David Smith is often seen as the Jackson Pollock of modern sculpture, the artist who transformed European innovations (in welded steel above all) into an American idiom of expanded scale and expressive power. Like most legends in art history, this isn’t false, despite the immediate catch that his greatest follower, Anthony Caro, is English. Yet it does play too neatly into the usual story of Modernist art: that it was smashed by Fascism and totalitarianism in prewar Europe, then triumphally restored in postwar America as the analogue of American Freedom.

A good show disturbs settled views, and this centennial survey by the Spanish curator Carmen Giménez (on until 14 May) does so beautifully. As befits an exhibition that will travel to Tate Modern and the Pompidou, its perspective is European, which freshens the work dramatically. American accounts of Smith tend to race through his long apprenticeship to European masters – in particular Julio González, Picasso and Giacometti – in order to focus on his distinctive series of the 1950s, such as the Tanktotems, non-objective ‘personages’ that ask to be compared with Abstract Expressionism, and of the early 1960s, such as the Cubi, geometric constructions that seem to relate to Minimalism. In short, Americans cut to the American chase. In this exhibition, on the contrary, one ascends the spiral of the Guggenheim slowly, as if accompanying Smith in his arduous struggle with his European predecessors. At first, Smith knew these masters only through such magazines as Cahiers d’art, and the geographic distance did not grant him much in the way of artistic distance.

For eyes trained in Minimalist size and simplicity, it’s difficult to see this initial work: it appears too small, too fussy about content and composition, too ‘European’ (the Minimalist Donald Judd, an admirer of the mature Smith, dissed such prewar Modernism in these terms in 1964, a year before Smith died in an automobile accident at the age of 59). Trained as a painter, Smith began with objects attached to canvases; then he cobbled together whimsical little figures in coral, wood and wire in a manner somewhere between Arp and Calder: these are the first pieces in the show. Already here is a key to the work to come, for Smith was always an assembler, never a carver or a modeller (along the lines, say, of Brancusi, one European predecessor he was not much concerned with). Sculpture as sticking-together is also in play in the next group, his first in welded steel, of small abstract nudes, dancers and bathers in the style of Picasso and González. González, who learned welding in a Renault factory, adapted it in his great stick-figures of the mid-1930s. He also taught the technique to Picasso, who used it in only a few pieces, yet with such invention as to open up sculpture, literally, to space – that is, to substitute for the solid core of modelled figures the transparent structure of metal framework. Smith also learned welding in the mid-1930s, but as a young man on an Ohio assembly line, not in a Paris studio. In time, though, and very much on his own, he would elaborate the Picasso constructions into an open kind of welded sculpture of great expressiveness.

First, however, Smith felt the need to work through a different mode: the Surrealist sculpture of Giacometti, also from the early 1930s. The combination of these ‘disagreeable objects’ with the Picasso constructions would make for his original style, yet at first his study was still a little slavish: Smith keyed up the fetishistic forms and fantasmic interiors of Giacometti, and the effects can be forced – less erotic or uncanny than overwrought. But then he had his own share of demons, which ranged from the private (his relationship with his mother above all) to the public (Fascism and war); and sometimes the apparent fluidity between the psychic, the worldly and the sculptural is the strength of these pieces from the 1940s.

In any case, Giacometti and Picasso represented a tension between Surrealist and Constructivist impulses that Smith did not always control, and it persisted longer than the old accounts suggest. On the Giacometti side Smith can appear clotted and scripted, on the Picasso side light and airy. Under the sway of Clement Greenberg, the critical literature has long favoured the latter tendency, as exemplified in such ‘drawings in space’ as the pierced rectangle of Steel Drawing I (1945) and the glyphic lattice of The Letter (1950). These pieces are stunning, but they hew to a line of Constructivism which, oblivious to the materialist constructions of Vladimir Tatlin, say, passes from the idealist constructions of Naum Gabo and Antoine Pevsner, through Picasso, to end up here in a type of sculpture so pictorial, indeed so ‘optical’, as to be all but weightless (the hollow geometric volumes and the shimmering stainless steel of the Cubi are the prime instance). ‘In my own case,’ Smith once remarked, ‘I don’t know whether I make some pieces as painted sculpture or paintings in form.’ Sometimes this confusion is not to his benefit, and Caro has done more with it.

In my view Smith is at his best neither in his early ‘European’ works nor in his later ‘American’ ones, but rather in the pieces in between, where he elaborates sculpture as a transparent structure in the horizontal plane, but in a way that goes beyond mere planarity into a figural embrace of open space, as in the disjunctive objects and divergent gestures of Blackburn: Song of an Irish Blacksmith (1949-50). Such pieces prepare for the most revelatory work in the show, the Agricola series that Smith began in 1952. Like the Voltri series a decade later, the abstract Agricola works include pieces of scrap and old utensils in their looping lines, and so advance a semiotic ambiguity – elements shift between pure shape and readymade figure, sign and tool – even as they also push the formal possibilities of transparent structure and spatial embrace.

The Agricola works also prefigure a central drama of the mature work, the contradiction between the artisanal basis of traditional art and the industrial basis of modern society. With all its expressive welding the Smith oeuvre is a beautiful compromise between craft and industry – a beautiful compromise-formation, that is, which Smith also performed in his persona of the worker bestride his studio like a Prometheus of the factory floor (lots of photos present him thus). With its odd junk objects his work sublimates industrial consumption as well, and this too is part of its appeal, which is also to say part of its ideological service. Subsequent sculptors challenged this artistic fudging of the tension between craft and industry: Richard Serra incorporated industrial fabrication into his sculpture directly, while Claes Oldenburg gave us industrial junk outright. In the end, bound by his romantic view of art and industry alike, Smith only got so far; and the industrial logic of geometry and seriality that seems to anticipate Minimalism is rather scarce in his work.

In this light Smith appears not as influential on the next generation of sculptors as was once thought: as Serra suggested to me, Smith is less the Pollock of modern sculpture than the de Kooning. This is hardly to damn him by faint praise (the greatness of de Kooning is beyond dispute); it is only to suggest that, like de Kooning, Smith was not only enabled but also confined by his ‘European’ talent, and that, again as with de Kooning, his work might look back to the first half of the century more than forward to the second half. And this, in turn, points up our own distance from the mid-century, for this exhibition provides further evidence of a split that widens every day at museums like the Guggenheim, Tate Modern, MoMA and the Pompidou – the split between Modernist art and contemporary practice.

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