David Smith

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David Smith (March 9, 1906May 23, 1965) was an American Abstract Expressionist sculptor best known for creating large steel abstract geometric sculptures.


Quotes of David Smith[edit]

1940s[edit]

'The Question – What is your Hope' (c. 1940s)[edit]

'The Question – What is your Hope', original version, Smith notebook 28 (c. 1940s), final version c. 1950; as quoted at website David Smith State
  • I would like to make sculpture that would rise from water and tower in the air
    - that carried conviction and vision that had not existed before..


  • ..that men could view as natural, without reverence or awe but to whom such things were natural
    because they were statements of peaceful pursuit – and joined in the phenomenon of life


  • I want sculpture to show the wonder of man, that flowing water, rocks, clouds
    vegetation have for the man in peace who glories in existence.. .Its existence will be its statement


  • It will say that in peace we have time that a man has vision, has been fed, has worked..
    ..That hands and minds and tools and material made a symbol to the elevation of vision


  • this vision cannot be of a single mind – a single concept, it is a small tooth in the gear of man..
    ..which to each man, one at a time, offers a marvel of close communion


1950s[edit]

  • In particular, this question, to the sculptor:
    If a drawing is traced, even with the greatest precision, from another drawing, you will perceive that the one is a copy. Although the differences may deviate less than half a hair, recognizable only by perceptual sensitivity, unanimously we rule the work of the intruder's hand as non-art.
    But where is the line of true art—when the sculptor's process often introduces the hands of a plaster caster, the mold maker, the grinder and the polisher, and the patina applier, all these processes and foreign hands intruding deviations upon what was once the original work?
    • In: 'Questions to Students', one from a long list of questions, in an undated typescript among the David Smith Papers; probably written c. 1953-54; as quoted at website David Smith State


  • Gravitation is the only logical factor a sculptor has to contend with.
  • An arrogant independence to create is my only motivation.
    • Selden Rodman, Conversations With Artists, 1957


from 'Abstract Expressionism' (1990)[edit]

as quoted in Abstract Expressionism, David Anfam, Thames and Hudson Ltd London, 1990
  • Sculpture is as free as the mind; as complex as life..
    • p. 159
    • in his notes for an article, 1951


  • Possibly steel is so beautiful because of all the movement associated with it, its strength and functions.. .Yet it is also brutal: the rapist, the murderer and death-dealing giants are also its offspring. [quote, early 1950's]
    • p. 40


  • The material called iron or steel I hold in high respect. What it can do in arriving at a form economically, no other material can do.. .What associations it possesses are those of this century: power, structure, movement, progress, suspension, destruction, brutality. [quote, early 1950's]
    • p. 41


  • Gradually [late 1920's] the canvas became the base and the painting was a sculpture. [quote, early 1950's]
    • p. 41
    • David Smith refers to his early artistic move from painting to sculpture


'Tradition and Identity' (1959)[edit]

This speech was given by David Smith on April 17, 1959, at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, which Smith attended for a year in 1924-25; as quoted at website David Smith State


  • I now know that sculpture is made from rough externals by rough characters or men who have passed through all polish and are back to the rough again.
    The mystic modeling clay in only Ohio mud, the tools are at hand in garages and factories. Casting can be achieved in almost every town.


  • Visions are from the imaginative mind, sculpture can come from the found discards in nature, from sticks and stones and parts and pieces, assembled or monolithic, solid form, open form, lines of form, or, like a painting, the illusion of form. And sculpture can be painting and painting can be sculpture..


  • Art has its tradition, but it is a visual heritage. The artist's language is the memory from sight. Art is made from dreams, and visions, and things not known, and least of all from things that can be said. It comes from the inside of who you are when you face yourself. It is an inner declaration of purpose, it is a factor which determines artist identity.


  • Possibly I can explain my own procedure more easily. When I begin a sculpture I'm not always sure how it is going to end. In a way it has a relationship to the work before, it is in continuity with the previous work — it often holds a promise or a gesture toward the one to follow.


  • I do not often follow its path from a previously conceived drawing. If I have a strong feeling about its start, I do not need to know its end; the battle for solution is the most important. If the end of the work seems too complete and final, posing no question, I am apt to work back from the end, that in its finality it poses a question and not a solution.
    Sometimes when I start a sculpture I begin with only a realized part; the rest is travel to be unfolded, much in the order of a dream.


  • I will not change an error if it feels right, for the error is more human than perfection. I do not seek answers. I haven't named this work nor thought where it would go. I haven't thought what it is for, except that it is made to be seen. I've made it because it comes closer to saying who I am than any other method I can use. This work is my identity.


1960s[edit]

  • [learning European modern art by seeing it in the art-magazine 'w:Cahiers d'art'].. ..my heritage was all those things; [De Stijl, Constructivism, Cubism, Surrealism ] simultaneously, so I am all those things. I hope with a very strong intellectual regard for Cubism, and an admiration for it, because it was great at a particular time. It was both painting and sculpture. It was a great point of liberation in both painting and sculpture, and especially sculpture. [David Smith was one of the few sculptors in the art scene of American Abstract Expressionism ]
    • In an interview with w:David Sylvester (1960), edited for BBC broadcasting: first published in 'Living Arts', April 1964; as quoted in Interviews with American Artists, by David Sylvester; Chatto & Windus, London 2001, p. 8


  • I knew metal working before I knew Calder [famous for his sculptures, made in sheet metal], and Calder is one of our great men and he is earlier by a few years than any of the rest of us [in American Abstract Expressionism ]. Calder had worked in Paris quite a bit in the early days, though he did go to school here in New York at the Art Student's League.. .After my first year in college I had worked on the assembly line in the Studebaker plants up in Indiana..
    • In an interview with w:David Sylvester (1960), edited for BBC broadcasting: first published in 'Living Arts', April 1964; as quoted in Interviews with American Artists, by David Sylvester; Chatto & Windus, London 2001, p. 10


  • There is no unity or organisation or even aesthetic unity [in Abstract Expressionism / w:New York School (art), but we do have a very strong bond in our defense, but we also are strongest in our own individual identity. Our effort, I think, is all shooting off in independent directions. And the artists themselves will not admit to the existence of the New York School. They won't admit to any classification, and most of those painters known as Abstract Expressionists are the first to say they are not.
    • In an interview with w:David Sylvester (1960), edited for BBC broadcasting: first published in 'Living Arts', April 1964; as quoted in Interviews with American Artists, by David Sylvester; Chatto & Windus, London 2001, p. 12


'The Fields of David Smith,' (1999)[edit]

Quotes in 'The Fields of David Smith,' by Candida N. Smith, Irving Sandler and Jerry L. Thompson, The Fields of David Smith (Mountainville, New York: Storm King Art Center; New York, New York: Thames & Hudson, 1999), pp. 17-38.


  • I don't make boy sculptures. They become kind of personages, and sometimes they cry out to me that I should have been better or bigger, and mostly they tell me that I should have done that twelve years before -- or twenty years before


  • ..sculpture as a process of recognition.. .. in the great quiet of stopped machines -- the awe, the pull.. .Part is personal heritage.. .Since I've had identity, the desire to create excels over the desire to visit [the ancient sites and museums in Italy].
    • from his notes 'Report on Voltri', shortly after 1962, about making his huge sculptures in Voltri, 1962


  • I maintain my identity by regular work, there is always labor when inspiration has fled, but inspiration returns quicker when identity and the work stream are maintained.


  • That is the marvel -- to question but not to understand. Seeing is the true language of perception. Understanding is for words. As far as I am concerned, after I've made the work, I've said everything I can say.


Quotes about David Smith[edit]

'The Fields of David Smith,' (1999)[edit]

Candida N. Smith, in 'The Fields of David Smith,' Irving Sandler and Jerry L. Thompson, The Fields of David Smith (Mountainville, New York: Storm King Art Center; New York, New York: Thames & Hudson, 1999), pp. 17-38.


  • Our open fields on the mountaintop are fully exposed to the sky, clouds, and wind without mediation… The fields are quiet to the world but amplify the force of one's thoughts and feelings.. .My father put his sculptures in our fields so that he could look at each work in relation to the natural world of the mountains and sky and also to its fellow sculptures. Again and again, he referred to his 'work stream'; each work of art being as a vessel filled from the stream while never wholly separate.


  • Smith often said he made only girl sculptures. He explained: I don't make boy sculptures. They become kind of personages, and sometimes they cry out to me that I should have been better or bigger, and mostly they tell me that I should have done that twelve years before--or twenty years before.


  • According to my mother, Jean Freas [David Smith's second wife], 'Australia' [he made in 1951] was the first to be placed squarely in the center of the field beyond the house. David Smith was well aware that 'Australia', with its fluid gestures of a long arm swinging gracefully, was an extremely important piece, heralding a new era for his work. It represented a culmination of his sinuous use of metal and the technique of drawing in space. Thus planted, Australia drew not just in any space--such as the impartial space of a museum gallery -- but in the specific landscape of Bolton Landing.


  • In the years I knew my father, we used the fields around our house fully and constantly …In summer, we often ate breakfast in our pajamas on the terrace looking out on the possibilities of the day. My father encouraged my sister and me to run among the sculptures, to climb, to put our bodies into the elements of the sculptures, to bang out tuneless rhythms and hear the difference between the sound of flat and volumetric elements. It was a playground for the unconscious.


  • I believe that gazing out at his fields, as he so often did, he found a kind of peace in the balance of the sculptures, which were like so many aspects of his identity. Physically manifested and set together to form their own dialogue -- ultimately aesthetic -- the sculptures in the fields brought a kind of musical order to the dissonance of his inner flow of feelings. He always said that for him, art was easier to do than life.


  • My father acted at all times and in all aspects of his life from his identity as an artist. He had no other. He cooked with the extravagant generosity and adventurousness of an artist. He parented as an artist -- his children should not wear 'pretty' colors, but rather 'gutsy' colors.. .While he could be generous, spontaneous, playful and hospitable, the sense of 'I am' was all about 'I am an artist.' There was little room to identify himself in terms of other people. And so he felt lonesome.


External links[edit]

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