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David Smith: Sculpture 1932–1965

As part of Yorkshire Sculpture International

Underground Gallery and Open Air
Future
22 Jun 2019–5 Jan 2020

YSP presents a major exhibition of work by the great American artist David Smith (1906–1965) from 22 June 2019 to 5 January 2020

This is the first solo exhibition of Smith’s work in the UK since Tate Modern’s 2006 project and the largest ever outside the capital. It features almost 40 sculptures, drawn from four decades, beginning with Smith’s earliest experimental works from the 1930s, through to the bold, large-scale statements of the 1960s. With works in the Underground Gallery and adjacent landscape, David Smith is YSP’s headline exhibition for 2019 and our principal contribution to the inaugural Yorkshire Sculpture International, produced in partnership with the Henry Moore Institute, The Hepworth Wakefield, and Leeds Art Gallery.
 
Yorkshire Sculpture International comprises a number of exhibitions exploring artist Phyllida Barlow’s statement that “sculpture is the most anthropological of the arts”. With Yorkshire’s rich history as the birthplace and inspiration for sculptors including Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore, our collaboration considers the human impulse to connect with objects, investigating both the physical diversity and the political agency of sculpture in the 20th and 21st centuries.
 
One of the 20th century’s most important sculptors, Smith was the first American artist to work with welded metal. Hugely influential to the development of international abstract sculpture, he is regarded as the principal sculptor of the American Abstract Expressionists but with few works in non-US public collections, he is rarely shown in Europe.

Smith aligned himself to an anthropological thread, embracing a creative continuity from prehistoric artefacts and ethnographic art, to that which is displayed within Eastern and Western art historical cultures. Smith spoke of his ‘workstream’, with connotations of connecting to an ancient tradition of fettling, and this exhibition will examine the immediacy of his sculpture; its obdurate yet tactile nature; its shared space with man, machine, and natural forms; and the social and human impulse through which Smith developed abstraction from the automotive factory and foundry.
 
An incisive selection of sculptures that includes major loans from museums and private collections, together with works from the artist’s estate, some of which have not previously been exhibited, the exhibition sheds new light on the artist’s legacy. Important and rare sculptures illuminate the development of his sculptural practice and the importance of his life at Bolton Landing in the Adirondacks in upstate New York. The exhibition draws out Smith’s understanding of the social practice of art – vividly illustrated by his 1930s Medals of Dishonor and 1955 lecture, The Artist in Society – and of his prescient belief in an inclusive United States that valued its connectedness to the wider world.
 
Given the unique indoor-outdoor nature of YSP, a starting point for the exhibition is the importance to Smith of having his work in the open air, which in 1950 Robert Motherwell expressed as, “...an ineffable desire to see his humanness related to exterior reality, to nature at least if not to man.” Aside from a clutch of sculptures outdoors at Storm King in New York, Smith’s works are rarely, if ever, seen in the conditions he intended for them. YSP’s Underground Gallery, however, is largely illuminated by natural light, which animates exhibition displays at different times of day and in different seasons.

In the mid-1950s Smith began to place his sculptures in the fields around his home and studio at Bolton Landing, surrounding himself with an unedited array of his life’s work. These sculptures were his companions, his achievements, and inspiration for future sculptures and by the time of his death in 1965, 89 sculptures occupied ‘the fields’. In the open air at YSP, we show the seven-metre-tall Tower I (1963) removed from Bolton Landing and transported overseas for the very first time. Primo Piano III (1962), one of only three similar works made by Smith, also makes a critical contribution to the open-air display.
 

Elsewhere, works from two important series, the Voltris and Voltri-Boltons, made by Smith in Italy and in rural New York State, show the diversity of his approach to found material and to scale. Stainless steel sculptures indicate Smith’s ability in working this stubborn material, which in his hands becomes fluid while retaining its inherent qualities of tensile strength and durability. For Smith, the stable, reflective surface of stainless steel made it the perfect medium to explore the interchange of sculpture and painting, expressing perpetual vicissitude in the open air; “I made them and 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... They reflect the colors.”
 
Highlights inside the gallery include what Smith considered to be his earliest sculptures, made in or sourced from the Virgin Islands, which he visited in 1931–32. A selection of mixed media and wire Constructions (1932–33) indicate Smith’s evolving understanding of accreted and counterbalanced forms. The sculpture now entitled Lyndhaven (1932–33) is an especially important work, incorporating an augur bit, thereby leading to the critical welded found-objects group of Head sculptures, made between 1933 and 1939.
 
The exhibition also presents Smith’s first weldings of assembled parts made after establishing his workplace in a shed of the Terminal Iron Works, Boiler-Tube Makers and Ship-Deck Fitters in Brooklyn docks. It establishes the importance to Smith of the American industrial contexts for the service of art; Saw Head (1933) and Chain Head (1933) are perhaps the first welded sculptures ever made in the United States.
 
The exhibition publication includes in-situ photographs and essays by Phyllida Barlow, CBE, RA; Dr Robert Slifkin, Associate Professor of Fine Arts at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University; Dr Jyrki Siukonen, Visiting Research Fellow at the University of the Arts, Helsinki; and art historian, critic and teacher Dr Anne M. Wagner.
 
Related events draw on Smith’s ethos regarding manual labour and industrial processes in the United States, significantly relating them to West and South Yorkshire’s industrial past and present in which steel and power production continue to play essential roles within the UK’s economy.

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