Family Totem, 1951 is an outstanding David Smith sculpture, executed during a particularly fecund period for the artist and during a breakthrough period of critical acclaim and recognition. Smith's early artistic career coincided with the beginning of The Great Depression, which hampered his ability to sell his work and to a certain extent, limited his ability to afford working materials. Despite working and exhibiting since 1930, it wasn't until 1940 (in his 19th exhibition) that Smith reported--"I had a show at Willard-J.B. Neumann...first piece I ever sold to a collector was out of this exhibition" (D. Smith as quoted in David Smith by David Smith: Sculpture and Writings, London, 1968, p. 28). His next show in 1941 of Medals for Dishonor had similar results--"Had a show (of the Medals) at Willard--enthusiastically received--never sold a one" (Ibid, p. 31).
Smith's career picked up steam in the 1940's and with the end of World War II, the economy and the art market began to expand, with works by Abstract Expressionists garnering serious critical attention, albeit still with lukewarm sales. Although meager by today's standards, his income increased in the late 1940's as did the number of exhibitions in which he was included. In 1951, the year of the present lot's creation, he was featured in twelve exhibitions, including the landmark survey at the Museum of Modern Art Abstract Painting and Sculpture in America, the Sao Paulo Bienial and two solo exhibitions. Perhaps most importantly, the artist won a fellowship from the Guggenheim Foundation in 1950, which was renewed in 1951. Works executed at this time were signed with a "G" or as in the case of Family Totem, "G2".
Armed with the confidence of perpetual exhibiting and the Guggenheim's financial boost, Smith created a number of seminal works. In addition to the present lot, Smith created masterpieces such as Australia, The Banquet and Hudson River Landscape (all from 1951). A common element of these works are their insistent two-dimensionality. Although rewarding from a variety of angles, Family Totem was created much like a drawing in space and is meant to be seen head-on.
Smith's career is one of recycling--themes and strategies as well as steel and iron parts. Family Totem in many ways looks back to his 1930's works when he first under the spell of Giacometti's influential Palace at 4 A.M., which he saw in the exhibition Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism at the Museum of Modern Art in 1936. Family Totem is a table-top tableaux, consisting of abstracted personages and structural elements. Smith integrates the figure and architectural elements, much like a cubist painter incorporates the figure with its surroundings.
Smith's works tend to be read as abstracted personnages. As in all of Smith's best works, Family Totem does not permit any single interpretation, but the sculpture may reference two standing figures, with an erect male figure at the left standing next to a female figure at the right that appears to be handing over a small bundle, perhaps a child. At the same time, a number of forms appear to be bird-like, suggesting the sculpture is a kind of aviary. There is bird-shaped body at the lower right and the head at the upper left is about to be fed a "meal" of a wriggling worm.
Smtith's exposure to Cubism and Constructivism, through discourse with his peers and reading European art magazines such as Cahiers d'Art led him to experiment with relief paintings and ultimately to take up sculpture. His greatest fame came with working with metal, but Smith never abandoned painting, stating in 1961--"I belong with painters...and I never conceived of myself as anything other than a painter because my work came right through the raised surface and color and objects applied to the surface....I painted for some years. I've never given it up; I always, even if I'm having trouble with a sculpture, I always paint my troubles out" (D. Smith as quoted in David Smith by David Smith: Sculpture and Writings, London, 1968, p. 106).
In addition to an impressive oeuvre of paintings and works on paper, many of Smith's sculptures are polychromed. Family Totem is colored a rich, dark red that blends with the rust-brown of the steel to create a seductive patina. "Color adds another challenge. And I don't like pretty colors. I like kind of raw colors...I've just now got some real nice, rough, raw colors...My idea of color, for me, real gutty" (D. Smith as quoted in David Smith by David Smith: Sculpture and Writings, London, 1968, p. 124).
Smith was initially influenced by the open wire sculptures of Pablo Picasso and Julio Gonzalez. He was able to weld with an incredible facility and imagination, utilizing cut metal, found scraps and abandoned tools into the service of creating works with a wide emotional range. His compositions range from densely muscular to airly elegant and the tone shifts from humorous to menacing, nurturing to predatory. "Smith's great achievement was to have understood the sculptural possiblities of cubism and to have developed them to an absolute limit, far beyond that reached by earlier cubist sculptors" (E. Fry, David Smith, New York, 1969, p. 14). This sentiment was echoed fourteen years later--"one may say without exaggeration, Smith explored the possibilities of metal sculpture more fully than any artist befoe or since--more, even, than Picasso or Julio Gaonzalez" (R. Hughes Nothing if Not Critical, 1987, p. 207).
Pablo Picasso, Construction, 1928-1929 c 2003 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Alberto Giacommetti, The Cage, 1930-1931, Collection Moderna Museet, Stockholm c 2003 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris