David Smith - Painted Steel: The Late Work of David Smith

Gondola II, 1964
Painted steel
110 1/4 x 113 x 18 inches (280 x 287 x 45.7 cm)


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Public Reception: Saturday, April 18, 6:00 to 8:00pm

Gagosian Gallery is pleased to announce the gallery's first exhibition of the work of David Smith. The show is organized in conjunction with the Estate, which is lending six major works to the exhibition. A seventh comes from the Museo Rufino Tamayo in Mexico City. The exhibition, "Painted Steel: The Late Work of David Smith" comprises seven of the most significant of the late painted sculptures, dating from 1960-1964. A full-color catalogue with an essay by William Rubin will accompany the exhibition, which is the first to focus on the late painted works. A concurrent exhibition of related drawings and paintings will be shown at the uptown gallery.

The painting of sculpture was one of the central preoccupations of David Smith's career. Fully one-third of the artist's works were painted, including the first free-standing sculpture he ever made, a coral head painted maroon in 1932. Notes about color began to appear in his sketchbooks around 1940, and in 1960, the first year documented by the Gagosian Gallery show, eighteen of twenty-four sculptures he made were painted. As a sculptor who had begun as a painter, Smith was uniquely qualified to fulfill his ambition of creating something that Picasso and Matisse hadn't even attempted to achieve: sculpture informed by painting, or, as Frank O'Hara put it, "sculpture looking at painting and responding in its own fashion." Smith always emphasized his roots in painting: "I never conceived of myself as anything other than a painter because my work came right through the raised surface, and color and objects applied to the surface." Gradually the canvas became the base, and the painting was a sculpture. I have never required any separation except one element of dimension."

The late painted works are the culmination of Smith's long meditation on the subject of color in sculpture. Among the major pieces included in the Gagosian Gallery exhibition are Tanktotem IX, Three Planes, Black White Forward, Zig V and Gondola II. All the major themes of Smith's work are represented as well as two major series, the Tanktotems and the Zigs. Zig V is a geometric construction based on Cubism with the mass and presence of a Cubi. As the conservator Albert Marshall has noted, the Cubis were burnished to a brushstroke appearance that owes a lot to Smith's way of feathering in different colors together on the surface of Zig V. Indeed, color was essential to Smith's vision for the Cubis: "I like outdoor sculpture and the most practical thing for outdoor sculpture is stainless steel, and I make them and polish 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...the colors of nature." Zig V also has the distinction of expressing Smith's unique and grand style of drawing in paint, in large gestures, in proportion to his size.

Color in sculpture served several interrelated functions for Smith. As Rosalind Krauss has observed, he used paint to set up a surface that would allow the sculpture to transcend its physical materiality. Color is also used to set up slight back and forth movements from the picture plane. In Black White Forward, the viewer's experience is held frontal and two-dimensional, as if to press the point of the connection between painting and sculpture. Paint also holds your gaze as you circumnavigate Circle IV, as the color disappears for a moment only to reappear and define another form entirely, from a new vantage point. In this sense, Smith employed color to organize the experience of the sculpture for the viewer, whom he relied on to complete the work. Views are more like a series of projected pictures, distinct and resolved in themselves, than a traditional sculptural experience in the round (like that of a Brancusi), and they slip in and out of our physical reality as we move in the space of the sculpture. The pressure that Smith puts on our retentive memory as we circle a piece is extraordinary, as in Gondola II, where we must track the shift from black to blue as we cross to the other side.

Smith paints the surfaces of his late sculptures with two parts experience and care and one healthy dose of the artist's rightful anarchy. He spoke of using the "wrong" color, and some of the color in the show, probably all the more "right" as a result, was put on with a dirty brush. "Sometimes I need total disrespect for the material and paint it as if it were a building." Disrespect but also great deliberation, as color choices were considered, sometimes for as long as a year, according to both Robert Motherwell and Frank O'Hara.

Since its opening in 1992, the exhibition space at 136 Wooster Street has been closely identified with the most vanguard statements in contemporary sculpture. Besides presenting Smith's painted works more comprehensively than ever before, the Gagosian Gallery exhibition places Smith's great achievement in the context of the work of the younger generation of artists he influenced so profoundly.

The gallery wishes to acknowledge the contribution of Candida Smith, Rebecca Smith and Peter Stevens to the realization of the exhibition, and to thank the National Gallery of Art, the Carnegie Museum of Art, and the Museo Rufino Tamayo for making the works in their care available for us to show. Thanks also go to the Storm King Art Center for cooperating on the loan of Three Planes from the Museo Tamayo. The Storm King exhibition, "The Fields of David Smith," opens on May 16 and is the second in a three-year series to commemorate the thirtieth anniversary of the museum's acquisition of thirteen works by the artist from the Estate.

For further information, please contact the gallery.