‘By [“found forms,” Smith] means parts of old ploughs, a fragment of a wheel rim, the toothed cogs of discarded motors. These, he holds, are as valid in concept which is in its totality creative and original as the forms other artists find in nature or geometry’
‘Smith, being no esthete, positively rejoices in his reliance on crude metal, polished or rusty’
‘The material called iron and steel I hold in high respect. What it can do in arriving at a form economically, no other material can do. The material itself possesses little art history. What associations it possesses are those of this century: power, structure, movement, progress, suspension, brutality’
Arguably one of the most influential sculptors of the twentieth century, David Smith was well known for translating the dramatic forms of Abstract Expressionism into three-dimensional works of art. In Spectre, Smith works on an intimate scale turning discarded pieces of metal and other found objects into a fantastical form – an imagined creature that resounds with dynamism and mystery. This particular example exemplifies Smith’s incredible talent and enduring wit with its depiction of a running creature, poised as if to levitate. Made up of a combination of welded steel and bronze elements, its wiry form exploits the disparate objects so favoured by Smith to create a concisely articulated creature. Executed in 1953, Spectre relates to an earlier series of Spectre works from the 1940s which the artist created in response to the Second World War. They too depict imagined creatures and include such fanciful examples as the winged False Peace Spectre (1945) and War Spectre (1944) which is located in the permanent collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. The work was originally owned by John O’Connor Jr., the former Assistant Director of The Carnegie Institute. O’Connor worked closely with the Carnegie’s then-director Homer Saint-Gaudens – the son of the famous sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens. He acquired the work directly from the artist, whom he often visited on his way to the Saint-Gaudens Memorial in New Hampshire with the Saint-Gaudens family.
In Spectre, Smith’s creation is captured in a dynamic moment as it seemingly tries to escape its earthy confines. It is an enigmatic creature – part bird, part mammal – the result of the artist’s prolific imagination. Smith summons up his considerable skills to create a fanciful being constructed purely out of discarded pieces of steel and bronze. A flat, curved metal plane forms the central portion of the body to which are attached several slender appendages born out of similar pieces of flattened, twisted and manipulated metal. Some appear to act as limbs, while others culminate in wings which could allow the creature to launch itself into graceful flight. A more substantial element reaches up to become the high point of the composition where it forms a head, complete with a screw hole for an eye and a wrench-like opening for a mouth. Whatever the creation is or its taxonomy, the result is a being that abounds with dynamism and energy and stands as an exemplary illustration of Smith’s art.
Closely related to the artist’s Agricola sculptures, Spectre shares in that series’ celebration of the integrity of its materials. Despite the industrial nature of its individual elements, this work boasts beautiful irregularities of form. Lumps, bulges, incisions, and welded joints invite touch and imbue optical appeal with a level of tactility. Saturated with visual surprises, the sculpture playfully moves between two and three dimensions. Disparate perspectives reveal varying patinas, a range that draws attention to the nuances of the work’s surface. In the remnants and offcuts of the metal shop, Smith found poetry, as the art critic of the New York Times at the time of Spectre’s creation, Stuart Preston, enthused. ‘Smith, being no esthete, positively rejoices in his reliance on crude metal, polished or rusty … the works … literally employ bits of farm machinery as starting points; plowshares are beaten into significant form, blossoming thence into extraordinarily air reconstructions, whose members shove, thrust and ram themselves through space’ (S. Preston, ‘Diverse Modern,’ quoted in C. Giménez (ed.). David Smith: A Centennial, exh. cat., Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 2006, p. 356).
Much of the writing about Smith’s work emphasizes its size – but as is the case with Spectre, many of his works are notable for their delicacy and intimacy as they are for their power and bulk. The industrial antecedents of their methods and material seem as important as the evidence of their maker’s hand. Rather than the huge, declarative flat sculpture that many of Smith’s later works have led us to expect, here we are confronted by works of human scale, great subtlety, and remarkable spatial complexity.
Smith elevated the notion of ‘drawing in space’ pioneered by Pablo Picasso and Julio Gonzalez to new heights, imbuing it with a distinctly American spirit. During the summer of 1925 he worked as a welder and riveter at the Studebaker car plant in South Bend, Indiana. He described the job as ‘strictly for the money’ but this stint, at the age of 19, played a significant role in his life. ‘Before knowing what art was,’ he once said, ‘or before going to art school, as a factory worker I was acquainted with steel and the machines used in forging it. During my second year in art school [in New York] I learned about Cubism, Picasso and González through Cahiers d’art. From them I learned that art was being made with steel – the materials and machines that had previously meant only labor and earning power’ (D. Smith, quoted in K. Wilkin, David Smith, 1984, New York, p. 12).
With works such as Spectre, Smith expanded on the visual clarity that he saw in in Picasso’s work and made it his own, combining his unique visual aesthetic with the skills he had gained as a fabricator to produce works of extraordinary depth and power. With regard to his chosen medium, Smith became ever more fascinated and delighted with metal’s artistic possibilities. ‘The material called iron and steel I hold in high respect. What it can do in arriving at a form economically, no other material can do. The material itself possesses little art history. What associations it possesses are those of this century: power, structure, movement, progress, suspension, brutality’ (D. Smith, quoted in K. Wilkin, David Smith, New York, 1984, p. 20).