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The Fields of David Smith

Candida N. Smith, "The Fields of David Smith," in Candida N. Smith, Irving Sandler and Jerry L. Thompson, The Fields of David Smith (Mountainville, New York: Storm King Art Center; New York, New York: Thames & Hudson, 1999), pp. 17-38.

The Fields of David Smith was published in conjunction with a three-year exhibition of the same name presented at the Storm King Art Center in 1997, 1998, and 1999, organized by guest curator Candida N. Smith and Storm King director David R. Collens.

All photographs by David Smith. Click on the images for more information and larger views.

Click here to view a diagram of David Smith's fields in Bolton Landing

Bolton Landing

Our open fields on the mountaintop are fully exposed to the sky, clouds, and wind without mediation. The fields are quiet to the world but amplify the force of one's thoughts and feelings. Solitude there goes even further: the intensity of identity in that place would be more than most people could tolerate.

My father put his sculptures in our fields so that he could look at each work in relation to the natural world of the mountains and sky and also to its fellow sculptures. Again and again, he referred to his "work stream"; each work of art being as a vessel filled from the stream while never wholly separate. I understand his term to mean the flow of his identify made physically manifest--the process by which images and ideas from decades or days before inform a work in progress or yet to be made.

David Smith's fields as a place for the dialogue between sculptures evolved from his creative process, from an interplay between nature and the artist's own nature. The artist's identity makes its mark as a stream carves its channel into a mountainside.

David Smith, early in life, eschewed the clamor of New York City's art world. He outgrew its originally stimulating effects and began to feel it to be a kind of nattering that dissipated his energies. He sought a quiet, far place for the call and response to inner challenges. Supported by the power of the Adirondack Mountains and exposed to the sky, he created an environment best suited to complete concentration on his art. These mountains, once higher than the Himalayas, had been rolled and compressed by glacial action into a dense, ironlike mass. Smith's own volcanic energy could expand in this dramatic isolation. It gave him enough room to be. At the same time, the fragile subtleties of nature, such as the tracks of a fox in the snow, mirrored his own poignant delicacy.

In the world's oldest mountain range, the Adirondacks, winter is an absolute, stark anduncompromising as my father's own character. Sound is somehow magnified in the intense cold of ten or even twenty degrees below zero. The drop of an icicle from the roof cracks in the air like a whip. In each scrunch of a boot on snow you seem to hear the cascading of crystals compressing against one another. The presence of a loyal winter bird is felt with gratitude. Fresh tracks in the snow are both an exquisite puzzle and a break in the solitude.

My father spent his last winters mostly alone, holding to a rigorous work schedule of long days in his factory-like sculpture shop, sometimes with a break or a visit with neighbors at the town diner. He worked until it became too dark and too cold in the shop to continue. He would then stop for a good dinner and some music chosen to suit his need. Afterward, he would draw or make his "sprays." He would place found objects--pieces of metal, paint can lids, even potato peelings-- in place, spray paint from cans, perhaps move the objects and spray again. The results resembled theghostings that hot metal left on the white shop floor. The sprays, done on canvas or paper, could also serve as sketches for sculptural or painterly ideas. He often worked late into the night. Solitude weighed heavily on him in those long northern winters. At such times, people are left with only their own resources. His were prodigious.

Our house was an artist's house, part of his creative process. It as built simply of cinderblocks and steel plates, with wide windows looking down on the fields falling gently away. These uncurtained "picture" windows brought the outside into the house. We lived on one floor. Below sunk into the hillside, was space for art storage. After learning some Italian in 1962, he named a series "Primo Piano" because, he said, that was where things happened in a house. It was certainly true of his dwelling. It was always full of drawings, paintings, collages, and sculptures from different periods. Around 1962, he traded some paintings for antiques; a huge sideboard, Renaissance trestle tables, and carved wooden columns that he enlivened with spray paint. He made assemblages of objects on the walls, each suited to its room. In a living room corner by the wood stove hung a Spanish spur, an arm of an Italian clock, a platter from China, a manhole cover from Brooklyn, a Greek shield--together creating a visual poem of workmanship. Tables held birds' eggs, feathers, bones, and sculpture. In the drawing studio there hung a lizard and a human head made of bread, animal skulls, a violin, a draftsman's right angle, and drawings--the constant inner voice of his work. Drawing could record ideas soaring through his mind more quickly than the labors of sculpture. The process, more gentle, more reflective, was often done late at night after dinner. I can remember waking to a living room floor covered with drying drawings. It was a little like Christmas morning; our house was transformed, touched by a magic.

In the passage to the drawing studio was the orange Dutch door to the children's room, on it an Audubon calendar, a Plaza Hotel menu, a cardboard collage spelling "Becca and Dida," and a letter form President Johnson appointing Smith to the President's Council on the Arts. Through the kitchen, a site of enthusiastic preparation of woodman's stew, sautéed wild mushrooms, and seven-bean chili, the door led out to the long driveway downhill. On the right was the north, or upper, field where, in the last years of his life, Smith planted dense rows of sculpture; white-painted Circle and Box with Untitled, its architectonic companion, both 1963; Voltri-Boltons; the stainless steel Becca (1964); the vibrantly painted Circles I, II, and III, of 1962; several massive Wagons; and, down the hill, the delicate Lunar Arcs on 1 Leg (1956-60) dancing by the pond. The drive then rose slightly as it passed the junk heap of elements and found objects ready for use. Arrayed against the mound on the hill, finished pieces might "cure," as he called it, over the winter into the desired state of rust. Other elements would wait until their lines and forms indicated their use to the artist.

On the other side of the drive and down by the road was the sculpture studio, known as "the shop." Outside, finished pieces and works in progress clustered against the walls. Inside was a fully equipped metal shop with, among other tools, acetylene and arc welders, hoists, cutters, and grinders. David Smith would work on several different pieces at one time, perhaps a Cubi, a Voltri-Bolton, a Primo Piano and an Albany. He hung metal fragments and found objects against the white wall, echoing the white painted rectangles on the floor against which he would arrange pieces of steel into sculpture.

From one end of the shop an open deck extended into space as the ground beneath it fell sharply down to a pond. To the left, the upper field climbed toward the house, while the lower field swept down in its profile. A patio encircled the house, most generously on the side facing the sloping south, or lower, field. On the margin of this patio ring, small sculptures from different periods were mounted on pedestals of stacked cinder block, marble, or slate. Larger pieces, those with the mass of a seated human, such as Personnage from Stove City (1946) and Blue Construction (1938), were placed inside the ring. Below the terrace, just beyond the small flower garden, there sometimes stood larger, human-scale pieces. Finally, stretching across two fields, were the largest monumental sculptures, arranged and rearranged to suite Smith's meditative needs. These were not at all "curated" in the traditional sense of being consciously ordered so as to explain themselves, but rather disposed to challenge each other and provoke discourse of imagery, volume, space, and line. They were Sentinels, Totems, Gates, Zigs, Wagons, Circles, and Towers, just as Smith called them. I felt them also to be witnesses, warriors, companions, and places for exploration.

Smith often said he made only girl sculptures. He explained:

I don't make boy sculptures. They become kind of personages, and sometimes they cry out to me that I should have been better or bigger, and mostly they tell me that I should have done that twelve years before--or twenty years before

To me, the voices of many of the Voltri-Boltons challenge "who goes there?" with a weapon to hand. Human scale, they confront the viewer with that most probing of questions. Three Ovals Soar (1960) reaches to lyric heights with a beauty that squeezes the human heart. Rebecca Circle (1961) bursts with an epigrammatic wit, then flashes its other face of a totemic wildflower. The Cubi "gates" are open portals designating a picture plane of imbued space waiting for us to enter and be transformed. The Sentinels stand eternally watching. They do not bar our way; they stand witness for the everlasting record, reflecting our movement back to us in their stainless surfaces. Superstructure on 4 (1960) stands on stilts to reflect only sky and clouds

My own relationship to these sculptures was casual, intimate, and profound, as was appropriate to siblings who share a progenitor. My sister and I often played in the lower field. We picked berries, and at night watched for shooting stars and told ghost stories. We made banging music with our fists on steel. In winter we attempted sledding, which was always difficult because of the deep snow and large sculptures. In summer we fished in the pond at the bottom of the upper field, casting into the reflections of the willow elm, Windtotem (1962), or Study in Arcs (1957). To children a pond is a water world for rowing, frog catching, and mud treading. Comforting, homey sounds of the grinder or welding torch came from the nearby shop, telling us that our father or Leon Pratt, his assistant, were always close enough to come over to get the hook out of the mouth of an unfortunate perch.

In later years of growing up, after my father's death, the fields were a good place to look for the answers and apparitions adolescents demand so stridently. The ground there felt to me to be the most solid, heavily imbued part of my world.

The Great Quiet of Stopped Machines

Before the turn of the twentieth century, when much of the Adirondack area was cut for timber, the fields of Bolton Landing were cleared. The region was never a successful one for agriculture. The land is steep, the soil acidic, and the ground pushes up rocks at a rate to break a farmer's heart. Still, there are remains of elegant nineteenth-century dry walls, held together by skill and gravity, marking two sides of the south field. In the late 1920s, when Smith first visited and then purchased the property, it was a fox farm. All that is documented of Smith's use of the fields in the early years--the 1930s and 1940s--is that Smith and Dorothy Dehner, then his wife, planted a small fruit orchard hear the house. On the evidence of a single photograph, we know that painted wooden constructions were set into the upper field.

So many of David Smith's ideas were part of his vision from the beginning. The vision of his sculpture in nature seems always to have been there. Throughout his career in sculpture, from the early days on a Brooklyn wharf, working in the original Terminal Iron Works, Smith would photograph his sculpture outdoors.

In the Adirondacks he consistently made photographic portraits of works outside, often on the Bolton Landing town dock or on one of its pylons, measuring the piece against the lake and mountains. Eye level was often low, enhancing a sense of monumentality. He also went to enormous physical effort in the later years to arrange large pieces temporarily for photography before they went out for exhibition.

In the late 1940s and through the 1950s the patio overlooking the south field was often dense with sculpture. Star Cage (1950) and Blackburn, Song of an Irish Blacksmith (1949-50) were among them. A few pieces, including The Fish (1950), took up a temporary residence in the field beyond. According to my mother, Jean Freas, Smith's second wife, Australia (1951) was the first to be placed squarely in the center of the field beyond the house. David Smith was well aware that Australia, with its fluid gestures of a long arm swinging gracefully, was an extremely important piece, heralding a new era for his work. It represented a culmination of his sinuous use of metal and the technique of drawing in space. Thus planted, Australia drew not just in any space--such as the impartial space of a museum gallery--but in the specific landscape of Bolton Landing. The fields were truly born.

The sculptures grew larger and more numerous as money for materials trickled in more regularly through the 1950s. Each sculpture was carefullly sited and mounted on a sunken cast-cement pedestal. The 1960s rapidly brought increased critical acclaim and more financial rewards. More materials meant more and larger pieces. David Smith had more energy and creative ideas than he could handle.

The spring of 1962 brought Smith to Italy as a participant in the fourth Festival of Two Worlds, in Spoleto. He was given a team of workers, his choice of the area's abandoned factories, and all the metal pieces he could salvage in return for the creation of one sculpture to be displayed in Genoa. In a phenomenal explosion of artistic output, he made twenty-seven sculptures in thirty days. This was larger than the sum of all the other sculptural work in the festival put together. Giovanni Carandente, the festival's director, installed the entire series, called Voltri after the town of their fabrication, in Spoleto's ancient Roman amphitheater.

My father's excited anticipation can literally be read in his sculpture. The only time he ever wrote words with the grinder was when he scrawled on the side of Voltri VI, "Voltri Andiamo Spoleto."

In his notes "Report on Voltri" he wrote about "finding" elements for sculpture as a process of recognition in "the great quiet of stopped machines--the awe, the pull.... Part is personal heritage.... Since I've had identity, the desire to create excels over the desire to visit [the ancient sites and museums]."

The beauties of the forge shop, parts dropped partly forged, cooled now but stopped in progress--as if the human factor had dissolved and the great dust settled--the found tombs of early twentieth century, from giants to tweezers headed for the open hearth to feed the world's speediest rolls. Archaeologists have their iron interests back 5,000 years. In the yard where iron has lain shedding scale and scrap, punchings scraps from shearing, I found parts of my nature not over seventy years old in the first inch, but this flat beside a stream near the sea may, farther down, hold museum iron. I brought back to Bolton handfuls of findings for no greater reason than that they fit with my miscellany and complement the manhole cover from Brooklyn which hangs on my wall.

The archaeologists may go as far as L.S.B. Leakey and fill many halls, but my vision is in dreaming the host of events destroyed in their time. It is possible the museums are too small in truth to form historianisms."

It should be noted that his "handfuls" were more like truckloads.

My father returned home that summer invigorated and jubilant. I had never seen him quite so happy. Before that summer, there were a few sculptures around the pond at the bottom of the upper field. It was after his return from Italy that the fields began to burgeon at an amazing rate. It was as if the creative explosion and the resulting enormous installation in Spoleto ignited a fire that did not burn out. The Voltri-Boltons were made along with the painted circle pieces, Primo Pianos, Zigs, and Cubis. The upper fields that had been nearly empty before the summer of '62 filled with increasing density throughout the last three years of his life.

Looking at large groups of his own work gave him a peaceful sense of release--parts of his nature were realized and therefore taken care of. There was also the exhilaration of accomplishment. He came home to Bolton Landing with tremendous momentum and set to work to fill the fields of his "sculpture farm."

Using the Fields

In the years I knew my father, we used the fields around our house fully and constantly. Each morning began with a long look out the window toward the lower field that slide away from the house down to the woods below, then to the wedge of lake, mysterious at this distance, but intimately familiar through our memories of plunking in its water. The eye then reached out to far-away mountaintops stretching into Vermont. Often in the morning, clouds would settle into little valleys between the ridges, their tops rising like dragons among the trees. These "dragons" or the sightings of a visiting fox family strangely mottled orange and silver--descendants of the silver foxes raised earlier on our property--gave us the first real news of the day.

How little I know--until I see what happened in the night on the snow--
the movements of animals, their paths, and why--the animals
that fly the night birds leave no tracks except on the mind
the star tracks that angle to the earth shape and direct
the broad brushing of the wind shown only by the snow plops
from branches--circuling the bushes and trees

Observation was an honored skill in my father's house.

Mornings, he would walk to the edge of the terrace and let out a huge roar, I imagine to release feelings built up overnight and announce his return to the waking world.

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 and hear the difference between the sound of flat and volumetric elements. It was a playground for the unconscious. One summer my father built a house of straw and one of twigs and set up an army tent in the upper field for our play, when we weren't playing pirate in a rowboat in the pond at the bottom of the field.

Each summer at this time brought what he called "The Birthday." We were rarely together for my sister's April birthday so we celebrated both of our birthdays together in August. It was a huge party with friends from New York, Provincetown, Vermont, and a large area around Bolton Landing. David Smith made a five-foot lollipop tree, spray-painted and drilled with holes into which the sticked candies were inserted so that the construction bristled. We had an M&M's stand with piles of the treasure to give away. A magic bird, mounted on a tall stand, was spray-painted pink and gold and had a long plumed tail made of sequined organza to blow in the breeze.

Children and their mamas, dressed in their party best, danced on the terrace to the music of the combo from the town's good hotel. Wine and ginger ale flowed freely, and moutainous marvels of ice cream were passed around in soda fountain bowls. I don't remember any cake, but we were big on ice cream. Balloons and streamers fluttered from trees by the house, and spray-painted golf balls and a bright buoy hung from certain trees like fantastical fruit. We always had pony or donkey rides, the animal borrowed from a neighbor. One year the pony ran away to the bottom of the field with our favorite neighbor child. She was rescued in tears and the rides ended, but we all posed for photos with the forgiven offender. One year we fired a salute from a Revolutionary-era cannon dredged from a local pond. Our well always went dry by the end of the day, depleted by unknowing city folks. We never cared.

"The Birthday" is the subject of Bec-Dida Day (1963)--a splendid celebration exploding out of time--complete unto itself. This sculpture my father set in the same field where the party took place. Our play was part of the fields as much as were the sculptures, for Smith as well as for his daughters. He needed to hold these simple satisfactions--fun, and well-fed girls--in his other times of loneliness and in the sometimes violent turmoil of his emotional life.

I believe that gazing our at his fields, as he so often did, he found a kind of peace in the balance of the sculptures, which were like so many aspects of his identity. Physically manifested and set together to form their own dialogue--ultimately aesthetic--the sculptures in the fields brought a kind of musical order to the dissonance of his inner flow of feelings. He always said that for him, art was easier to do than life.

The Battle of Being

Art is made from dreams, and visions, and things not known, and least of all from things that can be said. It comes from the inside of who you are when you face yourself. It is an inner declaration of purpose, it is a factor which determines artist identity....

I will not change an error if it feels right, for the error is more human than perfection. I do not seek answers. I haven't named this work nor thought where it would go. I haven't thought what it is for, except that it is made to be seen. I've made it because it comes closer to saying who I am than any other method I can use. This work is my identity. There were no words in my mind during its creation, and I'm certain works are not needed in its seeing: and why should you expect understanding when I do not? That is the marvel--to question but not to understand. Seeing is the true language of perception. Understanding is for words. As far as I am concerned, after I've made the work, I've said everything I can say.

For David Smith, his identity as an artist was the personal foundation of everything he did and was. It was as clear to him as the tablets to Moses. It was the dearly won prize from long years of struggle in the "battle of being," as he called it. From that core of identity he could consistently strike with utter conviction with the brush on paper, the alignment of sculptural elements on the shop floor, or any other medium, and the stroke would be guided inevitably by that inner compass. Identity is the sum total of personal truth, and conviction is the force with which identity is expressed. There was no intermediary, as he always said; his art was his identity.

My father acted at all times and in all aspects of his life from his identity as an artist. He had no other. He cooked with the extravagant generosity and adventurousness of an artist. He parented as an artist--his children should not wear "pretty" colors, but rather "gutsy" colors. Our imaginations should not be constrained by mass-market toys. He could devour music. If dirty dishes became too demanding in winter, he stuck them in the snow to wait for spring thaw. He saw himself as outside of and in opposition to the class-structured society.


While he could be generous, spontaneous, playful and hospitable, the sense of "I am" was all about "I am an artist." There was little room to identify himself in terms of other people. And so he felt lonesome.

My father never knew what a work block was. Ideas rushed in much too fast for him to realize them all. Some remained in the form of spray drawings or notebook sketches. Any problems that did not resolve themselves through the labor of sculpture making could be drawn or painted through.

I maintain my identity by regular work, there is always labor when inspiration has fled, but inspiration returns quicker when identity and the work stream are maintained.

Courage kept him going. With it he created and lived his identity as an artist with absolute fidelity. When his work was not appreciated, understood, or financially supported, he knew his achievement better than anyone else. He would listen with interest to those he respected. Then he would do exactly as he saw fit. Discouragement--that is, to be distanced from his courage--was a personal form of hell, excruciating but short-lived.

My father said that he did not judge one piece against another. This was also true of aspects of his identity. Most people learn to hide or disguise the darker parts of their unconscious; he had learned to keep them right in front of him in the air and light of the mountaintop. He listened carefully to his demons, dreams, and visions; they guided him well. With them he recognized aspects of his nature in found objects. His strokes when broadest became geometric and abstract. Still, the conviction behind them struck with a force of honesty and authenticity as to be utterly human. Any diminution of absolute integrity was dangerous to his mind.

The direct experience of art, unpolluted by academia or the marketplace, was the manner of his life. In the landscape he created a multilevel discourse, complete and unedited. There was the dialogue between the works, and another between nature and the artist's nature. Many totemic works, especially the Sentinels and certain Cubis, are about the artist's stance in the world--tall, heroic, and solitary. The sculpture acts upon the landscape, transforming it as an endowed, highly charged arena just as a dance defines the space of its performance. Particular works also reinterpret the space of nature. The white Oval Node (1963), for example, or Lunar Arc (1961) seems to "punch out" part of nature, continuing the negative-positive spatial exchange of the spray drawings and the white shop floor with the darker singed ghostings left by hot metal. The Newark Museum's Untitled (1964) circle and other open Circle pieces seem to "target" those chunks of landscape seen through the open centers. Ambient colors are reflected from the burnished stainless steel. Shapes and colors that are found in the natural world, but on a radically new scale, as in Rebecca Circle (1961), refer to a wildflower or in 2 Circles 2 Crows (1963), to the shapes of birds flying overhead.

Thus the great discourse of David Smith's sculpture fields is framed by mountainous space. It is a magnificent creation, ever evolving, every changing, each sculpture independently a great work of art, together a radical congress of aesthetic discourse poignant in its humanness.

 

 
 
 
 



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