'The only tangible [element] was the place where I bought the steel. They are otherwise abstract' -David Smith
(D. Smith, quoted by R. Krauss, The Sculpture of David Smith: A Catalogue Raisonné, New York, 1977, p. 85).
David Smith challenged the limits of traditional sculpture throughout his career. In his early work of the 1930s, he expanded the dialogue between sculptural mass and open space and in his later monumental sculptures, he investigated issues of balance, surface, and the interaction of his works with the sky, mountains, and foliage around them. Smith often produced sculptures in a series, to work out multiple meditations on a subject in which he sourced inspiration, believing that ideas could be developed and revisited in form continuously.
Smith titled his Albany series of sculptures after the city in which he purchased the materials to create them, and worked on them between 1959 and 1962. “The only tangible [element] was the place where I bought the steel. They are otherwise abstract,” Smith stated to Rosalind Krauss in 1977 (D. Smith, quoted by R. Krauss, The Sculpture of David Smith: A Catalogue Raisonné, New York, 1977, p. 85). Many of the Albany sculptures contain circular or semi-circular forms, yet Albany VII is an exception to that pattern. The form springs from its base almost naturally, in spite of its strong metal material formed with harsh upward-reaching lines. Two small welded arms, one curving around the central form, one spreading out from it, bestow a human-like appearance to the sculpture’s form. Smith exposes rather than conceals the welded areas of the sculpture, challenging ideas about finish in sculpture, and proudly highlighting his then-unorthodox method of construction.
Albany VII is a unique work within the series for its resemblance to the human body and relatively simplistic structure. Completed just a few years before Smith started to work on his Cubi series, comprised of geometric steel shapes stacked and welded atop one another, Albany VII is remarkably fluid, with gently curving arms, simple construction, and only four connected parts. The sculpture highlights Smith’s remarkable skill in forming metal; it seems impossible that a sculpture of black painted steel could seem so light and nimble, and how something constructed from such a sold, unforgiving material could appear ready to spin lightly in midair at any moment.
David Smith began his career as an artist when American modernism was inextricably influenced by the modernist styles of Europe. Smith cites Cubism, Surrealism, and Constructivism as styles which most influenced his early work. Ultimately, during his career, Smith would react against European modernism and help to forge a distinctly American one: “One of the good things about American art is that it doesn’t have the spit and polish that some foreign art has. It’s coarse. One of its virtues is coarseness” (D. Smith, ibid., p. 77). Indeed, one can find vestiges of coarseness, yet grace and delicateness, in the materials, shapes, and surfaces of Smith’s work. While a decidedly modern artist, Smith remained connected to the past. Well-read in the history of sculpting and sculpting techniques, Smith was also interested in exploring his own personal history: “At the time Cézanne was painting… my own family were felling trees for their own houses- clearing and breaking new soil, worrying about Indian raiders and the necessities of survival, the uncertainty of the new territory as a home establishment” (Ibid). Just as Smith’s ancestors expanded the boundaries of the American frontier, Smith fashioned pioneering work in twentieth century sculpture.
Smith’s materials are another prototypically American aspect of his work. Smith incorporated outdated American metal farming tools in his Agricola series of sculptures in the 1950s, in a vocal statement about the importance of the past in his work. While Smith’s choice of metals for materials relates to mass production and advances in technology, it also references the American sensation of car culture, which reached a peak during the time in which he worked. In many works, like Albany VII, Smith painted his steel surfaces, which he likened to the painting of cars in factory assembly lines. In fact, Smith chose to paint his outdoor sculptures with auto enamel rather than an artist’s paint. In spite of connections between his work and factory production and industrial materials, Smith vehemently resisted mass producing or casting any of his works more than once, refusing to compromise their unique nature and the personal touch of his hand and blowtorch in their creation.
Smith preferred to work in a shed and in the open air at his pastoral home in Bolton Landing, a resort town in upstate New York, where he and his wife, artist Dorothy Dehner, temporarily lived in 1929. Attempting to separate himself from the New York art scene, Smith and Dehner moved to Bolton Landing permanently in 1940. Having learned to rivet and weld metals while working at an automobile assembly line in Decatur, Indiana, Smith had to opportunity to improve his technical skills during World War II, working as a welder for the American Locomotive Company. While he had been working with metal sculpture since the early 1930s, it was not until Smith devoted himself to sculpting full-time in 1944 that he began to find critical success and widespread praise of his sculptures. The recipient of two Guggenheim fellowships in the 1950s, Smith was free to create original monumental sculptural works without worrying about financial constraints. His pioneering work of monumental abstract outdoor art during this decade led to a 1957 retrospective of his art at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Smith tragically died in a car accident in 1965, cutting short a career composed of over thirty years of innovative work. Yet in that short amount of time, Smith opened up American sculpture to unforeseen possibilities. In the end, Smith fulfilled the promise he put down in writing before his death: “I’m going to work to the best of my ability to the day I die, challenging what’s given to me” (Ibid., p. 172).