Like his friends Barnett Newman and Willem de Kooning, David Smith was obsessed with reconciling the figure and abstraction. De Kooning never gave up the figure, though his slashed and dismembered women came close to the edge of complete abstraction. Newman substituted an abstract symbol--the "zip", a thin, vertical linear element in his paintings--for the presence of the figure. Smith, whose works can be viewed, as can Newman's, as totally abstract, utilized figural imagery throughout his career. Forging VI is an example of the extreme to which he pushed the edge of figural abstraction.
Like de Kooning's Women of 1951-1955, who merge with the painted background, or Newman's slender zip, Forging VI shows Smith narrowing the profile of the human form to the absolute minimum, while retaining the upward thrust of a figure in space. The process of hammering out the piece on the forge, slowly and arduously, physically producing the slightest of images, is akin to Newman's process of creating monumental canvases of large areas of flat color, applied again and again, pounding and feathering the brushstrokes to the edge of nothingness. Like Giacometti's slender Femme de Venise series, Forging VI barely holds onto its sculptural content, existing between being and nothingness, like a figure seen in mist, or dissolving in light and air--isolated, alienated, distanced from the viewer.
The material of Forging VI--stainless steel--is reflective by its very nature, which serves to heighten the effect of immateriality as it picks up the light and colors of its surroundings. Later in his career, Smith would utilize this material's special quality to great effect in his famous series of Cubis, produced in stainless steel in the early 1960s, where the monumental sculptures change with each moment of light and shadow.