David Smith (1906-1965) <BR>
Raven II <BR>
David Smith (1906-1965)
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David Smith (1906-1965)

Raven II

David Smith (1906-1965)
Raven II
signed and dated 'David Smith 11/17/55' (on the underside)
steel, painted black
25½ x 30½ x 9 3/8 in. (64.8 x 77.5 x 23.8 cm.)
Executed in 1955.
The Estate of David Smith, New York
M. Knoedler & Co., Inc. New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 1988
R. M. Coates, "The Art Galleries: A Sculptor and Two Painters," New Yorker, vol. 36, 5 March 1960, p. 128.
David Smith 1906-1965: A Retrospective Exhibition, exh. cat., Cambridge, 1966, p. 74, no. 278.
R. Krauss, The Sculpture of David Smith--A Catalogue Raisonné, New York, 1977, p. 68, no. 346 (illustrated).
New York, The National Institute of Arts and Letters, An Exhibition of Works by Candidates for Grants in Art 1956, March 1956, no. 33.
São Paulo, Museu de Arte Moderna, V São Paulo Bienel, September-December 1959, no. 42.
New York, French & Co., David Smith of Bolton Landing: Sculpture and Drawings, February-March 1960, no. 37 (illustrated).
Glens Falls, Hyde Collection, David Smith of Bolton Landing: Sculpture and Drawings, July-September 1973, no. 12.
Roslyn, Nassau County Museum of Fine Art, Animals in American Art 1880s-1980s, October 1981-January 1982, p. 11, no. 42 (illustrated).
Washington, D.C., Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden and San Antonio Museum of Art, David Smith: Painter, Sculptor, Draftsman, November 1982-June 1983, pp. 15, 112 and 140, no. 117 (illustrated).
New York, M. Knoedler & Co., Inc., David Smith: Sculpture, Painting, Drawing of the Fifties, November-December 1984, p. 9, no. 3 (illustrated).
Bronxville, Sarah Lawrence College Gallery, Sculptural Expressions: Seven Artists in Metal and Drawing, 1947-1960, October-November 1985, pp. 58 and 62 (illustrated).

Brought to you by

Robert Manley
Robert Manley

Lot Essay

This work will be included in the forthcoming David Smith: A Catalogue Raisonné of Sculpture being prepared by The Estate of David Smith, New York.

In his superlative Raven II David Smith portrays a majestic raven caught mid-flight, capturing his subject matter's raw energy while he expansively examines the nature of materiality. The 1950s were among the most fertile years of Smith's career. During that time, he questioned traditional sculpture's formal restrictions and looked again at themes that he had wrestled with in his earlier work. The bold, dark and pared down avian form of Raven II continues to refine Pablo Picasso's reductive cubist language, which Smith had begun several years earlier. It also marks an important stage in the journey from his anthropomorphic and figurative works of the early 1950s to the relief-like abstract sculptures that dominated the end of the decade. The raven was among the most important motifs in Smith's repertoire and he created a small number of works in the 1950s in which he investigated its graceful form in increasingly reductive ways.

The Raven sculptures originate in an animal form, which Smith had been scrutinizing since the late 1940s when he cantilevered a horizontal bird form out from a narrow vertical support in his 1948 sculpture Royal Bird. Smith based this sculpture on a prehistoric bird skeleton, the Hesperornis Regalis (Royal Evening Bird), which he had seen in the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Taking his cue from Picasso's cubist sculptures, Smith renders the raven's form in an increasingly reductive manner, creating the bird's body out of an aggregation of short steel bars. Smith's deliberately, skillfully arranged geometric forms recalling the individual feathers that cover the raven's body, particularly the fragmentation of the bird's feathers that occur under the stresses of flight. Of all the works in this series, Raven II most successfully depicts movement and power within the figure of the flying bird, while retaining the integrity of the medium from which Smith fabricated it. The material's physical properties, as Smith himself noted, are central to the work's overall aesthetic, "Steel is so beautiful, because of all the movement associated with it, its strength and functions" (D. Smith quoted in G. Cleve, ed., David Smith by David Smith, New York, 1968, p. 4).

Supported by only a thin vertical bar, Smith frees Raven II from the pedestal's constraints, thereby creating the illusion of a bird soaring high above the ground. This device became increasingly important to Smith during this period as he strove to redefine traditional sculpture's formal boundaries. By allowing the reductive nature of his sculptures to make its way to this integral part of the sculpture, Smith allows the bird form to truly liberate itself from the earth and soar up towards the heavens, defying the material's inherent nature and opening up the sculptural form in the process.

French art magazines introduced David Smith to Picasso's work while he was still at art school. The way Picasso reduced and pared down the form of his cubist figures particularly inspired him. As he noted later, "Going to school at the time I went to school, I didn't read French, so when I had a copy of Cahiers d'Art, I didn't know what it was about; I just learned from the pictures, just the same as if I were a child in a certain sense. I learned the world from seeing before I ever learned the world from words" (D. Smith quoted in D. Sylvester, Interviews with American Artists, New Haven, 2001, p. 8). Smith expanded on the visual clarity he saw in in Picasso's work and made it his own, combining his own visual aesthetic with the skills he'd gained as a fabricator to produce works of extraordinary depth and power.
Although Smith earned his place as a sculptor, he very much thought of himself as belonging with painters. He often pointed out that painters produced the best modern sculpture. Citing the works of Picasso, Matisse and Degas, he was at pains to point out that only painters had the skills needed to translate two dimensions into three. Indeed, Smith formally trained as a painter, but as a sculptor, he was completely self-taught. During the summer of 1925, he worked as a welder at the Studebaker plant in South Bend, Indiana. It was later, when he attended classes at the Art Students League in New York, that these two impulses combined to provide the foundations for his later career. Although he described the Studebaker job as "strictly for the money," the experience revealed much to him. "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 became more and 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).

Raven II is a significant example from a seminal series in which Smith transforms his earlier figurative works into the abstract sculptures that would be the pinnacle of his career. We can see the importance of the Raven series within his oeuvre by the significant number of these works that are in important museum collections. Raven III is in the permanent collection of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Raven IV is in the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C. and Raven V is a major work currently included in David Smith Invents, an important survey of Smith's later work being held at The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C., Raven II shows the skill and ingenuity that allowed Smith to reconceive sculpture as open art form, integrating positive and negative space, rather than in its conventional carved, solid, weighty form. The openness of this particular example combines with the dramatic sense of movement and the integrity of the materials he used to mark out this work as an exemplary example of his sculptural work.

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