One could say David Smith “invented” sculpture, or put more clearly, he invented sculpture’s place in modern American art. He legitimized the art form to the extent that it could be just as prestigious as painting. Convincing the postwar American public of sculpture’s accessibility arose from Smith’s own belief that sculpture and painting were not actually very different at all, “except in one element of dimension.” Although he was best known for his giant, welded metal sculptures, Smith also considered himself a painter, trying calligraphic styles, among others. He began his career as a painter, but after working at an automobile plant where he learned to weld, he decided to try creating welded steel structures. Curator Susan Behrends Frank’s David Smith Invents examines the relationship between his paintings and sculptures from the recent exhibition at The Phillips Collection.
Smith wrote in a letter in 1959, “[S]culptors are not supposed to paint even painters think so except for Matisse + Picasso – but sculptors are always for painters’ sculpture….” The same year, he showed a solo exhibition of his paintings, which were received unenthusiastically. In the mind of his contemporaries, sculptors were not, as he had indicated, supposed to paint. Little credit was given then to those paintings that are now valued by the art community—perhaps specifically because they are the creation of a sculptor. He stated once, “The poetic vision in sculpture is fully as free as in painting,” and his innovative metal structures helped him to prove it.
The painter-sculptor did not try to directly transfer one medium to another. Instead, he claimed that his sculptures reacted to his paintings. His poorly-received painting exhibition mentioned earlier, however, was a case in which his painting reacted to his three-dimensional work. A new art material—commercial aerosol spray enamel—inspired Smith to create the series of paintings that he showed, known reasonably enough as the “Sprays.” The “Sprays” imitated the silhouettes of “negative form left by the dark ‘spray’ of the arc welding process.” The result were paintings like White Egg with Pink, a dark background that seems to “reveal” light, rounded or jagged shapes, including an egg.
Watch as Susan Behrends Franks explains how Smith primarily thought of himself as “a painter who did sculpture” in this video from The Phillips Collection.