Voltri is from an important series of twenty-six works the artist created in Italy during May and June 1962 when Smith was invited to create works for the exhibition Sculpture in the City at the Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto. The fair organizers were the composer Gian Carlo Mendotti and the art critic Giovanni Carendente and this sculpture was given as a gift from the artist. Smith relates a story, perhaps tongue in cheek that despite being commissioned to create only two sculptures for the show, "not speaking Italian had five started and 26 done at the end of the month" (G. Carandente, Voltron, Philadelphia, 1964, p. 11).
Originally, Smith planned to work with stainless steel, but abandoned it, in favor of using material found in outdated factories owned by the steel company Italsider in Voltri, a small town north of Genoa. The decision proved to be fortuitous. In the tools, outmoded pieces of equipment and scrap metal, Smith recognized their expressive potential, creating one of the most important and cohesive body of works in his oeuvre. "Smith was given the right to appropriate any of this treasure trove for his sculpture. It was the ideal working arrangement for him: the factory setting he felt at home in, a wealth of materials that were both familiar because of their function and new because of their provenance, and a group of workmen-assistants" (K. Wilkin, David Smith, New York, 1984, p. 72).
Working like a collagist, Smith took disparate objects and forms which he was able to combine into sculptures that evoke a range of emotions from whimsical to tragic, monumental to poignant. Smith voraciously created sculptures. In his writings about his stay, his sense of accomplishment is clear-- "from me--I never made so much--so good--so easy in such a condensed time as in my 30 day Italian phase that was damn near a piece a day. While I work in a concentrated way in the USA--I've never done this before...I think it was climate--locale--at least it seems to me that my Italian work took on a different feeling than my USA work ever had--yet it was natural and without intention--I'm proud of it although I'm not sure what it is that is different--I'll never work without certain influences of this Italian period nor forget" (Voltron, p. 13).
Smith was so impressed with the Italsider factory scrap metal elements, that he arranged to ship a crate back to his studio in Bolton, New York. With these pieces, he created the Votri-Bolton series, utilizing these European factory components. For many critics, the heroic aspirations of the Voltri and Voltri-Bolton series stand as one of the peaks of Smith's career.
To make many of the sculptures, particularly the smaller scale works like Voltri, Smith worked on an enormous steel layout table. Smith painted the table white, using lime and water, and would arrange the parts and tools into various configurations until he acheived the desired composition. Smith's working methods and his entire Voltri trip has been captured in a series of extraordinary photographs by Ugo Mulas, one of which shows the present lot in formation.
Voltri utilizes two sets of tongs which come together to form a sculpture of reductive beauty, that has both a rigorous geometric quality, as well as anthropomorphic overtones of a figure with arms raised. In Voltri, Smith is a master of subtle manipulation of form--the slight twist and curvature of the tong ends at top center appear to transform them into supplicant hands reaching for the sky. The scupture has an uplifting, soaring quality which brings to mind Brancusi's Bird in Space. Like Brancusi, Smith was an extraordinary photographer of his own work and a surviving photograph taken in Italy shows the sculpture as a monumental work, literally in the clouds.
Most of the Voltri works are in important public and private collections and rarely come to market. Of the 26 made, Voltri IV is in the Kroller-Muller Museum, Otterloo, Voltri XV is in the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden and Voltri XVII is in the de Menil Collection. Two sculptures are in the Nasher Collection--Voltri VI and Untitled (Voltri), the latter being the other dedicated work that was a gift from David Smith to Menotti.
Voltri was given by David Smith to Carandente as a personal thank you for his help and arrangements. Carandente was perhaps the most prominent European art critic, historian and curator of his day on modernist sculpture, writing important monographs on Alexander Calder, Anthony Caro and of course, several on David Smith.
Carandente and Smith shared a close relationship, personal and professional. "Professor Carandente mounted four of my works in the city- [the] balance in the Roman Theater. In my own country, I've never had such interest..." (Carandente, 13) Ever a champion of Smith, Carandente wrote, "Going back over the whole history of sculpture, it is hard to find an example of creative fertility and sheer will-power to equal that of David Smith at the beginning of that hot Mediterranean summer" (Ibid, 6).