This sculpture will be included in a new catalogue raisonné of David Smith's sculptures being prepared by the Estate of David Smith.
David Smith, arguably the most famous and influential post-war American sculptor, is well-known for the large-scale, welded steel sculptures that populated the fields surrounding his home and studio in Bolton Landing, New York. Ridge Runner was created during a period in which his sculpture explored the integration of the landscape with abstract elements. Made from a combination of welded copper, bronze and steel, its form exploits disparate found objects to create a concisely articulated creature.
This work, alluding to the representation of a bird, is constructed from discarded industrial materials. Its body resembles the hub of a wheel with spokes splaying outward to form flying tail feathers, running legs and outstretched neck. The neck terminates in a bent wrench-like appendage, which becomes a head with the open end representing a beak, and its central loop outlining both skull and eye. A flattened pedal projects outwards from the center in the semblance of a wing. As symbolic elements, these found materials can be seen as artifacts of speed and motion as they are culled from disused car parts and the tools of machinery. It seems Smith has not only used these objects for their peculiarities of shape and form, he has also used them to create visual puns that actualize the suggestion of movement inherent in the sculpture's posture. Ridge Runner's figurative form comes from seeing the way in which the different parts fit together and it is the inspired relationship of the parts within the whole that lends the sculpture the subtlety and nuance that characterizes Smith's best work.
Ridge Runner was created during one of the most fertile and inventive years of Smith's career. Executed in 1953, it stems from a period of restless exploration in which the artist was possessed by the ambition to find a new expressive language and to create "the best damned sculpture" in America. It was also a time of great change within the artist's personal life and his practice. In April 1950, Smith received a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship that was renewed the following year. This recognition, and the financial benefits involved, temporarily freed Smith from relying on non-art related work for his income and enabled him to acquire a vast array of new materials. Smith also found himself more isolated than ever in his upstate New York farm, as he separated from his wife Dorothy Dehner at the end of 1950. By the time Smith created Road Runner, he was once again taking teaching assignments. The inscription to the sculpture's base indicates that it was made while he was a visiting professor at the University of Arkansas. Although teaching often stole precious time from Smith's art making, it was a happy juncture for the sculptor, as it was in the course of this semester that he eloped with his second wife, Jean Freas.
Being far away from the spacious, factory-style environment of his Bolton Landing studio probably accounts for the smaller size of the present work. Following the Guggenheim Fellowship and the stockpiling of raw materials, Smith's sculpture had changed decisively, both in scale and intention, beginning with the Agricola series instigated in 1951. Agricola is a Latin term meaning "farmer" or "a deity of agriculture" and Smith fittingly created the series out of abandoned farming machinery. The Agricola pieces show how Smith was attuned to the significance of his chosen material. The individual components of these sculptures were subsumed into a new formal construction, but their former utility still feeds into the significance of the sculpture's meaning. The implementation of scrap metal in Ridge Runner can be seen as a continuation of this process. "Forms in function are often not appreciated in their context except for their mechanical performance," Smith described in an interview in 1959. "With time and the passing of their function and a separation of their past, metaphoric changes can take place permitting a new unity, one that is strictly visual" (D. Smith, quoted in R. E. Krauss, The Sculpture of David Smith: A Catalogue Raisonné, New York and London, 1977, pp. 54-55).
Central to the change that occurred in Smith's works of the 1950s was this move toward constructing sculptures from found materials, which meant the use of fabricated elements decreased. This in turn freed him to work in a constant flow of arranging, manipulating and welding parts together--a dramatically different process from the start-stop pace intrinsic to developing concepts in drawings before their subsequent realization in metal. Smith's welding technique does more than join bits of metal together and in sculptural forms such as this it almost becomes a 'painterly' process, as integral a part of the sculptural flow as the sculpture's radiating arms themselves. Smith's process of working directly with the materials from the beginning and reordering them in a stream of consciousness fashion was the sculptural equivalent of Abstract Expressionist painting, for in their work a similar discovery of the subject takes place in the process of making. In this way, Smith permitted the act of sculpting to become a similarly versatile means of self-discovery. His sculptures could "begin with any idea. They can begin with a found object; they can begin with no object. They can begin sometimes even when I am sweeping the floor and I stumble and kick a few parts and happen to throw them into alignment that sets me off thinking and sets off a vision of how it would finish if it all had that kind of accidental beauty to it" (D. Smith quoted in D. Sylvester, Interviews with American Artists, New Haven, 2001, p. 7).
There are certainly no scale models of Smith's sculptures. He made Ridge Runner by drawing with his materials in much the same way as a collagist draws with torn or cut-out paper. Indeed Smith's work emerged partially out of the aesthetic of cubist collage, and above all the collaborative iron constructions of Pablo Picasso and Julio González. Seeing reproductions of the elder artist's sculptures in a 1931 issue of Cahiers d'Art proved to be revelatory. Their incorporation of found materials and commercial welding techniques, allied with González' idea of drawing in space, set Smith on his course of creative discovery. Like González, Smith had learnt to weld whilst working in an automotive plant and he found in the examples set before him a chance to make sculpture in a tradition he was rooted in. "Before knowing what art was or before going to art school, as a factory worker I was acquainted with steel and machines used in forging it. During my second year at art school I learned about Cubism, Picasso and Julio González through [magazines]. From them I learned that art was being made with steel--the materials and machines that had previously only meant labor and earning power" (D. Smith quoted in K. Wilkin, David Smith, New York, 1984, p. 12).
Smith distinguished himself by using the materials and techniques particular to his time. He expanded on the visual clarity he saw in Picasso's work and made it his own, combining his own visual aesthetic with the skills he gained as a fabricator to produce works of extraordinary depth and power. This application of European styles to vernacular American themes gave new vitality to the sculptural medium. His eschewal of volumetric form in favor of a frontal, open, and linear mode of representation likewise broke with the longstanding sculptural practice of working in the round. The orientation toward one principle perspective largely emerged from Smith's practice of laying shapes out on the ground, before elevating the welded forms vertically. The precisely defined contour of Ridge Runner is therefore designed to be seen from the front (and may be influenced by Smith's life long interst in drawing). From this angle, the image is hieratic, powerful, but if turned on its other axis the view disintegrates, which inherently contradicts the laws of sculpture. Even the Cubists took into consideration the 360-degree nature of sculpture, but Smith brazenly defies this tradition. We are instead presented with a remarkably fluid line that recalls the expressive brushwork of Joan Miró or the powerful gestures Smith observed in Chinese calligraphy. Despite the industrial antecedents of the sculpture, we are acutely aware of the presence of Smith's hand, and of the work being wrought by a particular individual. This handmade quality is accentuated by the sculpture's coarse patina, which has a varied density and coloration to lend the bird-form an archaic appearance.
Smith's career is one of constant reinvention of themes and strategies as well as steel and iron parts. While he continued to push the boundaries of sculpture's formal restrictions, he was also reflecting back on subjects that he had confidently explored in his earlier work. Among these recurrent themes is the representation of birds, or concepts relating to them. Smith did not deliberately group works into specific series until the Agricolas but avian imagery is apparent in his oeuvre from the mid-1940s onwards in sculptures such as Jurassic Bird, 1945, False Peace Spectre, 1945, Big Rooster, 1945, (Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.), Royal Bird, 1948, (Walker Art Center, Minneapolis), 36 Bird Heads, 1950, (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art), Australia, 1951, (Museum of Modern Art, New York), and his later Ravens series. Many of these works address historical and political themes through an implication of evolution or the brutality of war. They are derived from Smith's private, symbolic, mythic world and all share the iconology of transcendence in their suggestion of flight. Ridge Runner does not feature the predatory or menacing quality present in many of the earlier works from the 1940s but its uplifted head and airborne lines are a supreme example of dynamic action. This work is as much about the ethos of Smith as an artist and the linguistic and visual dialogue he was having with the objects and materials that make up the work, as it is about any representational image that Smith was trying to achieve. Smith has managed to breathe life into inanimate readymade objects, creating a work that is simultaneously delicate and strong, a masterpiece of tension and balance. An image of formal beauty and powerful expressiveness, Ridge Runner exemplifies Smith's mastery over modern industrial materials.