David Smith holds a special interest for students studying art history.
He was more outspoken than most of the artists in the past or present, he was extremely
articulate about his work and wrote widely about the business of making art.
He was something of a paradox, Smith was a big burly man who was
very strong, and he personified what people would now call the "macho
lifestyle". Having worked as a welder, a logger, and an oil man, his
expressions as a sculpture depended on his physical skills as a blacksmith.
From the noisy machine shop that he would build his art in, he would produce
sculptures that truly had a unique and pure form. This same macho man was also a connoisseur of
classical music, a lifelong poet, a gourmet cook, and was also a sensitive
father and husband.
David Smith was born in Decatur, Indiana in 1906. He remained in
Decatur for the first 20 years of his life. In 1926, he moved to New York
to study painting at the Art Student's League.
Smith held a variety of jobs to help support himself, including one that
turned out to be crucial later in his art career, that being a metal welder in
an automotive factory. In 1927, he married a sculptor named Dorothy Dehner. Two years later David and his wife bought a farm in Bolton Landing overlooking
Lake George, New York, where he worked till his death and displayed many of his
large sculptures outdoors.
In the early 1930's, his career focus changed from painting and collage arts
to sculptures. Pablo Picasso and his iron sculptures were a big influence
on Smith's work. He focused his attention on metal and started using his
welding skills attained from the automotive factory to assemble his various
artwork. Finding the right place to work was the biggest problem he faced.
As he puts it:
"One Sunday afternoon we were walking on a Navy pier in
Down below on the ferry terminal, was a long rambly junky looking shack called
Terminal Iron Works. Wife said, 'David, that's where you ought to be for
your work.' The next morning I walked in and was met by a big Irishman
named Blackburn. I'm an artist. I have a welding outfit. I'd
like to work here." Blackburn said, "Hell yes! Move in". "I
learned a lot from those guys", said Smith.
From then on, Smith's work was almost entirely in metal sculpture, and soon
he began to focus on working with steel.
His first exhibition was in 1937 in New York. After that, his
reputation as a sculptor grew rapidly. Whether he was in New York or
Boston Landing, he worked prolifically, and he played with a lot of
He enjoyed a wide range of friendships with many successful artists of his time.
After he divorced his first wife, he met and soon married Jean Freas in 1953.
They had two daughters named Rebecca and Candida within two years of being
married. Smith's life ended prematurely while driving near the farm that
they owned. He failed to make a turn in the road causing his truck to
crash and he was tragically killed.
Smith's work is represented in almost every major collection of modern art, but his
works that are in indoor museums may seem out of place almost to an
uncomfortable extent. He always preferred that his larger pieces be
displayed outdoors. He wrote:
"I like outdoor sculpture and the most
practical thing for outdoor sculpture is stainless steel. I make them and
polish them in such a way that on a dull day, they take on the dull blue, or
color of the sky in the late afternoon sun, the glow, golden like the rays, the
colors of nature....They are colored by the sky and the surroundings, the green
or blue of water. Some are down by the water and some are by the
mountains. They reflect the colors. That's why they are designed for
Source: Sculptors of The Twentieth Century. 1st ed. : Haddaway Publishing,