David Smith (1906-1965)
The Arthur and Anita Kahn Collection: A New York Story
David Smith (1906-1965)

Billiard Player Construction

David Smith (1906-1965)
Billiard Player Construction
incised with artist's signature and dated 'David Smith 1937' (on the base)
iron and oil on artist's painted wood base
16 1/4 x 20 1/2 x 5 5/8 in. (41.2 x 52 x 14.2 cm.)
Executed in 1937.
The estate of the artist
Marlborough-Gerson Gallery, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner
J. Cone, David Smith 1906-1965. A Retrospective Exhibition, Cambridge, 1966, p. 65, no. 17.
J. Canaday, Art: Some Recent History of Sculpture," New York Times, 29 April 1967, p. 31.
R. Krauss, The Sculpture of David Smith: A Catalogue Raisonné, New York and London, 1977, p. 8, no. 53.
R. Dellamora, "The Sculpture and Drawings of David Smith: 1933-1950." Arts, November 1981-January 1982, p. 37 (illustrated).
From The Life of the Artist: A Documentary View of David Smith. An Exhibition Drawn from the David Smith Papers, Washington D.C., Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, 1982, p. 26 (illustrated).
S. Madoff, "David Smith at Knoedler." Art in America, October 1982, p. 128.
J. Pachner, "David Smith: The Formative Years." Arts, June 1982, p. 60-61.
K. Wilkin, David Smith, New York, 1984, pp. 88 & 89, pl. 102 & 103 (illustrated in color).
A. Schwartz, David Smith: The Prints, New York, 1987 (illustrated).
A. Marshall, "A Study of the Surfaces of David Smith's Sculpture," Studies in the History of Art, 1995, p. 91.
"David Smith," Bellas Artes, March 1996, p. 11 (illustrated).
"David Smith, Heredero de Picasso y Gonzalez," Correo del Arte, May 1996.
Twentieth-Century American Art: the Ebsworth Collection, Washington D.C., 2000, pp. 238-39, fig 1 (illustrated).
S. Munson, "David Smith's Vision," Commentary, May 2006.
K. Silver, "The Colossus of Bolton Landing," Art in America, October 2006, p. 155.
R. Spence, "Something in the Way She Moved," Art News, February 2006, p. 33.
N. Trotman and K. Kanatani, "New York: David Smith" and "Sackler Center: Smith at Work," 2006, p. 7 (illustrated).
J. Shikoff, When Modern was Contemporary: The Roy R. Neuberger Collection, Purchase, 2014, pp. 195–196.
New York, East River Gallery, David Smith: Steel Sculpture, January–February 1938.
New York, East River Gallery, Two Years in Review, May 1938 (illustrated).
Saint Paul Gallery and School of Art, Wrought Iron Abstract Sculpture by David Smith, March–April 1940, no. 14.
Minneapolis, University Gallery, University of Minnesota, David Smith: The Esoteric and the Fanciful, December 1940, no. 14.
New York, Buchholz Gallery and Willard Gallery, The Sculpture of David Smith, January 1946, no. 3.
New York, Marlborough-Gerson Gallery, David Smith: Eight Early Works. 1935-1938, April 1967, no. 7 (illustrated).
Mountainville, Storm King Art Center, David Smith Exhibition, May–October 1976, pp. 15.
Providence, Daniel Winton Bell Gallery, Brown University, Graham, Gorky, Smith & Davis in the Thirties, April–May 1977, p. 25, no. 23(illustrated).
Alberta, The Edmonton Art Gallery; Manitoba, Winnipeg Art Gallery; Ontario, Art Gallery of Windsor; Seattle Art Museum; Ontario, Art Gallery of Hamilton; New York, M. Knoedler and Company; David Smith, The Formative Years: Sculptures and Drawings from the 1930s and 1940s, January 1981–May 1982, pp. 20-21 and 32, no. 5, fig. 6 (illustrated).
Washington D.C., Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden; Texas, San Antonio Museum of Art, David Smith: Painter, Sculptor, Draftsman, November 1982–June 1983, pp. 12 and 64, no. 29 (illustrated).
Pittsburgh, Carnegie Museum of Art; The Minneapolis Institute of Arts; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, Abstract Painting and Sculpture in America, 1927-1944, November 1983–September 1984, pp. 138 and 224, no. 134 (illustrated in color).
Frankfurt, Stadtische Galerie im Städelschen Kunstinstitut; Düsseldorf, Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen; London, Whitechapel Art Gallery, David Smith: Skulpturen, Zeichnungen [David Smith: Sculpture and Drawings], March 1986-January 1987, p. 57, no. 4 (illustrated).
New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Picasso and the Age of Iron, March 19-May 16 1993, pp. 103 and 224, no. 103 (illustrated).
Valencia, Instituto Valenciano de Arte Moderno and Madrid, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, David Smith 1906-1965, January-July 1996, pp. 178-179 and 258 (illustrated).
Roslyn Harbor, Nassau County Museum of Art, Twentieth Century Sculpture, March–May 1999, pp. 20 and 44 (illustrated).
New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum; Paris, Centre Pompidou, Musée National d'art moderne and London, Tate Modern, David Smith: A Centennial, February 2006-January 2007, p. 284, no. 17 (illustrated in color).
Paris, Musée National d'Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, June–August 2006, pp. 40, 54, 94-95, 290-91, no. 5 (illustrated).

Brought to you by

Saara Pritchard
Saara Pritchard

Lot Essay

“I believe that my time is the most important in the world. That the art of my time is the most important art… Art is not divorced from life. It is dialectic. It is ever changing and in revolt to the past... I believe that art is yet to be born and that freedom and equality are yet to be born—David Smith (D. Smith, David Smith, New York, 1972, p. 132.)

While David Smith is most known for his monumental abstract sculptures, the works he produced in the earliest years of his sculptural explorations overthrew the prevailing stereotypes of the genre. Smith made most of his early sculptures on a small scale, and often portrayed human figures as his subjects. The sculptures Smith created between 1935 and 1936 provide visual evidence of the artist’s shifting interest from painting to sculpture as his primary medium, as well as his transition between working predominantly in the Cubist and Surrealist styles to creating fully abstract works.

Smith’s Billiard Player Construction is comprised of two planes of iron which resemble a billiard player leaning in to place a shot with his cue. The frontal plane, depicting the billiard player’s shoulders and elbows, is coated with red and blue oil paint, instilling the sculpture with a spirit of playfulness. Smith’s application of paint to the surface marks his refusal to give up painting even when focusing on sculpting: “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” (D. Smith, David Smith, New York, 1972, p. 132). Behind the solid metal mass of the player’s upper body, Smith shaped the player’s head from a thinner vertical piece of steel. Winding in and around of the holes in the steel are pieces of twisted metal, which suggest the features of a human face in an abstract manner. The winding wire recalls the Surrealist act of creating automatic line drawings. Smith would have been familiar with Surrealism by exhibiting some early sculptures at the Julian Levy Gallery in 1934 and his general involvement with the New York artistic milieu during that time. The sharp angles of the billiard player’s body and Smith’s fragmenting of his subject’s body into separate sections also incorporates elements of Cubism; Smith credits Jan Matulka, under whom he studied, with introducing him to the possibilities of “cones and cubes and Cézanne” (Ibid., p. 24).

David Smith moved to New York from Indiana in the early 1930s to pursue a career as an artist. His previous work experience at an automobile manufacturing plant, would greatly inform his new career path. “Riveting, drilling, stamping etc. [sic] all fell into my duties but my interest was the $45 to $50 per week which would enable me to study in New York” (ibid., 53). Smith began studying painting at the famous Art Students’ League under such instructors as John Sloan and Jan Matulka, and would continue to paint throughout his life. Eventually, however, he would focus most intently on creating the three-dimensional metal sculpture for which he is now best remembered.

Critics and art historians often assert that Smith was the pioneer of ‘drawing in space’ in America, challenging the traditional idea that sculpture was about solid mass rather than the interaction between material and space. Smith was welding together disparate metal parts in his sculptures at a time when the act of sculpting largely consisted of carving away materials from a single source, like a block of marble, or casting a preliminary plaster cast into bronze. Smith drew inspiration from Giacometti’s early Surrealist sculptures as well as the metal sculptures on which Pablo Picasso and Julio González collaborated between 1928 and 1929. A clear influence on Smith’s later style is Picasso’s and González’s Project for a Monument for Guillaume Apollinaire (1962 enlarged version after a 1928 maquette, Museum of Modern Art, New York.) Picasso sketched his design for a monument dedicated to the French poet with simple lines on paper, and enlisted his friend, Spanish sculptor González, to realize his vision in three dimensions. Like Smith, González experimented with welding in his works, and was interested in exploring the possibilities of line and space in his works. In The Palace at 4 a. m. (1932, Museum of Modern art, New York) Giacometti used thin wooden rods to construct a skeletal house frame. The interior of the house is populated with Surrealist figures made of wood, glass, wire, and string. Yet Giacometti’s sculpture is as much about the empty space around his construction as the construction itself, and the empty spaces between his materials are what imbue his sculpture with a haunting, Surrealist air.

While Smith drew inspiration from these works, his works are uniquely his own. Smith had a deep understanding of the history of welding metal sculpture, which extended back thousands of years to ancient civilizations in Egypt and Mesopotamia. However, his works contain references that are uniquely personal as well as representative of American society in his time. Smith noted about his choice of materials, “Since I had worked in factories and made parts of automobiles and had worked on telephone lines I saw a chance to make sculpture in a tradition I was already rooted in” (Ibid., p. 25). Smith’s preferred working materials, iron and steel, bring to mind capitalist industry, the military-industrial complex, mass production on factory assembly lines, and advances in industrial technology that continued to change the lives of people during the twentieth century. Smith’s use of steel also reflects the economic circumstances of America in the 1930s. Using a relatively cheap and common material for his sculptures, Smith engaged with the Depression-era mindset of resourcefulness and thriftiness. In spite of the influence of early twentieth century artistic trends like Cubism and Surrealism in his early work, Smith’s use of industrial metals prefigured the Minimalist artists who would later work with such materials by decades.

Early Smith sculptures like Billiard Player Construction expose the artist at the most important part of his career. Transitioning from drawing and painting, Smith began working with welded and twisted metals, yet the linear and colorful aspects of works like Billiard Player Construction reveal that he never truly left the earliest form of art-making he learned behind. Building off ideas put forth by a small group of earlier ground-breaking sculptures, Smith was integral in changing the face of American sculpture and the potential of metal, line, and open space in sculpture.

More from Post-War and Contemporary Art Morning Session

View All
View All