Feature

David Smith: Cubes and Anarchy

The show at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art captures the sculptor's progressive exploration of geometric form. 

Los Angeles County Museum of Art Through July 24

Reports of David Smith’s stylistic dabbling have been greatly exaggerated, said ArtDaily.org. So argue LACMA’s curators, who’ve put together a thoughtful exhibit that challenges the conventional scholarship about an artist many consider “the greatest American sculptor of the 20th century.” The usual story is that Smith was a dilettante, trying his hand at cubism in the ’30s, surrealism in the ’40s, expressionism in the ’50s, and then—out of the blue—mustering the “disconnected breakthrough” of his most famous works, the towering, geometric metallic sculptures of the 1960s. This smartly organized show makes you wonder what all those art historians were thinking. Shown in context, the works Smith produced in the years just before his death, in a 1965 car crash, come off not as anomalies but as the logical culmination of everything he’d been doing from day one: an exploration of “geometric abstraction” in all its glory.

Smith’s preoccupation with geometry wasn’t entirely due to his interest in the perfection of form, said Christopher Knight in the Los Angeles Times. It was also a celebration of his working-class background. In the early 20th century, populist labor movements adopted cubes, squares, and other simple “machine-age forms” as their symbolic iconography. Seen in that context, Smith’s Saw Head (1933)—a face composed of rusty tool fragments arranged atop a circular saw’s round blade—is “a sort of generic ‘worker’s portrait.’” But while Smith forged his sculptures from iron and steel rather than “officious bronze or establishment marble,” his aesthetic interests were mostly more elitist. In Untitled (Candida), eight irregularly shaped steel plates “appear to tilt, torque, and twist in space, like squares floating in a circle.” Such works were Smith’s way of participating in modern art’s long search for formal purity. But the average joe doesn’t need to know that to appreciate their visual power.

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