'Raw Color' fills the Lunder Center at Stone Hill

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WILLIAMSTOWN -- In a field in Bolton Landing, N.Y., in the Adirondacks, David Smith lined up his welded metal sculptures.

He was working the midnight to 8 a.m. shift in at the American Locomotive Company Schenectady, assembling train cars and tanks, and then driving to Saratoga to learn marble carving at a quarry and funeral monument yard.

He would come back to his Adirondack studio, lay out scrap iron on the ground and walk around it, easing pieces into position. Or he would put anything he could lay a hand on onto a primed canvas -- a watermelon rind, a scrap of cardboard -- and spraypaint around them.

He filled his fields with sculptures, said David Breslin, associate curator of contemporary projects. His children ran around them, and he photographed them in all seasons.

Smith's daughter, Candida Smith, wrote for an exhibition catalog for a 1997 show: "In summer, we often ate breakfast in our pajamas on the terrace looking out on the possibilities of the day. My father encouraged my sister and me to run among the sculptures, to climb, to put our bodies into the elements of the sculptures, to bang out tuneless rhythms ..."

This summer, a series of Smith's work has come to another mountainside in "Raw Color" in the Stone Hill Center at the Clark Art Institute.

On July 4, the Clark will open its new campus, after 10 years of renovation, with glass walls holding a view of hills, sheets of water and granite -- buildings designed as part of a living landscape and spaces made to blur the line between indoors and out. Smith's work sits in the light from the galleries' wide windows and spills into sculpture on the terrace.

"At Stone Hill, we're always thinking about how to make the spaces feel outdoors," Breslin said.

Breslin has loved David Smith's work since his undergraduate years, and he feels it fits naturally into this space.

Smith's sculpture became a turning point, a revolution -- because he painted it.

"In this period, critics thought color and scuplture couldn't go together," Breslin said. "So many sculptors are indebted to him because he took that risk."

Smith sculpted flat planes in bright automobile-paint colors. He wanted to bring painting and sculpture together, Breslin said, quoting him, to create a new medium that would beat either one.

Art historians are still trying to work out how he fit in with the artists and movements of his time, Breslin said.

"We know how to talk about paintings," he said, "how painters from the European avante garde from Picasso to Cézanne were working throug painting, but here's David Smith with a welding mask and a blow torch."

Born in Decatur, Ind., in 1906, Smith worked a summer job as a riveter and left Notre Dame after about two weeks because it had no art courses. Smith moved to New York and joined his future wife, Dorothy Dehner, in studying at the Art Students League.

New York in the 1920s and ‘30s saw a growth of artistic styles from Modern to Cubist, from the clear lines of an Edward Hopper city scene to the burning abstract color of Georgia O'Keeffe.

Smith's mentors experimented. Jan Matulka, a Czech-American modernist painter, ranged from abstract expressionism to landscapes to a vivid painting of the Hopi Snake Rain Dance. John Sloan was a painter of the Ashcan School, an art movement known for painting New York's streets and people, often working-class parts of town.

Smith painted murals a WPA artist in the Depression, and he began his sculptural work with natural materials, coral and wood and stone. But he leaned increasingly to the industrial.

He knew artists in Europe working with welded steel -- Julio Gonzalez (who worked in an automobile factory making armaments during World War I) was working withPablo Picasso -- but no one America had tried it, Breslin said. And Smith liked the social and political implications of working with materials from the American mills.

He wanted the natural and the industrial to work together, Breslin said, much as Frank Lloyd Wright's organic architecture had begun to blend cement and waterfalls. He wanted people to walk aroun the works, look through them and see the spaces they outlined.

Smith did his own Welding. Breslin said the riggers at the Clark, installing his work, loved the skill in it.

He painted the shapes with marine automobile paint, Breslin said, first in white and then in bright color. He liked "gutty" color, "raw" color, he told Frank O'Hara in a 1964 interview -- the assertion that gave Breslin the name for this show.

In Bolton Landing, he filled the upper and lower fields around his house and studio with sculpture. He would see a row of them together, playing off of each other, Breslin said. In the Stone Hill show, a set of sculptures from Smith's "Circle" series draw the eye, inviting peopleto look through one ring to the next, down the long row of circles.

In the fields, Smith could set a pumpkin-orange arc against a hillside of maple trees in the fall -- or through look a dark steel ring and into the sky.


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