Post Lot Text
Executed in 1962, during a month long burst of exceptional creativity, David Smith’s Untitled (Voltri) belongs to a legendary group of works the artist produced in the Italian city of Voltri, and which have subsequently become some of his most celebrated works. Ranging from large-scale and complex amalgamations of found metal pieces, to more refined and agile compositions (such as the present lot), this body of work sees Smith re-engaging with the fundamentals of his art. During his stay in Italy, freed from both the financial and artistic constraints he encountered back in the U.S.A., Smith developed a unique dialogue between the classical art of the past, and the more modernist sculpture of the present. The result were works that one leading art critic described as being “without precedent in the history of modern art” (E. Fry, quoted by E.A. Carmean, David Smith: The Voltri Sculpture, American Art at Mid-Century, exh. cat., National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1978, p. 217).
In Untitled (Voltri), David Smith presents a holistic combination of exceptional grace and agility produced directly out of the implements of force and manipulation that had traditionally been used as tools. Using two objects that he found in an abandoned workshop—a pair of long-handled pliers and a set of measuring calipers—Smith used their inherent arrangements to carve out a mysterious and sophisticated form belying the utilitarian nature of his chosen materials. Smith assembles the constituent parts without departing much from their original form; more a case of faint enhancement rather than radical reinvention. However, almost unnoticed, Smith infuses each piece with a series of subtle manipulations that, when considered as a whole, allow for a much more complex reading of the work. He twists the precision ends of calipers, making them unsuitable as the measuring devices they were intended to be; he gently twists the body of the pliers, thereby making it difficult for them to fulfill their function; and finally by inserting the tall upright element in the center in the work—in between the two embracing symmetrical arcs of elegant metal—Smith deliberately pierces their pretense of circularity. This discordance ensures that despite the utilitarian nature of Smith’s source materials, his voice as an artist continues to be heard throughout this work.
Smith was invited to make the trip to Italy by the organizers of the Sculpture in the City exhibition, part of the much larger Festival of the Two Worlds held every summer in Spoleto, Perugia. Smith was in distinguished company, as fellow sculptors Alexander Calder, Henry Moore, Eduardo Chillida and Arnaldo Pomodoro were also invited to be part of the festival. Initially, Smith was given free reign of the Italian national steel company (Italsider) factory near Genoa to use as his studio, but he rejected this idea and instead he was given five abandoned factories at Voltri to use, along with the rights to use any material he found there. “Italsider let me roam all the factories,” Smith enthused, “[to] pick out whatever I wanted—let me work without interruption….I was never bothered with officials, questions, teas, social affairs or check-ups—Somehow word was extended that I had privileges—it was a delight and an honor” (D. Smith, quoted by E.A. Carmean, ibid).
The sense of artistic freedom that Smith experienced in Italy was almost palpable. Giovanni Carandente, the Italian art historian who first came up with the idea of Smith’s participation in the Festival, wrote that Smith suddenly came alive when he entered the abandoned factories. “One spring morning he reached the idle scrapheap, those still skeletons, relics of the flesh of steel, inanimate forms that had, not long before, been living symbols of the latest great Iron Age. Glancing around the boneheap, he pondered awhile, and set to work. With his own hands, he improvised a forge, and then he summoned his alter-ago, fire!” (E.A. Carmean, ibid., p. 217). In the 30 days Smith was resident in Italy he produced 26 sculptures, an extraordinary level of artistic output in such a condensed period of time considering that, as Rosalind Krauss has pointed out, he was producing fewer than twenty works per year a decade earlier. The works were then displayed in the ancient Roman amphitheater in Spoleto, a dramatic setting which pleased Smith immensely when he exclaimed “Carandente installed it so well that it looks like it belonged” (Ibid., p. 217).
Because of the close connection between an artist and his tools, critics have identified a distinctive autobiographical element to Smith’s Voltri sculptures. His encounters with an earlier age of steel-making seemed to have re-engaged Smith with his art. He wrote of the experience of exploring the Italsider factory, “Specialty tongs were hand-forged at stations. Since this method was abandoned, the work in progress was left in varying stages of finish. …A thick steel layout table was never white. I had it painted with lime and water. Ancient in use, practical because it was there, it gave me an order contact which from then on let me work freely…” (D. Smith, quoted by E.A. Carmean, David Smith: The Voltri Sculpture, American Art at Mid-Century, exh. cat., National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1978, p. 217).
Smith’s Voltri sculptures are regarded as being among the most accomplished of his career, the result—in part—of the artist’s level ambition but also a result of the inspiration that he drew from Voltri itself. Whether it was his Italian surroundings, the rich array of source material that he was able to take advantage of, or the uninterrupted artistic freedom offered to him by the Festival, Smith was inspired to produce some of his most consummate work. The dialogue he engaged in between the classical world and the inherently 20th-century modern world all combined to enable him to finally realize what he had always wanted to do.