David Smith centered his artistic practice in marking space by embedding welded forms within it. Barons Moon is an exceptional example of the artist's drive to create works in which "space becomes solid, and solids become transparent. ...where 'mass is energy, space is energy, space is mass'" (D. Smith, "Aesthetics, the Artist, and his Audience," quoted in G. McCoy, David Smith, London and New York, 1973, p. 107). An improvisatory sculptor by temperament, Barons Moon was created at the height of Smith's original and visionary artistic trajectory, only a year before his masterful painted series of steel sculptures, Circles and Arcs, Tanktotem, and Cubi, and only a few years before his death in a car accident in 1965. The continuity between works is asserted by the artist's own understanding of the development of his body of work: "When I begin a sculpture I'm not always sure how it is going to end. In a way it has a relationship to the work before, it is in continuity with the previous work-it often holds a promise or a gesture toward the one to follow" (D. Smith, in G. McCoy, ibid., p. 148).
Barons Moon resonates particularly with Circles and Arcs in that they share the association of a vertically upright orientation, referencing a 'human figure' from which "limbs" might extend. To this erect line are joined two additional verticals, which seem to split in two as they extend upward. Atop the strong, vertical rise is mounted a large central linear circle. The short yet assertive right angles jutting perpendicularly from this upward linear force appear to cut the space created by the tondo, while near-geometric shapes attached to the lower trunk are counterpoised diagonally as if welded arcs, triangles, crescents and semi-circular half-moons subtending the figure that might allude to wings extending from a Native American totem pole. This dialogue between linear and solid geometry; hard-angles, and open and divided spaces; and associative figuration and spiritual symbols create a rhythmic vitality shared with the entire series of works from the early 1960s, in which "space is shaped, divided, enclosed, but not to be filled or sealed in" (C. Greenberg, "Sculpture in Our Time," in Clement Greenberg: The Collected Essays And Criticism: Affirmations and Refusals, 1950-1956, ed. J. O'Brian, Vol. 3, Chicago and London, 1993, p. 58). The dynamic combination of steel assemblage techniques--in the present work, the juxtaposed welding together of discrete found objects subsumed into a new sculptural identity--and "aerial drawing in metal" is a hallmark of Smith's abstract, fully expressionistic style, which Greenberg further characterized as a series of binary opposites, "a complex simplicity, an economic abundance, starkness made delicate, and physical fragility that supports the attributes of monumentality: these are the abstract elements comprehended in the canon of Smith's art" (C. Greenberg, "David Smith," Art in America, Winter 1956-1957, ibid., pp. 277, 279).
Although Smith left no statement or note that explicitly explains the title Barons Moon, it seems likely that it refers to the fairy tales attributed to the eighteenth-century German nobleman Hieronymus Carl Friedrich Baron von Münchausen, and specifically to the story of his trip to the moon to retrieve a silver hatchet that he had thrown at some bears (but which flew far wide of its intended target). The first of many compilations of the Surprising Adventures of Baron Munchausen was published, in English, in 1785, and editions circulated widely in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Smith's daughter, Rebecca, remembers that her father owned and particularly cherished a book of Baron Münchausen stories, which he often read to her and her sister when they were children.
Smith moved from the Midwest to New York in 1926 during a time when a heady mix of American Regionalism and Social Realism volleyed with groundbreaking exhibitions and retrospectives featuring the advances of European modernism, Dada, Surrealism, Constructivism and Cubism, with its primitive forms and gestures. Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, Adolph Gottlieb and Jackson Pollock were among the young artists surrounding Smith who would soon be subsumed under the rubric Abstract Expressionists. Smith attended the Art Students League where he was first exposed to Modern art. "When I lived and studied in Ohio, I had a very vague sense of what art wasmostly art was reproduction, from far away, from an age past and from some golden shorerequiring special equipment of an almost secret nature, that could only be found in Paris or possibly New York" (D. Smith, "Talk at the American Federation of Arts conference," Corning, New York, October 30, 1953, in G. McCoy, op. cit., pp. pp. 146-8). What Smith found in New York, however, was an openness to extemporization, artists working "with anything at hand, building board, raw canvas, self-primed canvas, with or without brushes, on the easel, on the floor, on the wall, no rules, no secret equipment, no anything, except the conviction of the artist, his challenge to the world and his own identity" (D. Smith, in G. McCoy, ibid., p. 148). Such extraordinary freedom was both elating and destabilizing. For Smith, sculpture had been the bearer of its own mythology, projecting an "ethereal poetic character divinely sent" So intimidated was he that taking up the tools of the medium came only gradually, at first through easel painting to which he then added objects from the material world and then painted bas reliefs. But it was only when Smith was introduced by the Russian émigré artist and enlightened collector John Graham to published photographs of welded sculpture by Pablo Picasso and Julio González, the latter artist collected by Graham, that Smith realized he could combine the skills he had perfected as a master welder at the Studebaker car factory in Indiana with the technical requirements of the discipline. "[Seeing] the Picasso-González iron constructions of 1931 was the liberating factor which permitted me to start with steel, which before had been my trade, and had until now only meant labor and earning power for the study of painting" (D. Smith I C. Gray, ed., David Smith by David Smith, New York, 1968, p. 68). What González in particular brought to Smith was the notion of the void as a working parameter in sculpture, as can be seen in works such as Tête dite 'le tunnel,' circa 1932-1933, on which Smith based one of his first sculptures, and Small Sculpture of Abstract Space, circa 1933-1934, in the collection of the David Smith Estate. For González-as for Smith-the notion of the open space becomes an element in the creative process. Maurice Raynal, patron of artists such as Picasso and Juan Gris, had christened González the "sculptor of the void," proclaiming that the sculptor's "audacity has pushed González to no longer consider the void as some sort of framed mirror...but also as a sort of solid element on which one can freely build" (M. Raynal: introduction to González's 1934 exhibition at the Galerie Percier, Paris reproduced in P. Descargues, Julio González, Paris 1971, pp. 144-6). Smith, too, was singled out for his creative use of the void-as can be seen to extraordinary effect in Barons Moon-by the influential critic of modernism in America, Clement Greenberg, who proclaimed Smith "possibly the most powerful yet subtle sculptor that this country has yet produced" (C. Greenberg, "Cross-Breeding of Modern Sculpture," Art News, Summer 1952, in Clement Greenberg, Collected Essay, ed. O'Brian, op. cit., p. 112).
Barons Moon is an example of Smith's painted steel sculpture. During his early explorations in sculpture, Smith had painted his steel works in emulation of the painted enamel advertising signs populating contemporary mass culture. In 1940, he had mocked the 'dead dark [of bronzes], and marble-dead white' (D. Smith, in G. McCoy, op cit., p. 46 and S. Hamill, "Polychrome in the Sixties: David Smith and Anthony Caro," in Anglo-American Exchange in Postwar Sculpture, 1945-1975, Los Angeles, 2011, p. 91). By the 1960s, Smith had returned to painted steel, in part under the influence of a younger group of artists who used color as their primary expressive means. Like his close friends Kenneth Noland and Jules Olitski, Smith turned again to paint-white in particular-as a "vital step" toward polychrome, but in many cases, as in the present work, for finished pieces, which he coated in white paint. In 1999, Irving Sandler wrote that "[Smith] pointed to an all-white piece and remarked that he had put seventeen coats of white on it before he got the color right" (I. Sandler, "David Smith, A Memoir," in C. Smith, The Fields of David Smith, Mountainville, N.Y., 1999, p.50).
Barons Moon is an important work at the intersection of Smith's most ambitious contributions to American art, a work at once improvisational, motivically foundational, painted and manipulated with the conviction of a master at the height of his production. "Sculpture can be painting and painting can be sculpture and no authority can overrule the artist in his declaration" (D. Smith, in McCoy, op. cit., p.148). Smith forged a liminal space between painting and sculpture, entirely manifest in Barons Moon. Both rugged and lyrical, it exemplifies Smith's assertive, almost belligerent commitment to the medium, a medium that he worked both with boldness and with what Greenberg called an "aggressive originality." As Smith averred, "The artist's language is the memory from sightIt comes from the inside of who you are when you face yourself. It is an inner declaration of purpose [forming] all the parts into the whole expression, all actions in an emotional flow, [which] manifests the artist as subject" (Ibid., p. 148).