptor brings together disparate objects into a finely-balanced whole.
In 1962, Smith was invited to attend The Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto, Italy. For thirty days, he created work with an unprecedented rate, completing twenty-seven new sculptures to be displayed for the festival. Finding himself among other sculptors (Alexander Calder created his massive stabile, Teodelapio, for this same gathering) and a bevy of materials, Smith’s time in Italy, and especially in the town of Voltri where he set up a temporary workshop, was life-changing. Upon returning to his home in Bolton Landing, the sculptor arranged for large quantities of the industrial remnants he had found in Voltri to be shipped stateside. From this, and the spark of creating in Italy, came his much lauded Voltri-Bolton series (hence the Voltron title), as well as the portmanteau Voltron series, of which Voltron XXIV is a part. For the next three years, Smith filled his home and property with monumental statues. His daughter, Candida Smith, remarked, “It was after his return from Italy that the fields began to burgeon at an amazing rate’’ (C. Smith quoted in The Fields of David Smith, exh. cat., Storm King Art Center, New York, 1999, pp. 30-32). This outpouring of productivity lead to some of the most significant examples of the artist’s prolific career.
Beginning his training in 1927 at the Art Students League in New York, Smith originally studied painting and drawing. This initial interest in two-dimensional modes of working shows itself in the way that some of his sculptures are meant to be viewed from the front, and not in the round. During the five years he spent at the Art Students League, Smith firmly entrenched himself in the nascent New York School. He became friends with Adolph Gottlieb and Milton Avery, and was introduced to Arshile Gorky, Willem de Kooning, and Stuart Davis through the connoisseur and collector, John Graham. Graham, who also made Smith aware of the current trends in the European avant-garde, showed the young artist photographs of welded metal sculptures by Pablo Picasso and Julio González. It was then that Smith started to repurpose his skills as a welder (honed during summers working in a car factory) to create art. His first welded sculptures were made in 1933, and examples such as Agricola Head were among the first of their type in the United States. While indebted to his European predecessors, Smith nonetheless took metal sculpture to its apex, and as “one may say without exaggeration, Smith explored the possibilities of metal sculpture more fully than any artist before or since—more, even, than Picasso or Julio González” (R. Hughes, Nothing if Not Critical, New York, 1987, p. 207). By harnessing the qualities of Abstract Expressionism and translating them to three dimensions, the artist entered new sculptural territory.
Smith refined his working methods early in his career, and this attention to process allowed him some relative ease when planning out his sculptures. By treating his studio like the factory of his youth, the artist was able to pull from stores of raw material in a manner that precluded preciousness. About this approach, Smith noted: “I cannot conceive of a work and buy materials. I need a truckload before I can work on one. To look at it everyday, to let it soften, to let it break in segments, plans, lines etc., wrap itself in hazy shapes. Rarely the Grand Conception, but a preoccupation with parts. I start with one part, then a unit of parts, until a whole appears” (D. Smith, “Notes on My Work,” Arts Magazine, New York, February 1960). After going through his preparatory drawings and surveying his materials, Smith started each work flat on the floor. After positioning each piece of metal and welding them in place, Smith would haul the structure upright in order to finesse various angles and attach additional elements. Because of their initial two-dimensional positioning, works like Voltron XXIV have a stylistic link to Smith’s drawings, a practice which he continued until his untimely death in 1965.
Though influenced by Picasso and González, as well as artists like Joan Miró and Alberto Giacometti, Smith crafted his own visual language with each new sculpture. Pulling from African sculpture, cast-off industrial materials, and totemic imagery, the artist shared some symbology with his Abstract Expressionist colleagues. Jackson Pollock and Adolph Gottlieb were experimenting with pictorial forms at the same time, and Smith often commented that he was more akin to these painters than traditional sculptors. Furthermore, he sometimes talked about his reliance on the figure as a base for working. Although his final products rarely, if ever, looked decidedly human, works like Voltron XXIV exist in our realm by virtue of their scale and verticality. Careful not to call himself a figurative artist, however, Smith stressed the primacy of his materials when he noted, “Like every artist I am always drawing from the figure. It is the source of almost everything we do; it provides motives and orders association. [However,] it is better to think the thing out in metal. Any work of art should express the material and technique employed as well as the basic creative idea” (D. Smith, quoted in David Smith, A Centennial, exh. cat., Guggenheim Museum, 2006-2007, p. 396). Above all else, Smith was interested in how metal could be assembled to evoke different states of mind and to draw connections in the viewer’s mind. His ability to coax presence from cold steel has inspired countless sculptors to this day.
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The Defining Gesture: Modern Masters from the Eppler Family Collection
signed, titled and dated 'XXIV Voltron David Smith 3-25-63' (on the base)
David Smith (1906-1965)
Philadelphia, Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania, David Smith: Sculpture and Drawings, February-March 1964, n.p., no. 15 (illustrated).
Ridgefield, The Larry Aldrich Museum, Brandeis University Creative Art Awards 1957-1966: Tenth Anniversary Exhibition, April-June 1966, n.p., no. 60.
New York, Riverside Museum, Art and Artists at Sarah Lawrence Through 40 Years, April-June 1968, n.p. (illustrated).
New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum; Dallas Museum of Fine Arts; Washington, D.C., Corcoran Gallery, David Smith, March-December 1969, pp. 12, 143 and 152-153, no. 92 (illustrated).
Philadelphia, Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania, Inside Philadelphia: Selections from Private Collections, November-December 1972.
Mountainville, Storm King Art Center, Drawings and Sculptures: Noguchi, Calder, and Smith, May-October 1979.
Roslyn, Nassau County Museum of Fine Art, Sculpture: The Tradition in Steel, October 1983-January 1984, n.p., fig. 2, no. 70 (illustrated).
Cleveland Museum of Art, The Art of Collecting Modern Art, February-March 1986, n.p., fig. 31 (illustrated).
G. Carandente, Voltron, Philadelphia, 1964, pp. 59 and 76 (illustrated).
A. C. Kinsler, “Tools, Machinery, Sculpture,” Daily Pennsylvania, 10 February 1964, p. 4 (illustrated).
David Smith, exh. cat., Glens Falls, The Hyde Collection, 1964, no. 15.
David Smith, 1906-1965: A Retrospective Exhibition, exh. cat., Cambridge, Fogg Art Museum, 1966, p. 81, no. 497.
C. Andreae, “Smith: Sculpture as Identity,” Christian Science Monitor, 09 April 1969, sec. 2, p. 9.
R. E. Krauss, The Sculpture of David Smith: A Catalogue Raisonné, New York, 1977, p. 109, no. 608 (illustrated and titled Volton XXIV).
American Art at Mid-Century: The Subjects of the Artist, exh. cat., Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art, 1978, p. 217.
David Smith, exh. cat., Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art, 1982, p. 61, fig. 32 (illustrated at Bolton Landing).
P. Braff, “Noted Works Highlight Sculpture Show,” New York Times, 06 November 1983, p. L135.
C. Smith, The Fields of David Smith, London, 1999, p. 63 (illustrated at Bolton Landing).
Estate of the artist
Marlborough-Gerson Gallery, New York
Dr. and Mrs. Paul T. Makler, Philadelphia, 1968
Dr. and Mrs. Ralph Jessar, Philadelphia
M. Knoedler & Co., Inc., New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 1984