The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2022

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NOV 2022 Issue
Art In Conversation

Michael Brenson with Douglas Dreishpoon

Portrait of David Smith, pencil on paper by Phong H. Bui.
Portrait of David Smith, pencil on paper by Phong H. Bui.
Michael Brenson
David Smith: The Art and Life of a Transformational Sculptor
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2022)

Michael Brenson’s biography on David Smith, more than twenty years in the making and exceeding eight hundred pages, now stands as the definitive portrait of this American sculptor. There were times when close friends feared that the book would remain unfinished because its subject was just too daunting. But its author persisted—a Herculean undertaking requiring endless hours of research, extensive interviews, and an informed sculptural imagination. The fruits of his inquiry shine as a biography honoring the breadth and complexity of Smith's life and art.

Michael and I met in Manhattan during the eighties, through our mutual friend Paul Hayes Tucker, and the Sculpture Center, then located on East 69th Street and directed by the intrepid Marian Griffiths. Anyone following contemporary sculpture knew Michael’s byline, as a critic for the New York Times, and his commitment to sculpture at a time when most critics had their eyes on painting. Both of us advocated for the medium. There were others, too—Eric Gibson, Jonathan Goodman, Steven Henry Madoff, Cynthia Nadelman, Nancy Princenthal, and Robert Taplin—each determined to see sculptors rise.

Having studied the history of modern sculpture, and written a doctoral dissertation on Alberto Giacometti, there’s no better person than Michael to tackle someone as formidable as Smith. We met in New York City on August 15th to talk about his book.

Douglas Dreishpoon (Rail): You first encountered Smith’s work as a twenty-something-year-old graduate student at Johns Hopkins University. What grabbed you?

Michael Brenson: I was twenty-four when I took a course in modern sculpture in 1967. I’d grown up with sculpture in New York living at 19 East 59th street, near the Saint-Gaudens Sherman monument. Like many other New York City kids, I remember going to the Egyptian wing at the Metropolitan. Those early encounters with statuary are signposts in my life. Looking at reproductions of Smith sculptures for that course, I could sense a deep relationship to a rich sculptural tradition. Smith’s work from the late forties enabled me to make a connection with that tradition that felt very much of the moment. I felt an affinity to Smith’s psychoanalytic tableaux, to his obsession with the unconscious via Freud, to the intense ways in which his sculpture lived with struggle and war. My father was an abstract expressionist painter, my mother a psychotherapist. He was Latvian, she German. My family history comes through World War II. I came of age during the sixties. Smith’s and Giacometti’s sculptures seemed to hold keys to experiences and histories I was sensing in myself but had barely begun to articulate.

Rail: At what point did the idea of doing a Smith biography take form?

Brenson: After leaving the New York Times in ’91, I accepted commissions to write essays on individual sculptors, among them Magdalena Abakanowicz, Luis Jimenez, Ursula von Rydingsvard, Maya Lin, Juan Muñoz, Mel Edwards, Elizabeth Catlett and David Smith. I insisted on seeing firsthand where each of them lived and worked—be it in Warsaw, Hondo, New Mexico, Cuernavaca, Madrid, Manhattan, Brooklyn, or Bolton Landing. The texture of their lives was a factor in how I thought about their work, a grounding. I go back to Giacometti, too. In the seventies, I got to know his brother, Diego, the famous studio where Alberto lived, and details of his life. I stayed in the tiny apartment Alberto made for his wife Annette adjacent to his studio in Stampa, Switzerland, where I spent parts of nine summers. Paris and Switzerland’s Bergell Valley permeate Giacometti’s work. Toward the end of the nineties, it occurred to me that if you’re predisposed to approaching an artist from multiple points of view, biography is the ultimate literary form.

And also, I have to say, since I was a child, the connection between an artist’s life and work has been mysterious to me. The work comes out of the life but if it’s any good, it’s always going beyond the life. The life can lead to the art, but the art is more, and other, than the life. With David Smith, there are almost no one-to-one correspondences between life and work, but the presence of his life—and of him—in his work is profound.

David Smith, <em>Voltri XVII</em>, <em>Voltri V</em>, and <em>Voltri IV</em> (all 1962). Installed in the Anfiteatro Romano, Spoleto, Italy, 1962. Photo: David Smith. The Estate of David Smith, New York. © 2022 The Estate of David Smith / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.
David Smith, Voltri XVII, Voltri V, and Voltri IV (all 1962). Installed in the Anfiteatro Romano, Spoleto, Italy, 1962. Photo: David Smith. The Estate of David Smith, New York. © 2022 The Estate of David Smith / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.

Rail: There’s a big difference between writing an essay and conceiving a biography, like building a shed versus a house. The book is laid out as a sequence of vignette-like chapters that pace the narrative. The essay format comes naturally to you. A chronological thread binds the chapters. Flashbacks and flashforwards, prescient moments and premonitions, help to bridge otherwise abrupt transitions. Smith’s life, inherently complicated, is full of inexplicable disjunctions. A more prosaic narrative might have felt contrived.

Brenson: I felt, while writing the book, that ideally the chapters would work together, leading to and building on one another, even as chapters could seem like entities in themselves—essential to the whole but each with its own vitality. Some chapters, on series like the “Cubi” sculptures and “Medals for Dishonor,” for example, stretch the biographical framework while still being part of it. The challenge, particularly with the “Medals,” was to integrate art-history and criticism into a biographical fabric. Sometimes chapter endings feel to me dramatic, like falling off a cliff. But the narrative continues; something else happens. I wonder, from the point of a reader, how this works. You are at this point and it seems that what comes after will be predictable, but it isn’t, and you’re not sure how the story is going to go on, but it does.

Rail: You’re an art historian with journalistic instincts. You read everything that had been written about Smith, conducted hundreds of your own interviews with Smith’s friends and lovers, with curators, collectors, critics, and gallerists. The way you orchestrate, describe, and honor your sources is laudable. So is the degree of empathy, common sense, and objectivity you bring to the enterprise.

Brenson: Thank you! The possibility of bringing together so many voices is part of what makes writing a biography a powerful experience. Teaching in MFA programs for more than twenty years, and existing largely in the contemporary art world, I often felt very isolated doing this book. At Bard, in the MFA sculpture department, which I love, there were students and other faculty who were drawn to Smith. But over time fewer and fewer students. And nowhere I taught was there any interest in biography. No one would go there. The interviews were welcome connections to Smith, for years my primary way of talking about him. All were recorded on cassette tapes, with people who cared about him and who, like me, wanted to talk about him. I’m grateful to them. The biography is their story, too. The interviews brought me closer to the person, not just the way Smith thought and acted but what it felt like to be around him, emotionally and physically.

Rail: Anybody reading the book will appreciate the ways in which you approach Smith’s Rashomon-like persona: his larger-than-life-personality, insatiable appetites, and fierce determination. The story of the mud lion at the beginning of the book comes across as a poignant tale considering Smith’s hardscrabble origins. One of his first attempts at making art feels like an act of defiance.

David Smith,<em>Tanktotem IV,</em>  <em>Bicycle</em>, <em>7/29/53</em>, and <em>Tanktotem III</em>, (all 1953), Bolton Landing dock, Lake George, New York, <em>c</em>. 1953. Photo: David Smith. The Estate of David Smith, New York. © 2022 The Estate of David Smith / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.
David Smith,Tanktotem IV, Bicycle, 7/29/53, and Tanktotem III, (all 1953), Bolton Landing dock, Lake George, New York, c. 1953. Photo: David Smith. The Estate of David Smith, New York. © 2022 The Estate of David Smith / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.

Brenson: He refers to the mud lion in “Sculpture Is,” one of the three prose poems that he wrote for a 1947 show at the Willard Gallery, in which he was piecing together an elaborate creation myth. He evokes childhood years 4–8: “MY year A.D.” 5: “praise from a grandmother for a / mud pie lion.” In 1951 he refers to the mud lion in a conversation with Belle Krasne, the editor of Art Digest, who was preparing a profile on him. He probably planted similar references to the story with several other people. What we know about the story comes from interviews with the artist Dorothy Dehner, Smith’s first wife. She said that when he was a child, he would periodically run away from home. He would go to his maternal grandmother’s house across town in Decatur, Indiana. He felt safer there than he did at home. In order to keep him from running away, his mother put a rope around him and tied him to a tree. One of the times when he was roped to a tree, he built a lion out of mud. His mother admired the mud lion. And apparently so did his grandmother. Dehner, to whom Smith’s mother spoke about the mud lion, felt that this was his first sculpture. In “Sculpture Is,” the mud lion is both an obscure reference and an event. It was an act of self-assertion, of identifying himself with this powerful animal, the king of the jungle. Yes, an act of defiance—like, you’re doing this to control me, and I’m making a sculptural image of a beast that is beyond control. We’re talking 1911. A particular moment, a particular incident, a particular metaphor, as provocative in its own way as a Smith form, the hint of a determining narrative projected and held in that one Smith line.

Rail: Companionship provided a modicum of comfort, constantly sought, through two marriages… and a few liaisons. Both marriages gave him a lot: domestic security, a stable homelife, and, with Jean Freas, two daughters who were inspirational for his work. In the book you write: “Without Dorothy Dehner, David Smith would not be David Smith.” And in a letter you quote from, a year or two after she left him in 1950, Dehner writes to Smith: “I think you are deep inside an unhappy person, and I believe it is your work that sustains you. Maybe this is the way with a highly creative person, maybe not.” Perhaps the work is the sum total of every conflicting emotional impulse?

Brenson: How do you reconcile Smith’s capacity for possessiveness and volcanic behavior with his astonishingly generous and generative creativity? He seemed to cultivate conflict and channel it into his work. He expected his two wives to provide him with stability, food on the table, a comfortable rhythm. He welcomed domestic bliss but repeatedly destabilized it and made it impossible. Ambivalence and irreconcilability shadowed his life and energized his work.

Where things went off the rails with Dehner is an interesting question. Smith was someone who from the start of their marriage in 1927 could behave rashly and abruptly. I have the sense that their relationship was pretty solid until World War II. The war years, when he was building tanks and locomotives at the American Locomotive Company in Schenectady, a town they both hated, took a huge toll on their marriage. When he was unable to make art, he became more temperamental and autocratic. After the war he wanted to throw everything into his work and believed, like other Abstract Expressionists, that at that historical moment art had to deal with the entirety of human experience, to face and work creatively with all that human beings had been and were capable of. In an amazing birthday note to him in 1947, Dehner wrote: “With the creation of your work comes life to the world.” In response to my Times review of a 1990 show of Smith’s nudes at the Knoedler Gallery, Dehner wrote me an elegant letter in which she said: “He was, as we all know, a wonderful artist able to express all that he was to the discerning eye.”

David Smith, <em>Sculptures in the south field</em>, Bolton Landing, New York, c. 1963. Photo: David Smith. The Estate of David Smith, New York. © 2022 The Estate of David Smith / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.
David Smith, Sculptures in the south field, Bolton Landing, New York, c. 1963. Photo: David Smith. The Estate of David Smith, New York. © 2022 The Estate of David Smith / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.

Rail: Prolific artists can get anxious when they’re not in their creative spaces working. Helen Frankenthaler talked candidly about her anxiety during down periods between bouts of painting. Every artist juggles a different pathology. Smith’s ambivalence about being an artist, husband, and father displayed dramatic thresholds. Was there no middle ground to buffer his mood swings?

Brenson: Both wives felt completely safe in his shop-studio in Bolton Landing, a few hundred yards from the home. There he could experiment as he wished and work with all of himself. There, magic happened. Keep in mind that Smith liked having a good time. In the city he kept up with galleries and museums. He liked going to artists’ hangouts and jazz clubs. Gossip was energy as well as information for him. He could be charming and funny as well as endlessly inventive. Many people loved being with him. His life is as much continuity and flow as discontinuity and disjunction. The writer Jean Rikhoff talked about Smith’s capacity to compartmentalize. Think about the sculpture, the way it shifts from one point of view to another. When you move around it, as Rosalind Krauss noted decades ago, it’s not like you’re moving around the same work. It’s like you’re encountering different works. The whole consists of disparate points of view somehow held together in a dynamic whole, with no transition from one point of view to another.

Rail: When Krauss’s name comes up in the book, I smile at the thought of this twenty-something-year-old art history grad student at Harvard tackling a subject like Smith. The work she did during the late sixties and seventies, probing Smith’s sexuality through thematic analysis, still seems courageous.

David Smith, <em>Cubi XVIII</em> (1964), <em>Cubi XVII</em> (1963), and <em>Cubi XIX</em> (1964), Bolton Landing, New York, <em>c</em>. 1964. Photo: David Smith. The Estate of David Smith, New York. © 2022 The Estate of David Smith / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.
David Smith, Cubi XVIII (1964), Cubi XVII (1963), and Cubi XIX (1964), Bolton Landing, New York, c. 1964. Photo: David Smith. The Estate of David Smith, New York. © 2022 The Estate of David Smith / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.

Brenson: In her 1971 monograph, she took on aspects of the work that had not been engaged before. She called attention to the theme of sexual aggression and how certain images, like the cannon, recur—I think she said “are worried”—throughout the sculpture and periodically transformed. How does the image of the cannon change? Are the same political and psychological overtones still present in how Smith abstracts this image after 1950 as they were in the brazenly sexualized but also strangely pathetic cannons of the 1940s? Is the combination of attachment and critique still there after 1950? Yes, but it changes. It’s been easy to stereotype Smith as a Bunyan-like Mountain man: huge, bulky, macho, aggressive. But in ways that I hope the book makes clear, his work is ferociously resistant to the notion of singular identity and critical of the hyper-masculinity Smith the person is still widely identified with.

Rail: The book is biographical but not at the expense of the work, which remains front and center, an essential part of Smith’s identity. This isn’t always the case with artists’ biographies. Extensive descriptions of specific pieces and series distinguish what you’ve done.

Brenson: I got to Smith through his work and after three decades of thinking about it am still amazed by it. Description and/or analysis of sculptures may at times impinge on the narrative, but they have to be there. The life illuminates the art but the art also illuminates the life. I know things about Smith that I wouldn’t know if I hadn’t thought so much about the work. The work has to be central to the book. Discussing works that the reader sees in reproduction on the same page does raise the stakes; a reader may not agree with the characterization or interpretation, and if readers disagree too often, or find too many descriptions or characterizations off the wall, it can stop any desire to keep going. Conversely, if readers are taken by writing on the work, it can create its own momentum.

Rail: Let’s talk about Smith’s mentors, peers, and friends. Many individuals contributed to his personal and artistic development. John Graham, Jan Matulka, and Stuart Davis opened his eyes to European Cubism, Picasso and González, and to African art. The impact of Cubism on Smith’s sculptural imagination cannot be overstated.

Brenson: Yes. I would also mention John Sloan, who taught Smith and Dehner at the Art Students League. His independence and combative personality made an impression. Graham introduced them to European modernism. He was cosmopolitan, traveled back and forth between Paris and New York, and appeared to know everyone. This older, theatrical, more worldly figure clearly liked them as a couple, even though they were essentially kids. That he wanted to be with them, as much as they wanted to be with him, is an indication of how likable Smith and Dehner were. You can’t underestimate, too, Graham’s personality, his contrariness and willful unpredictability but also, his extraordinary generosity. All this made him a big presence in their lives. Matulka, more stable and reliable than Graham, was a gifted teacher who thoroughly understood Cubism and he, too, was interested in African art. After he left the League, they remained his students. Smith was not close with Stuart Davis, the firebrand and abstractionist who developed his own Cubist and jazz-inspired abstraction, but Smith was around him often, and I see him as something of a mentor, too.

Rail: As Smith changed over time so did his friendships. Some weathered the transitions, others did not. Cornelia Langer introduced Smith to Kenneth Noland, who remained one of Smith’s closest friends. And it was Noland who prompted you in 2001 by saying, “No one has yet taken the measure of David.” Some friendships were easygoing, non-threatening. Others could be extremely competitive. Some friendships became politically fraught. Close friends, like Noland, Edgar Levy, Herman Cherry, Wilfrid Zogbaum, James Rosati, Helen Frankenthaler and Robert Motherwell accepted the full measure of Smith’s mercurial personality.

Brenson: Some did, some did for a while. Many of Smith’s friendships with other artists were complicated. The friendship he had with Rosati, his wife, Carmel, and their kids, was one of the least complicated. The couple offered him a surrogate family. He’d show up at their apartment on tenth street when he was visiting New York, and they would welcome him. We don’t know what Smith and Rosati’s discussions about sculpture were but they spoke about it regularly and deep into the night. The relationship with Noland could be competitive, even corrosively testy, but they looked at art together and they, too, had profound discussions about art that I wish I could have overheard. Smith and Noland talked about everything. Motherwell remained a loyal friend. He wrote eloquently about Smith and early on had an appreciation of the importance of Bolton Landing to Smith’s work that Noland did not have. Lucille Corcos and Edgar Levy, both painters, met Smith and Dehner at the Art Students League. Until Dehner left Smith in 1950, the Levys and Smiths were inseparable. They spent a great deal of time in one another's company and wrote each other all the time. Their letters to each other make me want to write actual letters again. For several years Smith and Herman Cherry were also very close, as close as Smith and Noland. I think they met in Woodstock in 1947 and remained friendly with a Woodstock artists’ circle that included Guston. Smith valued Cherry’s intelligence about color. After 1950 Cherry is one of very few people who remained close with both Smith and Dehner.

Smith was friendly with Gottlieb and Rothko in the thirties and then again in the fifties. He trusted Rothko’s practical intelligence. The connections between Smith’s and Rothko’s work are deeper than they may seem. He had good relationships with younger artists, such as Alfred Leslie, Peter Stroud, Anne Truitt and Jules Olitski, and, of course, Helen Frankenthaler, to whom I think we’ll return.

David Smith, <em>Portrait of the Eagle’s Keeper</em>, 1948-49. Steel, bronze, 38 x 12 7/8 x 22 3/4 in. (96.5 x 32.7 x 57.8 cm). Collection Helen Frankenthaler Foundation. Photo: Jerry L. Thompson. © The Estate of David Smith / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.
David Smith, Portrait of the Eagle’s Keeper, 1948-49. Steel, bronze, 38 x 12 7/8 x 22 3/4 in. (96.5 x 32.7 x 57.8 cm). Collection Helen Frankenthaler Foundation. Photo: Jerry L. Thompson. © The Estate of David Smith / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.

Clement Greenberg was hugely important to Smith, particularly in the early fifties, both in the city and in Bolton Landing, where Greenberg regularly visited. Thinking about all these friendships together makes me appreciate how many people Smith had serious discussions with about art, and how important these discussions were to him as well to the artistic vitality of the time. It’s certainly been noted that with the end of the avant-garde, such discussions became less prevalent—stopped shaping artistic culture. These friendships represent a special moment!

Rail: More than any artist friend, Greenberg advocated for Smith early on. When painting became the epitome of avant-garde American art during the fifties, and sculpture appeared the underdog, no one defended its right to exist more than Greenberg, who went out of his way to give it a more sustained discussion. His reviews and articles elevated a cadre of sculptors. But, as time went on, only a few, including Smith and Anthony Caro, remained on the critic’s good list. Greenberg’s philosophical aversion to mixing media (painting is painting and sculpture is sculpture, without color), as you rightly note, was anathema to Smith. Having started off as a painter, Smith never stopped painting (on canvas, paper, and sculpture). The late “Zig” works are layered with more than thirty coats of automotive enamel!

Brenson: Yes, Greenberg jumped in with a laudatory mention as early as ’43: In a group show review, he singled Smith out as one of the most promising artists America had produced. He continued using superlatives throughout the forties, at the same time as he singled out Pollock as the greatest American painter. By the fifties, others—Andrew Ritchie, Fairfield Porter, Eugene Goossen, Belle Krasne, and Hilton Kramer—were also great believers in Smith’s work. Greenberg wrote the catalogue essay for a Smith show at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia in early 1964. Though still always perceptive, his reading of the work is limited. As the work continued to push further and further beyond where it had been, Greenberg’s take on it remained just as controlled. The same year, for the catalogue of his fall 1964 Marlborough show, Smith does an expansive interview with Tom Hess, followed by another, with Frank O’Hara that was broadcast live on WNET. Both crack open the work in liberating ways. It’s clear at this point that the sculpture demanded writing and thinking that Greenberg couldn’t provide. After Smith's death, Krauss approaches the work with a formal rigor but reads Smith’s formal radicality with fresh cultural and philosophical perspectives and offers psychosexual interpretations, something Greenberg hinted at but would not do. Her formal readings open up the work in terms of content. I recently reread Meyer Schapiro’s 1961 essay on Bernard Berenson. He gives Berenson his due but reflects on what he sees as his inability to grow. “What is disappointing in Berenson as a theorist and critic is that while he became sharper in some matters, he failed to grow.” He attributed this failure in part to his inability to take on “his involvement with the market and the milieu that supported the picture trade. In repressing this side of his experience he also cut off reflection on what was most intimate in his character.”

David Smith, “Voltri” sculptures installed in the Anfiteatro Romano, Spoleto, Italy, 1962. Photo: David Smith. The Estate of David Smith, New York. © 2022 The Estate of David Smith / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.
David Smith, “Voltri” sculptures installed in the Anfiteatro Romano, Spoleto, Italy, 1962. Photo: David Smith. The Estate of David Smith, New York. © 2022 The Estate of David Smith / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.

Rail: That’s an insightful parallel given Greenberg’s association with French and Company. Greenberg couldn’t roll with Smith, whose eyes were always open to new art, and who never thought twice about using whatever materials were at hand.

Brenson: Smith wanted no part of purity.

Rail: What an odd twist of fate that Krauss, who entered the art world as a Greenberg acolyte, would be the same person to call him out, in 1974, after he had the paint on some of Smith’s unfinished works stripped.

Brenson: Smith put his estate in the hands of Ira Lowe (a lawyer), Robert Motherwell, and Clement Greenberg, who, more than the other two, decided what would be done with Smith’s work in the crucial years after his death, and therefore what would happen with Smith’s legacy.

I do hope the book brings out the kinds of insights that other critics had into Smith’s work throughout his career. In terms of filling out a picture of him, and this is probably true with any artist who’s written about a lot, there were critical comments and responses made along the way that could be taken up and developed later on. Even key insights that Krauss made, which seem so distinctive to her—her sense of Smith’s challenge to coherence, for example, and her awareness of the disjunctive multiple points of view, and the absence of a central core in the work—they’re in the literature before her. Did she consciously not acknowledge them, or take certain kinds of writers seriously and not others, or is it the kind of thing familiar to many scholars, of reading through so much material that it is nearly impossible to remember every observation encountered along the way? It’s not important. One of the strengths of her writing is the intense focus of her arguments. Smith himself knew that everything that we think and experience is already in the world and has been for some time. But key ideas that she ran with so brilliantly did exist before her, and it’s worth acknowledging people who had mentioned them. As someone who did journalistic criticism and has thought about art historians’ attitudes toward it, it’s interesting for me to see the insights that emerge in short reviews by critics who were responding as best they could in a few words and who could not have had a sense of how their words might contribute to discourses in which they might never be a footnote.

Rail: Smith’s attitude towards the art world—curators, museum directors, critics, and collectors—was uncompromising. His sculptures were like his children. Increasingly reluctant to see them go, he preferred to have many of them close by. Most dealers were inherently suspect. Museum directors and curators were tolerated, so long as they played by his rules. If anyone warranted respect, it was the collector, with honorable intentions, ample finances, and the wherewithal to preserve and, ultimately, to donate the work to worthy institutions.

Brenson: I think that for him, the collector was closest to the artist. No one else could feel the affection that he felt for his work but collectors came the closest. Their support for what they cared about was passion-driven.

Smith saw his creative process as a perpetual stream, where everything related to what came before and to what might follow. He was insistent that “masterpieces are made today,” as significant as any art of the past, but the old idea of a masterpiece, meticulously made, over time, did not make sense to him in the modern world. It pissed him off that American artists of his generation were still constantly being judged inferior to European artists, past and present. Museums tend to isolate specific works at the expense of an artist’s totality. Lois Orswell and G. David Thompson were remarkable collectors. Orswell loved Smith’s work, she thought he was a genius, which did not prevent her from being sharp with him. She assured him that she would keep her Smiths together and told him that she would donate them and their correspondence to the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard. He was fine with individual works going to museums and private collections but believed there had to be places where his work could be shown and cared for together. Orswell was an indispensable figure in his life.

Rail: Let’s segue to Smith’s special friendship with Helen Frankenthaler, the “enduring friendship” we spoke about at the Frankenthaler Foundation in 2019, and which, ultimately, deserves an exhibition that might also include Motherwell. Both met through Greenberg during the early fifties, around the same time Greenberg introduced the young painter to Jackson Pollock. The friendship deepened after Frankenthaler married Robert Motherwell, who had known Smith since the forties. Smith was twenty-two years Frankenthaler’s senior. They came from very different socio-economic backgrounds. They admired each other’s work, and as abstract artists, they shared common beliefs. Some of these are worth mentioning because they help us to better understand Smith. “No rules” became a mutual mantra.

Brenson: Whatever Smith felt like he needed to do in his work, he would do. It’s not just the unexpected ways of putting a sculpture together or the materials that would be used. It’s also the relationship of materials. If he wanted to put bronze with steel or steel with silver, if he wanted to cast an egg carton, if he wanted to apply thirty layers of paint and layer colors that no one could see or even sense, he would do it.

No rules also meant not repeating himself. It meant making every sculpture show different from and in his view better than the one before, regardless of the toll it took on him, emotionally and physically. In his last years Smith had fabulous dreams of constructing a sculpture for a locomotive, which he would also build, and of making a sculpture a mile-high. I consider such dreams works, too, other ways of extending beyond. His absolute refusal to accept limits on what sculpture could be is part of what makes him transformational.

Rail: Both were cloud gazers. Smith from his hillside and the dock overlooking Lake George—mountains and sky. Frankenthaler from the beaches of Provincetown—ocean and sky. Both saw nature as a grounding source, not to faithfully copy but as a catalyst for vision. In his presentation for “The New Sculpture” symposium at the Museum of Modern Art in 1952, Smith mentioned the Chinese attitude of “cloud-longing”: a vision for form that celebrated life as it accepted death. For a painter like Frankenthaler, observing clouds seaside morphing across blue skies inspired another kind of abstraction. In the realm of clouds one’s imagination soars.

Brenson: Cloud-longing connects with the notion of dreaming, a way to project himself into different worlds and realities. Incorporating the sky and clouds into his photographs of his sculpture both extended it toward them and brought them into the work. Cloud-longing also implies aspirational energy, perhaps a spiritual pursuit, although this wasn’t his language. And a desire to view his work from above as well as below—from all viewpoints at once, like God, a Cubist idea. From where he could not be, and he wanted to be there, his work and everything else would look strange, even unknown.

Rail: Smith’s notion of beauty was Janus-like, sublime as well as vulgar. He saw beauty as “a precipitous edge,” an “imaginative edge of beautiful-vulgar,” and he wanted to push “beauty to the edge of rawness.” Frankenthaler, likewise, saw beauty as a full-bodied spectrum of emotional states transposed through paint.

Brenson: Smith was a modernist. He studied Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Cubism and Surrealism. Art had to reflect modern life, in all its material energies and subterranean complexity. It had to reflect what had been and what was and imagine what could be. His beauty is extravagant, disruptive and marvelous.

Rail: Let’s end with the grand view: Both saw the history of art as a stream of available ideas, perpetually relevant.

Brenson: When Smith and Dehner spent nine months in Europe in 1935 and 1936, they saw so much, and they saw a lot of that art on site, and they saw it at a moment when it seemed as if much of it, like Europe itself, could disappear. What he saw, Greek, Byzantine, Minoan, Sumerian, Egyptian, neolithic, what he saw in Russia, modern and ancient, that sense of art as one vast family, and maybe as the ultimate family, stayed with him. This sense of a great continuum but its continuousness in danger, certainly not guaranteed, a family he needed and that needed him, was formative for an artist who didn’t feel accepted in American society and who did not want to be. Human beings needed art. Artists were his first audience. Smith never stopped looking at art from all over the world. His library included books on art from many places and times.

As someone who could make almost anything and who made sculpture with intricate knowledge of the histories of materials and methods, and of polychrome sculpture and of metalworking traditions going back to the Iron Age, did he feel not just imaginative affinities with premodern and non-Western art but connections with the people who made it, with their cultures? I think he did. He wrote that he was more Assyrian than Cubist. He spoke about cave art, Chinese art and African art, as well as of Cézanne, Picasso, Klee and Matisse. We have indelible images of his fields of sculptures—eighty at the time of his death in 1965—but we’ve barely begun to understand the breadth and depth of Smith’s imagination of family, and how defining it was for his work.


Douglas Dreishpoon

Douglas Dreishpoon is director of the Helen Frankenthaler catalogue raisonné project, chief curator emeritus at the Buffalo AKG Art Museum, New York, and consulting editor at the Brooklyn Rail. Current books include Modern Sculpture: Artists in Their Own Words (University of California Press) and Helen Frankenthaler: Late Works, 1988–2009 (Radius Books), both 2022.


The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2022

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