David Smith (1906-1965)
On occasion, Christie's has a direct financial int… Read more An American Place: The Barney A. Ebsworth Collection
David Smith (1906-1965)

Untitled (Billiard Players)

David Smith (1906-1965)
Untitled (Billiard Players)
oil on canvas
46 x 50 in. (116.8 x 127 cm.)
Painted circa 1936.
Estate of David Smith, New York
Washburn Gallery, New York
Acquired from the above by the late owner, 1983
G. Glueck, "David Smith Seen in His Full Range and Scope," The New York Times, 28 November 1982, p. H29.
M. Brenson, “Art: 20 Years of David Smith Painting,” The New York Times, 4 October 1983, p. C25.
"Art," Art & Design, December 1986, p. 9.
Burgoyne Diller, exh. cat., New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, 1990, pp. 24-25, fig. 20 (illustrated).
Toward a New American Cubism, exh. cat., New York, Berry-Hill Galleries, 2006, pp. 52-53, fig. 34 (illustrated).
D. Gies, "Picasso and American Art," Virginia Quarterly Review, vol. 83, no. 2, Spring 2007, p. 302.
C. Ishikawa, ed., A Community of Collectors: 75th Anniversary Gifts to the Seattle Art Museum, Seattle, 2008, pp. 66-67, no. 52 (illustrated in color).
Washington, D.C., Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden; San Antonio Museum of Art, David Smith: Painter, Sculptor, Draftsman, November 1982-June 1983, p. 65, pl. 28, no. 12 (illustrated in color).
New York, Washburn Gallery, David Smith: Paintings from 1930-1947, September-October 1983, n.p., no. 10 (illustrated in color on the cover).
Dusseldorf, Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen; Frankfurt, Städtische Galerie im Städelschen Kunstinstitut; London, Whitechapel Gallery, David Smith Retrospective, March 1986-January 1987, pp. 111 and 174, no. 52 (illustrated).
St. Louis Art Museum; Honolulu Academy of Arts; Boston, Museum of Fine Arts, The Ebsworth Collection: American Modernism 1911-1947, November 1987-June 1988, pp. 172-173, 220, no. 64 (illustrated in color).
New York, Washburn Gallery, David Smith: Painting into Sculpture, October-December 1990, no. 5.
Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art; Seattle Art Museum, Twentieth-Century American Art: The Ebsworth Collection, March 5-November 12, 2000, pp. 236-239 and 298, no. 62 (illustrated in color).
New York, Whitney Museum of American Art; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; Minneapolis, Walker Art Center, Picasso and American Art, September 2006-September 2007, pp. 151-152, pl. 70 (illustrated in color).
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Lot Essay

Touted as one of the greatest American sculptors of the 20th century, David Smith was not bound by a singular style or media. His paintings and drawings exist in tandem with his sculptures and provide a striking conversation about the oeuvre of a stalwart of the transitional period between American Modernism and Abstract Expressionism. Untitled (Billiard Players) is a pivotal work that makes clear Smith’s deep indebtedness to the history of art, as well as his ability to manipulate space in both two and three dimensions. Smith remarked on his transition from painter to sculptor, saying, “My painting had turned to constructions which had risen from the canvas so high that a base was required where the canvas should be. I now was a sculptor…” (D. Smith, David Smith, New York, 1972, p. 68). Pushing painting to its very limits until it burst forth into the physical plane, Smith’s work continued to evolve and grow throughout his career.

Decidedly Cubist in its influence, Untitled (Billiard Players) obscures space and form through a number of twisting shapes and lines. A cadre of figures appears out of this geometric maze, although it is difficult to discern where exactly one begins and the other ends. Smith uses a bold palette, as squares, diamonds, and triangles of rich blue jump out at the viewer as a counterpoint to the use of mottled green, gray, and peach on the walls and figures themselves. A small gold sphere hovers in the upper center of the composition and serves as a visual entry point to the abstracted forms below. Although known for his completely abstract, monumental pieces later in his career, this nod to Surrealist and Cubist treatment of the human form is typical of the artist’s output at this time.

Painted circa 1936, Untitled (Billiard Players) takes stylistic influence from the works of Cubist artists like Pablo Picasso, as well as the European Surrealists. Of interest, a number of temporary exhibitions were held in New York during this year, including “Cubism and Abstract Art” (1936) and Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism (1936-1937), which introduced a new generation of American artists to the innovations in Europe. Additionally, there were retrospectives of Picasso, Matisse, and Legér held around this time that Smith would have been aware of, and 1936 was also the year that the artist and his wife took their first trip to Europe. While there, the artist and connoisseur John Graham lead them through Paris and showed them the works of Picasso and others, while also introducing all of the new innovations being made in French art. Smith had been introduced to Picasso by Graham before, when he was shown a copy of Cahiers d’Art. All of these elements combine to form a solid picture of Smith’s artistic impetus in the mid-1930s. It was a time when he was shifting away from the styles of American Modernism and embracing new ideas about abstraction. This complete abstraction of a definite subject paved the way for his later nonrepresentational works.

Smith began as a painter, and this persisted throughout his career to some degree or other. “I’ve been painting sculpture all my life. As a matter of fact, the reason I became a sculptor is that I was a first a painter” (ibid., p. 132). This confluence of media is immediately noticeable when comparing Untitled (Billiard Players) to its sculptural corollary made the following year titled Billiard Player Construction (1937). This small work in metal has some of the same visual elements as the painting, including the angular shape referencing the player’s cocked arm and the small yellow/gold sphere near the apex of the composition. The metal works of the mid-1930s were made near the beginning of Smith’s foray into sculpture, and the conversation between the two Billiard Player pieces serves as a perfect illustration of this juncture.

Born in Indiana, Smith moved to New York City in 1926. There he met his future wife, Dorothy Deher, who encouraged him to enroll in the Art Students League. While studying painting and drawing there, he befriended artists like Adolph Gottlieb and Milton Avery. He studied painting under the Czech-born American artist Jan Matulka, and it was he who introduced Smith to the potential of “cones and cubes and Cézanne” (ibid., p. 24). When the Great Depression hit in the 1930s, Smith and his fellow artists started working for the Works Progress Administration under the Federal Art Project. It was during this time that he started devoting more time to sculpture that he pieced together from metal parts and detritus. The artist noted, “I cannot conceive of a work and buy materials. I need a truckload before I can work on one. To look at it every day, 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). In his two-dimensional works, this notion is maintained as Smith pulled from various visual source, not content to merely mimic the style of his predecessors. He took the Cubist ideals to heart and pushed beyond by further abstracting and manipulating visual elements until the subjects are subsumed by their environment.

Smith’s paintings of the 1930s signal a major shift in both his own work and American Modernism in general. With the influx of European artists and art to the United States in the first part of the 20th century, ideas and styles began to intermingle, combine, and coalesce into something distinctly American. Smith’s interest in navigating space, form, and their interactions in multiple dimensions, is clearly on view in Untitled (Billiard Players) and its iron twin Billiard Player Construction. It is clear that working out how to more accurately depict the supremely abstracted notions of spatial representation in painting lead the artist inexorably onward toward his pioneering innovations in nonrepresentational sculpture.

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