This sculpture will be included in a new catalogue raisonné of David Smith's sculptures being prepared by the Estate of David Smith.
Executed in 1959, Circles and Angles is among the very first mature examples of David Smith's work in stainless steel, his preferred medium. A consummate forger of metal in all its incarnations, Smith understood the intrinsic properties of stainless steel, a material that by its very nature is nearly indestructible, yet displays a polished mirror-like surface and wondrous sheen. Smith amplifies these qualities, such that the piece itself reflects the surrounding environment tempered by changes in light and atmosphere. Though evidence of Smith's welding and soldering process is still highly visible within the joins of each piece, the overall effect of Circles and Angles is light and airy, as if the delicate shapes are about to catch flight, adrift on a strong summer breeze. Like cards scattered in the wind, the overall suggestion is of pure movement, a weightless quality that actually contradicts the very nature of the material itself.
The use of stainless steel has come to define many of Smith's greatest series, from the late Sentinels, to the Planes and Cubis. Smith's first work with stainless-steel began with the Sentinels, totemic guardians that Smith intended to stand in the fields around his home as powerful vertical presences in the landscape. The most durable of all the materials he had experimented with in the creation of outdoor sculpture, stainless steel had the added benefit of being highly reflective -- a quality that Smith recognized further integrated his work into their surroundings: "I polished them in such a way that on a dull day, they take on the dull blue, or the color of the sky in the late afternoon sun, the glow, golden like the rays, the colors of nature, and in a particular sense, I have used atmosphere in a reflective way on surfaces (D. Smith, quoted in A. Potts, The Sculptural Imagination, New Haven, 2002, p. 164). One of relatively few stainless steel sculptures made at this time, Circles and Angles is a work clearly both born from this environment and reflective of it.
Smith was greatly influenced by the Constructivists, Mondrian and Malevich, and especially the early pioneering Cubist work of Picasso and Julio Gonzalez. Smith had seen their work in the Cahier's d'Art in the 1930s and all of those influences he said "came upon me at one time, without my even knowing the difference between them" (D. Smith, quoted in K. Kuh, The Artist's Voice, New York, 1962). Gonzalez acknowledges that one's position in relation to a work of sculpture is inherently unstable, since perception is ever changing and sculpture is meant to be seen in the round. Even a distant viewpoint can't fully take in the totality of the sculpture itself - one can only essentially grasp one view from a multitude. It is not surprising that Smith focused on Julio Gonzalez's comments about how "only a cathedral spire can show as a point in the sky where our soul is suspended. It is these points in the infinite that are precursors of the new art: to draw in space" (J. Gonzalez, quoted in Julio Gonzalez, Tate Gallery, London, 1970, p. 7; reprinted in A. Potts, Ibid, p 165).
Throughout his career Smith consistently and repeatedly aligns his work within this idea of "drawing in space" along a vertical, pictorial axis that functions much like a picture plane. In the present work, each element is rendered with a determined flatness -- a circle is not a sphere; the square is not a box, and so each shape continually recalls the pre-determined two-dimensionality of the picture. Especially prevalent in his early career, with works such as the Agricola series or Australia, 1951 (Museum of Modern Art), Smith invents a sculpture that has an obvious and intended two-dimensional viewpoint.
What is interesting is that from Smith's intended view, the image is hieratic, powerful, but if turned on its other axis the view disintegrates, which inherently contradicts the laws of sculpture. Even the Cubist and Constructivist viewpoint took into consideration the 360-degree nature of sculpture, but Smith brazenly defied the sculptural tradition. Broken down into its constituent parts, the image is stripped to the most basic elemental building blocks of art-making in planes, cylinders, rectangles, etc. And, by its very title, Smith points to those ubiquitous tools of the artist's enterprise - those basic elemental building blocks of circle, triangle, square and rectangle, such that the work may stand as a metaphor for the act of art making itself.
Smith followed no set procedure for the making of his work, but his usual working practice in the late 1950s was to lay out forms on the floor against white painted rectangles that he had made there slowly building up arrangements like a relief growing from a painting. As the relief element built, these would then demand to be transformed into the three-dimensions of a sculpture. "I follow no set procedure in starting a sculpture, Smith noted, "some works start out as chalk drawings on the cement floor with cut steel forms working into the drawings. When it reaches the stage that the sculpture can become united, it is welded into position upright. Then the added dimension requires different considerations over the more or less profile form of the floor drawing assembly" (D. Smith, quoted in C. Gray, David Smith by David Smith, London, 1988, p. 55).
Although it was his material of choice, stainless steel was a prohibitively expensive material and Smith could seldom afford to use it. Only after his retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in 1957, and the increased critical and commercial success it imparted, was Smith able to make stainless steel works with any regularity. Even then, with the exception of his last series the Cubis, he only completed 31 works in the material (23 of which are now housed in museums).
It was also only in the late 1950s that Smith first began to burnish the surfaces of these steel sculptures using a circular sander. This had the effect of creating a certain expressionistic painterliness, further linking the three-dimensional work to the flatness of the picture plane, even calling to mind the work of the Abstract Expressionists. Their hard graphic forms shone and sparkled with an organic sense of unity that further integrated them into the surroundings where they are set. As Smith said of these new works, "This is the only time, in these stainless steel pieces, that I have (really) been able to utilize light and I depend upon the reflective power of light....It does have a semi-mirror reflection and I like it in that sense because no other material in sculpture can do that. (D. Smith, Ibid, London, p. 123).
Since 1930 Smith's art had come to be defined through his daily practice of working from his home and studio-workshop (the "shop") in Bolton Landing near Albany in upstate New York. There, often isolated and alone, working in the open landscape, Smith literally forged his own identity as a great American artist, surrounding himself by his work -- sculptures, created and then placed into the fields around his home, like glyphic and totemic alter-egos.
An abstract and geometric dance of form and light, Circles and Angles is a metaphor for this landscape and worldview, an interior sculpture that emphasizes the sacred link between man and earth by containing within itself, through its reflective nature, the whole world around it. It is also one of only very few of Smith's stainless steel sculptures to remain in private hands. It was first acquired by the well-known collector and gallerist Virginia Dwan, herself a great champion of Land Art and responsible for launching some of the earliest and most important shows of Pop, Minimal, Conceptual and Land Art of the 1960s. After finding an appropriate home in her collection for many years, the sculpture later passed into the collection of one of her most important collectors, Sigmund D. Edelstone.