Art review: ‘David Smith: Cubes and Anarchy’ at Los Angeles County Museum of Art


This article was originally on a blog post platform and may be missing photos, graphics or links. See About archive blog posts.

Before there was Andy Warhol’s Factory, there was David Smith’s Terminal Iron Works.

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.

What’s the labor-geometry connection? Two primary ones emerge.

One is industrial. The transformation of the United States from an agrarian into an industrial powerhouse is a major motif of modern American life, and machine-age forms exploit geometry. Smith’s early sculpture ‘Saw Head’ (1933), made when he was 27, is a sort of generic ‘worker’s portrait,’ a face composed of a rusty circular saw atop an iron pipe and flange. This primitive totem of a Modern Iron Age adds metal pins, pliers and tool fragments to create blunt facial features.


The other connection is artistic. The title ‘Saw Head’ is a pun. It refers not just to the jagged circular-saw that makes the head, but also to earlier Cubist sculptural heads by Picasso and especially Julio Gonzalez, plus works by unidentified African artists that Smith saw and admired. Smith’s industrial sculpture is populist in its materials -- principally iron and steel, not officious bronze or establishment marble -- but elitist in its aesthetics.

His conscious nods to an international roster of artists also included the socially minded American John Sloan, Romanian Constantin Brancusi, Russian avant-gardist Vladimir Tatlin, Dutch geometric abstractionist Piet Mondrian and more. The list hews toward 20th century art’s Utopian side. Geometry offered a perfection of form, which Utopian idealism demanded. Not for nothing was Gonzalez a member of the 1929-1933 Parisian artists’ group called Cercle et Carré -- Circle and Square.

Fast forward to 1965 and one of Smith’s final -- and most radical -- works, an abstract sculpture named for one of his two daughters. ‘Untitled (Candida)’ is one of the show’s 14 brushed stainless steel sculptures, five of them from the famous ‘Cubi’ series, for which Smith is best-known. Eight steel plates cut in irregular rectangles, slightly overlapped at the edges, were arranged in an oval composition on the floor, welded together and raised to stand upright on a low base. From the front and back, the egg-shaped composition and the silvery plates, enlivened by light-catching buffer-marks etched into their surfaces, visually appear to tilt, torque and twist in space, like squares floating in a circle. Walk around to the right or left side and the quarter-inch-thick plates disappear, creating a thin vertical line. It’s an 8-foot tall industrial drawing, standing erect.

Remember Leonardo da Vinci’s famous line drawing of a figure with outstretched limbs inscribed inside a circle and a square? The centuries-old legacy of Vitruvian man never looked quite like this before. Smith’s deceptively simple totemic sculpture creates an almost metaphysical abstraction.

LACMA curator Carol Eliel doesn’t fully dismiss the standard view of Smith’s art. It is indeed the sculptural counterpart to the New York School’s gestural painting, and he’s an artist who found a way to draw in physical space using welded steel. In fact, the show’s pivot is the marvelous 1950 tabletop sculpture ‘Star Cage,’ which visually recalls a Jackson Pollock drip-painting forged in three dimensions; the welded steel-rods zigzag like the tracks of energy particles within an atom’s nucleus.

But Eliel does complicate that formal interpretation. In the process, she also makes sense of the acclaimed stainless steel ‘Cubi’ sculptures from the last years of his life -- often monumental works whose strict reliance on cubes, squares, cylinders and circles has hitherto been regarded as a breakthrough in his art. Not exactly, this show convincingly says; they’re more accurately seen as the culmination of a career-long interest.

The installation, designed by architect Brenda Levin, is smart: Smith’s work unfolds in a loose chronology along the east side of the pavilion’s long space; fills out with 58 small oil paintings, drawings, photographs and sketchbooks in a small rear gallery; curves around ‘Star Cage’ at the back; and, finally, returns to the front of the pavilion along the west side, where most of the mature works from the 1950s and 1960s are displayed. The layout, not unlike ‘Untitled (Candida),’ torques a circle inside a square.

Yet, following its story in the open, hangar-like space of LACMA’s new Resnick Pavilion isn’t easy. The installation, however smart, is also confusing.

That’s because, rather than interior walls, the space is divided by translucent white scrims suspended from the ceiling and anchored to the floor, often at 45-degree angles meant to gently guide you through the vast expanse. Like giant modern window blinds, the scrims let you see through them into adjacent spaces, where the milky contours of other sculptures (and other people) can be made out. But these atmospheric veils are more distracting than illuminating. The visual jumble provides none of the sharp contrast offered by the organic natural landscape, which Smith most wanted as a backdrop for his monumental sculptures.

Nature must be kept out of museum galleries, of course, but this particular design solution isn’t helpful. The geometric scrims give new -- and no doubt unintentional -- meaning to the exhibition’s subtitle, ‘Cubes and Anarchy.’

David Smith: Cubes and Anarchy, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., (323) 857-6000, through July 24. Closed Wednesdays.


Art review: ‘Vija Celmins: Television and Disaster, 1964-1966’ at LACMA

Art review: ‘William Leavitt: Theater Objects’ at MOCA

Art review: ‘Gods of Angkor’ at the Getty

-- Christopher Knight

Photos: David Smith, ‘Star Cage,’ 1950, brushed and painted steel; credit: Christopher Knight/Los Angeles Times. David Smith, ‘Saw Head,’ 1933, iron and steel; credit: LACMA. David Smith, ‘Untitled (Candida),’ brushed stainless steel; installation view; credit: Christopher Knight/Los Angeles Times