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David Smith Chronology


Roland David Smith is born March 9, 1906, in Decatur, Indiana to Harve Martin Smith, a telephone engineer and part-time inventor and Golda Stoler Smith, a schoolteacher. (Smith later drops "Roland," although he occasionally adds the middle initial "R." when signing documents and works of art.) In 1921, the family moves to Paulding, Ohio. While still in high school, Smith takes a correspondence course in cartooning offered by the Cleveland Art School and makes illustrations for his high school yearbook. After graduation, he studies for one year at Ohio University in Athens. During summer vacation, he works for the Studebaker automobile factory in South Bend, Indiana, as a riveter; he also does soldering, spot-welding, and works a lathe. He attends Notre Dame University for a brief period, before taking a job with Studebaker’s Finance Agency. He is then transferred to a Morris Plan Bank in Washington DC, and studies poetry for one semester at George Washington University, which has no art courses at this time.


Smith moves to New York City in 1926 and meets a young painter, Dorothy Dehner, who is studying at the Art Students League (ASL); they later marry (on December 24, 1927). In the winter of 1926 Smith takes his first classes at the ASL, studying painting with Richard Lahey.

Smith and Dehner visit Bolton Landing, near Lake George in the Adirondack Mountains, in upstate New York, during the summer of 1927.

That autumn, Smith enrolls for further instruction at the ASL. He takes classes with American realist painter John Sloan, drawing instructor Kimon Nicolaides, and Czech modernist painter Jan Matulka, a former pupil of Hans Hofmann. After Matulka's classes at the ASL come to an end, Smith studies with him privately (until 1931). Matulka introduces Smith to the works of Mondrian, Picasso, Kandinsky, and the Russian Constructivists. Smith also explores other aspects of New York's cultural scene, developing strong interests in jazz and modern dance that will continue for the rest of his life.


From February to May 1928, Smith works for the A.G. Spalding sporting goods store. In May, he sails on an oil tanker from Philadelphia through the Panama Canal, to San Pedro, California. In the autumn, Smith returns to his job at Spaulding (he will work there until October 1931). Smith and Dehner relocate to Brooklyn.


In 1929, Smith and Dehner buy a dilapidated house and barn in Bolton Landing on eighty-six acres of land. (They will come to spend each summer and autumn at Bolton Landing for the following eleven years, moving there permanently in 1940.)

Smith meets John Graham, a Russian émigré, intellectual, and artist. Through Graham, he meets the avant-garde painters Stuart Davis, Jean Xceron, Arshile Gorky, and Willem de Kooning.

Smith sees photographs of Picasso's 1928 Project for Sculpture in a 1929 issue of Cahiers d’art and experiments with painting, collage, and reliefs created in an abstract Surrealist style. He becomes increasingly interested in combining three-dimensional forms and painting.

From October 1931 to June 1932, Smith and Dehner live on the Caribbean island of St. Thomas, in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Smith paints, exoeriments with photography, assembles small constructions from pieces of wood, coral, and other found objects, and makes his first sculpture - a carved coral head, painted maroon.

When he and Dehner return to Bolton Landing, Smith installs a forge and an anvil in his studio. He makes more constructions from wood, wire, stone, aluminum rod, soldered metal, and found materials. He also begins to weld metal sculptures using an oxyacetylene torch, producing what were likely the first welded-metal sculptures made in the United States. These include a group of "heads," made from found tools and machine parts. John Graham introduces Smith to the work of the Spanish sculptor Julio González, three of whose sculptures, including the forged-iron Reclining Woman (c. 1929), Graham had acquired from the Spaniard. Smith discovers Terminal Iron Works, a commercial welding shop on the Brooklyn waterfront; Smith rents a small area and sets up a workspace for his sculpture.

David Smith: Construction, 1932 - Sculpture David Smith: Agricola Head - Chain Head - Saw Head, 1933 - Sculpture David Smith: Untitled (Virgin Island Tableau), c. 1931-32 - Photograph
sculpture group Untitled (Virgin Island Tableau), c. 1931-32

John Graham gives one of his González works - a small metal relief, Head (c. 1927-29) - to Smith. Smith shows two iron sculptures and several wood sculptures at the Julien Levy Gallery and teaches at a Jewish Settlement House. Still making sculpture at Terminal Iron Works, Smith begins working with the Public Works of Art Project, supervising the technical procedure on murals.

In the fall of 1935 Smith goes to Paris. He produces paintings as well as a body of etchings in the studio of Stanley William Hayter. He then travels to the Soviet Untion before settling in Greece, where he has a studio in Athens and studies at the American School of Classical Studies. Smith has a growing interest in methods and materials and is given permission by the Greek government to take samples of paint from antique sculptures. He returns to New York in July 1936.


Smith joins the newly organized American Abstract Artists group (he will exhibit with them in 1938 and 1939). Deeply troubled by the rise of fascism, and inspired by German war medals he saw at the British Museum and by Sumerian seals he studied in Greece, Smith begins work on a series of fifteen over-sized bronze medallions that he calls Medals for Dishonor.

David Smith: Medals of Dishonor, 1940 -  Catalog cover Willard  Exhibition David Smith: Medals of Dishonor, 1940 - Catalog page, Willard  Exhibition
cover, exhibition catalogue catalogue page

In January 1938, Smith presents his first solo show of welded-iron sculptures and drawings dating from 1935 to 1938 at Marian Willard’s East River Gallery, in New York City. Smith makes his first arc-welded sculptures. He exhibits his sculpture in a group show, American Art Today, at the 1939-40 New York World’s Fair.


In February, Smith affirms the value of abstract art, in contrast to the then fashionable Social Realism, in his lecture, “On Abstract Art in America,” presented at a forum of the United American Artists group. In March, his solo show at Neumann-Willard Gallery, New York, opens.

Smith and Dehner move permanently to Bolton Landing in the spring. He names his studio Terminal Iron Works because he has already established credit under that name and knows it is easier to get loans for a commercial business than for an art studio. He earns money by working as a machinist in nearby Glens Falls. With iron and steel scarce during World War II, he makes few sculptures, but experiments with other materials including marble, cast aluminum, and wood; his themes range from the physical and psychological violence of war to the liberating potential of music and dance. He also continues to draw and paint.

Marian Willard purchases one of the Medals for Dishonor, titled Munition Makers, in 1940, and exhibits the completed series of fifteen. In 1941, the Medals are shown at the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts, Michigan, and the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis. Some years later Joseph Hirshhorn purchases three. Jan de Graaf purchases one.

David Smith: Untitled (Piat), 1946 - Tempera on masonite
Untitled (Piat), 1946
David Smith: Aryan Fold Type I, 1943 - Drawing
Aryan Fold Type I, 1943

At Bolton Landing, Smith brings in electricity and builds a cinderblock, open-plan machine shop with a concrete floor to use as his studio. He lives in Schenectady, New York (near Albany), and works the midnight to 8:00 a.m. shift, six days a week, for the American Locomotive Company, assembling M7 tanks and locomotives. Sometimes, after work, he drives the forty miles to Saratoga, where he learns to carve marble while also working half-days at Saratoga Funeral Monument Yard.

In January 1943, works by Smith are included in a group show, American Sculpture of Our Time, held jointly at the Willard Gallery and Buchholz Gallery, New York. Reviewing the exhibition, critic Clement Greenberg writes in the progressive periodical The Nation about Smith’s sculpture Interior (1937): “If [Smith] is able to maintain the level set in the work he has already done, he has a chance of becoming the greatest of all American artists.” In April, Smith has a solo show at Willard Gallery comprising eighteen sculptures and five drawings made in the period from 1939 to 1943. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, purchases its first Smith sculpture, Head (1938).

Declared unfit for military service in World War II because of a sinus condition, Smith quits his job at the locomotive plant and moves back to Bolton Landing in the summer of 1944 to work full-time on his artwork.


The narrative content and formal language of the work Smith creates in the immediate postwar period are highly symbolic, synthesizing influences ranging from tribal and medieval art to Surrealism and images from pop culture. In January 1946, Smith presents fifty-four sculptures, including thirty made in 1944 and 1945, at the Willard and Buchholz Galleries in New York. Several works from this show are sold, including Cockfight – Variation (1945), bought by the Whitney Museum of American Art. Later that year, a show of Smith’s sculptures, and photographs of his sculptures, is organized by the American Association of University Women and travels across the United States (until 1952).

Constructing a new house at Bolton Landing and teaching at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York, from 1948 to 1949, leaves Smith little time to make sculpture; it takes him until June 1949 to complete the house.

In April 1950, Smith receives a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship, which is renewed in 1951. The Fellowship temporarily frees him from having to take teaching and other non-art jobs. The scale of his work expands dramatically; his forms become more lyrical and abstract, and their content less narrative. He initiates a practice of making distinct bodies of related works over many years, beginning with his Agricola series. In the summer of 1950, Smith exhibits in his first European group show, the International Open-Air Exhibition, at Middelheim Park, in Antwerp. Dehner leaves Smith in late 1950; they divorce in December 1952.

Smith begins his Tanktotem series. Each Tanktotem incorporates parts of commercial boiler tops that Smith orders from a catalog. Smith also explores, with increasing intensity, the formal and expressive qualities of abstract gestural imagery by making drawings using a medium of his own invention: India ink combined with egg yolk.

ARTnews magazine lists Smith’s 1952 solo sculpture exhibition at the Willard Gallery and Kleeman Galleries as one of the ten best shows of that year. In April 1953, while teaching as a visiting professor at the University of Arkansas, Little Rock, he marries Jean Freas. Six sculptures by Smith are included in Douze peintres et sculpteurs américan contemporains, organized by MoMA in New York, that opens at the Musée d'art moderne, Paris, and circulates in Switzerland, Germany, Sweden, Finland, and Norway.

David Smith:| Tanktotem VI, 1957 - Sculpture
Tanktotem VI, 1957

Smith’s first child, Rebecca, is born in April 1954. In June, Smith’s work is included in the 27th Venice Biennale. Smith travels to Venice as a delegate to UNESCO’s First International Congress of Plastic Arts, and visits France. After his return, he lectures on “Tradition” at Columbia University, New York.

Smith begins to place his sculptures in the fields around his home and studio at Bolton Landing. From September 1954 to June 1955, he teaches art at Indiana University, Bloomington, where he learns about forging from a local blacksmith. Smith begins his Forging series and continues to create Tanktotems. His and Jean’s second child, Candida, is born in August 1955.

David Smith: Group of 9 sculpture, 1955 - Sculpture
sculpture group, 1955

In its February 1956 issue, ARTnews publishes Smith's essay, "González: First Master of the Torch," a tribute that coincides with a retrospective of González's work at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. In March, Smith presents a solo show at Willard Gallery, New York; nothing is sold.

Smith lives with his family in New York City from April through June 1956. Throughout the decade, Smith visits the city frequently and socializes with other Abstract Expressionists such as Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner, Willem de Kooning, and Barnet Newman.

Smith produces a series of twenty-two abstract, bronze, bas-relief plaques using imagery derived largely from bones and other natural forms. Smith returns to painting, producing works in varying scales on masonite panels and canvas. He also explores the relationship between color and sculpture more intensely, painting the surfaces of his steel sculptures with multiple colors applied in an expressionist manner. He begins work on his Sentinel series, which consists of nine tall, vertical, highly abstracted figures, several of which use industrial I-beams. In 1957, Smith first adopts commercially available enamel paint, spraying directly from the aerosol can onto paper and canvas to create drawings and large-scale paintings that use found objects and invented forms as stencils. In September, the Museum of Modern Art, New York, presents a major retrospective survey of his sculptures, drawings, and paintings from 1932 to 1957.


In 1958, Smith and Freas separate; they divorce in 1961. Smith’s work is shown with a group of US artists at the 29th Venice Biennale, in 1958, and the 5th Bienal de São Paulo in 1959. A solo exhibition of his large-scale spray enamel paintings is presented at French & Co., New York.

Eighteen of the twenty-four sculptures Smith completes in 1960 are painted in vivid hues, a dramatic increase from the past. In 1961, Smith begins two new series: the painted-steel Zigs and the Cubis, large-scale, geometric, stainless-steel sculptures burnished to a highly reflective surface with a circular sander.

David Smith: 3 Cubis, 1963-64 - Sculpture
Cubi sculptures

Smith is invited by the Italian government to make two sculptures for exhibition in Spoleto during the Fourth Festival of Two Worlds in June 1962. He is offered as his studio a decommissioned Italsider steel factory in nearby Voltri, and provided with a team of steelworkers as his assistants. With these resources, Smith makes twenty-seven sculptures in thirty days, using the tools, machines, objects, and materials he found in the Italsider factory. Before leaving, Smith arranges to have materials from the factory shipped to New York. Upon his return to Bolton Landing, he begins his Voltri-Bolton series (twenty-five sculptures, 1962 to 1963).

In 1962, Smith also creates the Circle series, highly simplified, large-scale, polychromed, steel geometric sculpture, and the Primo Pianos, three monumental, planar-steel sculptures painted white. Smith continues to expand his practice of photographing individual sculptures and the increasingly complex installations of his works at Bolton Landing to create two-dimensional images that simultaneously document and reappraise their subjects..


Sculptures by Smith are included in documenta III in Kassel, West Germany. He adds new works to his Cubi and Zig series, begins and completes the Wagons (three welded and cast-steel sculptures); begins and completes a new series of large, symmetrical, planar stainless-steel sculptures; and creates a series of smaller planar sculptures in bronze. He also completes a large series of enamel paintings of female nudes based on his own photographs. Two of these paintings are illustrated in the catalogue for an exhibition featuring sculptures from the Cubi, Zig, Menand, and Bronze Plane series, which opens in October at the Marlborough-Gerson Gallery, New York. This show is Smith’s last one-man exhibition during his lifetime.

In February 1965, Smith is appointed by President Lyndon B. Johnson to serve as one of the first members of the National Council on the Arts, a position granted to artists based on knowledge, achievement, and distinguished service. On May 23, Smith is fatally injured in an automobile crash near Bennington, Vermont; he is 59 years old. The major survey of Smith’s work planned by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and organized in consultation with Smith is presented in November 1965 as David Smith: A Memorial Exhibition. Smith was also involved in the initial planning of the retrospective organized by the International Council of the Museum of Modern Art, opening in 1966 at the Rijksmuseum Kroller-Muller, Otterlo, before traveling to the Tate Gallery, London, and the Kunsthalle, Basel; and in 1967 to the Kunsthalle Nurnberg, and the Wilhem-Lehmbruck Museum, Duisburg.


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