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

Tanktotem VIII

David Smith (1906-1965)
Tanktotem VIII
incised with artist's signature, title and date 'David Smith Tnk VIII 8 14 1960' (on the base)
painted steel
79 1/2 x 29 x 11 1/2 in. (201.9 x 73.7 x 29.2 cm)
Executed in 1960.
Collection of the artist
Estate of the artist
Marlborough Gallery, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner
G. Dorfles, "David Smith: A Lesson in Modernity," Metro, no. 4-5, 1961, fig. 4 and 8 (illustrated).
V. Raynor, "In the Galleries," Arts, v. 26, no. 2, November 1961, p. 38 (illustrated).
F. O'Hara, "David Smith: The Color of Steel," Art News, v. 60, no. 8, December 1961, p. 33 (illustrated).
U. Gertz, Plastik der Gegenwart, 3rd edition, Berlin, 1964, pp. 220-221 and 263 (illustrated).
David Smith 1906-1965: A Retrospective Exhibition, exh. cat., Cambridge, Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University, 1966, p. 78, no. 395 (illustrated).
C. Gray, ed., David Smith by David Smith, New York, 1968, pp. 127 and 176 (illustrated).
A. Hammacher, The Evolution of Modern Sculpture, New York, 1969, p. 298, fig. 338 (illustrated).
R. Krauss, The Sculpture of David Smith, A Catalogue Raisonné, New York and London, 1977, p. 91, no. 495 (illustrated).
David Smith: Seven Major Themes, exh. cat., Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art, 1982, p. 55, fig. 27 (illustrated).
L. Siegel, "An American Rilke: The Sculpture of David Smith," Slate.com, 9 February 2006, n.p. (illustrated in color).
B. Gopnik, "'David Smith: A Centennial' at the Guggenheim," Washington Post, 12 March 2006, pp. N1 and N4 (illustrated).
K. Marshall, "An Artistic Giant Among Us," Post Star (Glens Falls, N.Y.), 9 April 2006, p. B1 (illustrated in color).
K. E. Silver, "The Colossus of Bolton Landing," Art in America, October 2006, p. 160 (illustrated in color).
S. Hamill, David Smith: Works, Writings, Interviews, Barcelona, 2011, pp. 106 and 130-131 (illustrated in color).
J. Pachner, David Smith, London, 2013, p. 141, fig. 116 (illustrated in color).
New York, Otto Gerson Gallery, David Smith: Recent Sculpture, October 1961, no. 2.
Palm Beach, The Society of the Four Arts, Alexander Calder/ Louise Nevelson/ David Smith, March–April 1971, no. 31 (illustrated).
Mountainville, Storm King Art Center, David Smith Exhibition, September-October 1976, p. 16.
Mountainville, Storm King Art Center, The Fields of David Smith (Part III), May–November 1999, p. 142.
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, pp. 325, 327 and 448, no. 84 (illustrated in color).

Brought to you by

Sara Friedlander
Sara Friedlander

Lot Essay

Tanktomen VIII bears the mark of protean postwar sculptor David Smith’s unique brand of alchemy. Assemblages of welded industrial scrap metal—including boiler parts and cylindrical steel tank parts—metamorphose into an exquisite form. Empty space becomes physical material with the capacity to penetrate or circumscribe. Geometric and linear forms are rendered abstractly anthropomorphic, with all the animism of the totemic. Truly a “drawing in space,” Tanktomen VIII brings its confident steel geometry into the viewer’s dimensional zone. Gestural applications of paint endow Tanktotem VIII with lush colors from melon to midnight blue; the brushstrokes tie the industrial-type construction to Abstract Expressionist painting. An exemplar of Smith’s sculptural oeuvre, the present work masterfully surpasses the perceived limitations of media categories to become its own genre of magical object. Smith’s work irrevocably changed the history of sculpture, and renowned Modernist critic Clement Greenberg declared Smith “the best sculptor of his generation” (C. Greenberg, “David Smith,” Clement Greenberg: The Collected Essays and Criticisms Vol. 3, Chicago, 1993, p. 277).

Erect, vertical, and hieratic, Tanktotem VIII is sustained by a tensile sophistication: a graceful rigor or stark delicacy. To make the present sculpture, Smith carefully selected large-scale steel forms and proceeded to cut, paint, and weld them into a masterful assemblage. At the work’s center is a convex disc, a manufactured boiler tank part that Smith ordered from a catalogue. On the convex side, the part curves like some luminous sea-shell in a melon sunset; on its brightly colored, concave reverse, the form boasts a gouged intensity. The curved object is welded to an industrial blue-black pole that engorges slightly at the midsection in a playful fusion of masculine and feminine elements. At the head of Tanktomen VIII are dark blue, sequentially arranged circles and rectangles that very nearly connote a windmill, overlapping as if in motion. From one perspective, the viewer is confronted with a single white circle, a swollen-bellied moon still and solemn amid night’s blue-black whims. While the sculpture’s distinct geometries and hues maintain a level of autonomy, they also cannot be disassociated from the whole formed by their union: an unexpected pointillism. In fact, Smith himself noted that he had an unusual “preoccupation with parts” (D. Smith, “Notes on My Work,” Arts Magazine, February 1960, n.p.) Thus Tanktotem VIII allows for perpetual visual exploration, providing a feast for the eye that dramatically and unexpectedly shifts relative to one’s position in space.

Through the 1950s, Smith worked in overlapping series. The Tanktotems series, commenced in 1952, uses the incorporation of boiler tank tops as its binding motif. The work in this pivotal series broke new ground by abandoning the form of the pedestal. Each Tanktotem sculpture instead plants itself resolutely on the ground. In a nod to the resultant anthropomorphism, Smith fondly referred to his modern totems as “personages” and arranged them like watchmen on the grounds of his domicile in Bolton Landing, New York. Poet Frank O’Hara wrote that Smith’s “personages” reminded him of “people who are awaiting admittance to a formal reception and, while they wait, are thinking about their roles when they join the rest of the guests already in the meadow” (F. O’Hara, quoted in M. Perloff, Frank O’Hara: Poet Among Painters, Chicago, 1997, p. 24). There is certainly an element of the poetic in the opaque, charming animism of Tanktotem VIII.

David Smith drew inspiration from Pablo Picasso’s and Julio González’s iron sculptures, the former of which he came across in Cahiers d’art in 1929 and the latter of which he was introduced to by John Graham in 1932. Smith used the Spanish sculptors’ notion of “drawing in space” as a point of departure and pioneered a distinctly American form of the phenomenon using industrial materials. In fact, it is believed that Smith was the first in the United States to make welded metal sculptures. The art historical references in Tanktotem VIII certainly don’t end at Picasso. The work’s simple geometric forms have Constructivist influences, their collation equally evocative of a Cubist collage; the brilliant simplicity of the sculpture’s construction carries aesthetic links to Minimalism; and the totem referred to in the title—the Freudian object both desired and taboo—was a motif frequently employed by the Surrealists. In the fabrication of this unique work, Smith was clearly drawing from a wealth of art historical knowledge.

Smith was born the son of an engineer in Decatur, Indiana in 1906. As a youth he made cartoons and worked in an automobile shop as a riveter. He pursued study at the Arts Student League with encouragement from his soon-to-be wife Dorothy Dehner. In the early days of his practice, the artist made his sculptures in a room at Brooklyn welding shop Terminal Iron Works. Smith and Dehner eventually moved to Bolton Landing, where Smith developed a collage aesthetic in his sculpture, working with wood, aluminum, stone, metal, and found materials in a studio that he fitted with a forge and anvil. In 1938, Smith had his first solo show at Marian Willard’s East River Gallery, and widespread public recognition and praise were soon to follow. A 1950 Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship allowed Smith to focus on his studio practice; his work became increasingly larger and more streamlined. By the 1960s, the artist was painting his industrial sculptures with brightly colored, gestural strokes. Produced just five years before the artist’s tragic and untimely death in an automobile accident, Tanktotem VIII was forged at the apex of Smith’s creative vision.

Tanktomen VIII refuses to be confined to the limitations of a single medium. The work is at once sculpture, drawing, painting, collage, and industrial welding, and perhaps, in being all of those things, it is also none of them: as Modernist curator and critic Karen Wilkin eloquently wrote of Smith, “It’s arguable that he was never an abstract sculptor at all, but instead, an inspired translator of perceptions into new, self-sufficient, surprising objects” (K. Wilkin, “David Smith: A Centennial,” The Brooklyn Rail, April 2006, n.p. [accessed online]).

More from Post-War and Contemporary Evening Sale

View All
View All