Tuesday, April 05, 2011

"David Smith: Cubes and Anarchy"

At the artist's studio, first in Brooklyn and then in upstate New York, raw sheet metal and iron went in one end and finished sculpture came out the other. Terminal Iron Works, with its forge and anvil and oxyacetylene torches, represented Smith's self-conception as a modern laborer.

At the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, "David Smith: Cubes and Anarchy" is a compelling retrospective that's the first to take a thematic look at the sculpture he produced between the Depression years and his untimely death at 58 in a 1965 car crash. It emphasizes the proletarian angle.

Smith, the middle-class, Indiana-born grandson of a blacksmith, worked briefly in an automobile assembly plant during a college break; but he proudly retained his United Steelworkers union membership throughout his life. Given recent anti-union efforts in the Midwest, New England and the South, not to mention the removal of a historic labor mural (from a state Labor Department office!) by an anti-labor governor in Maine, a certain unexpected timeliness attends LACMA's emphasis on this personal history, in both the show's introductory wall text and its catalog.

Some American artists' emphasis on labor in the early 20th century was an unspoken masculine compensation for a social milieu that associated new art with upper-class feminine leisure. (Think Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, Peggy Guggenheim and many more.) But the show makes a different point: Smith's worker's credentials are linked to his sculptural interest in geometric abstraction.

This emphasis on labor-plus-geometry as a linked motif that spans Smith's career amounts to a new -- and persuasive -- interpretation of the leading American sculptor of his generation. That's no mean feat.

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