WORKS FROM THE DR ROBERT AND HELEN MANDELBAUM COLLECTION
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“Do you make art your life, that which always comes first and occupies every moment, the last problem before sleep and the first awaking vision?” (D. Smith, undated typescript, David Smith Papers, c. 1953-54). This question could be asked only by an artist such as David Smith, who understood what it meant to “make art your life,” to be committed to the kind of intensity of physical presence apparent in a work like Albany VIII. Smith constructs part-by-part the grammar of cubist intersecting planes out of an array of geometric shapes – abutted, balanced, and poised to create a unified whole that compels vision in a way achieved only by very few twentieth-century artists. Albany VIII draws the viewer in, its seeming erect posture – a “torso,” a “head,” “feet” – schematized as an abstract form, which is then welded together to form a single sturdy entity enhanced and unified by Smith’s blackening it with a coat of paint. In this way, Albany VIII becomes a tactile, and therefore sensuous cross-section of planes that compels the viewer through its kinetic and optical charge.
Viewed from all sides Albany VIII reveals a complex and exquisite matrix, carved out of space in such a way that myriad relationships emerge and elements boldly interconnect. Yet all activity is held fast to the base on which it is enacted. Pictorial and illusionistic elements spring to mind as we contemplate how the rising form is held fast, the manner in which the juxtaposition of right angles converge on the central vertical axis, and finally how solid forms of steel create the negative space opened up by the intersecting planes. The art historian Rosalind Krauss identified a persistent theme coursing through Smith’s work from the early 1940s through to this splendid sculpture from 1960. Displayed here and in much other of Smith’s sculpture is a figure bound to its base almost in ritualistic fashion, as “a victim anatomically wedded to the altar or table of ritual destruction” (R. Krauss, “The Totem,” in Terminal Sculptures, Cambridge, MA and London, 1971, p. 104 and note 51). The base sutures the figure in such way that an oppositional tension between the welded “feet” and the almost soaring open-ended circular shape that describes the “head” is viscerally palpable.
Smith has at times used such contrasts in formal composition to suggest an underlying socio-political stance. This is not to say that Smith is a political artist, but only that his works are equally expressive on formal and programmatic levels. When Smith had described a sculpture from 1950, The Cathedral, using language that had undertones of social awareness, he was also describing generally the passion and intensity with which he creates his art. To illustrate the concept of the individual subjugated by power in The Cathedral, Smith posed a central figure prostrate at the base, which for him “…expresses the concept of sacrifice” (E. de Kooning, “David Smith Makes a Sculpture,” in Reading Abstract Expressionism, ed. E. Landau, New Haven and London, 2005, p. 167). Ten years later, the notion of the figure grounded by the base survives in the present work. As with the other series such as the Voltri, the Tanktotems, the Zigs through which Smith wove his production of the fourteen “table-top” sculptures that comprise the Albany series, the artist continued to investigate on a monumental scale the figure welded to the base. This thematic, then, incorporates the base into the totality of juxtapositions of contrasting geometric forms and linear silhouettes as they describe arcs and elongated triangles with a powerful directional force rare in the sculpture of Smith’s contemporaries.
Smith selects shapes from a cache of found objects and positions, then welds them vertically and horizontally, rising one atop another or poised precariously at a diagonal. Smith describes his syntax of welding parts into a whole as similar to way he constructed locomotives during WWII when he worked at the American Locomotive Company in Schenectady, NY. “The locomotive method bows to no accepted theory in fabrication. It stands upon the merit of the finished product. The locomotive function incorporates castings, forgings, rivets, welding, brazing, bolts, screws, shrink, all used because of their respective efficiency in arriving at a functioning object. Each method imparts its function to varying materials. I use the same method in organizing the visual aesthetic end” (D. Smith, “Notes for ‘David Smith Makes a Sculpture,’” written for Elaine de Kooning, Art News, September 1951, in David Smith Sculpture and Drawings, ed. J. Merket, Munich, 1986, p. 148).
It is this method that is as relevant for the aesthetic formation of Albany VIII as it is for the entire series executed between 1959 and 1962. Even the title of the series follows function: rather than create an irrelevant or even illusionistic title, Smith found a “point of identification,” by “just call[ing] it from the town I got it from” (R. Krauss, The Sculpture of David Smith: A Catalogue Raisonné, New York, 1977, p. 85). Which is to say that the materials, the thick cuts of steel describing a schematic shape, a specific surface, and a particular structure – at once obdurate and lithe, dense and porous – can be described only in terms of their origin: “The only tangible was the place where I bought the steel. They are otherwise abstract” (D. Smith quoted in R. Krauss, ibid., p. 111).
Smith chose steel for the “Albany” series in part because no tradition governed its finishes, castings, or patinas; no limits existed in terms of what sorts of surface defined a pre-existing aesthetic standard. “Steel has the greatest tensile strength, the most facile working ability, as long as its nature relates to the aesthetic demand” (D. Smith “Notes,’” ibid., p. 148). Smith redefined what the “aesthetic demand” could be with Albany VIII: his personal vision could be realized in materials and patinas such as steel and paint. Albany VIII is part of Smith’s “visionary projection of what the next sculptures are to be. One of the projections is to push beauty to the very edge of rawness” (D. Smith, quoted in David Smith by David Smith, ed. Cleve Grey, New York, 1968, p. 77).