David Smith (Decatur, Indiana, 1906-Bennington, Vermont, 1965) was one of the foremost artists of the 20th century. Smith, the sculptor most closely linked with Abstract Expressionism, revolutionized art in the United States by introducing into its sculptural idioms a rich synthesis of models pioneered in Europe by Pablo Picasso and Julio González, as well as the Surrealists, and the Russian Constructivists. Smith is believed to have created the first welded metal sculptures in America. His diverse and broadly inventive oeuvre paved the way for many of the sculptors who followed in the later twentieth century.
David Smith working on a bronze plaque, with Widow's Lament, 1942 (unfinished state), Munitions Makers, 1939, Detail of Bombing Civilian Populations, 1939, and Head, 1938, and drawing in frost on window, in Schenectady, New York, 1940. Gelatin silver print 10 x 8 in. (25.4 x 20.3 cm) (c) Estate of David Smith/VAGA, NY.
Propaganda for War, 1939-1940. Patinated bronze, 24,4 x 29,8 x 2,2 cm
Fourth Estate, 1939-1940. Patinated bronze, 22 x 27,3 x 2,2 cm
Munition Makers, 1939. Patinated bronze, 22,9 x 26,7 x 2,2 cm
Diplomats: Fascist and Fascist Tending, 1938-1939. Patinated bronze, 25,4 x 25,4 x 2,2 cm
Private Law and Order Leagues, 1939. Patinated bronze, 27,3 x 27,3 x 2,2 cm
War Exempt Sons of the Rich, 1939-1940. Patinated bronze, 27,3 x 27,3 x 2,2 cm
Cooperation of the Clergy, 1939. Patinated bronze, 25,4 x 25,4 x 2,2 cm
Bombing Civilian Populations, 1939. Patinated bronze, 25,4 x 24,4 x 2,2 cm
Sinking Hospital and Civilian Refugee Ships, 1939. Patinated bronze, 22,2 x 30,5 x 2,2 cm
Death by Bacteria, 1939. Patinated bronze, 25,4 x 25,4 x 2,2 cm
Reaction in Medicine, 1940. Patinated bronze, 22,9 x 26 x 2,2 cm
Elements Which Cause Prostitution, 1939. Patinated bronze, 21,9 x 26,7 x 2,2 cm
Food Trust, 1938. Patinated bronze, 19,1 x 36,2 x 2,2 cm
Scientific Body Disposal, 1939. Patinated bronze, 24,1 x 26,7 x 2,2 cm
Between the autumn of 1935 and the summer of 1936, Smith travelled to Europe, where he enriched his artistic grounding and came face to face with the social and political tensions occurring across the old continent. He spent one month in Paris before a lengthy stay in Athens, where he was given the opportunity to explore classical art in depth. Smith also travelled to the Soviet capitals Leningrad and Moscow, where he contemplated some of the masterpieces of modern painting. Finally, while in London, he discovered the British Museum’s collection of Sumerian seals with reverse carvings as well as its collection of German medals from the First World War, which were key to the formulation of the series Medals for Dishonor.
David Smith, Study for ‘Private Law and Order Leagues’ (Medals for Dishonor), 1938-39. Ink on tracing paper, 9 ¼ x 11 ½ in. (23.9 x 29.2 cm). (c) Estate of David Smith/VAGA, NY. Photo by Robert McKeever, courtesy Gagosian Gallery
This series hit the dishonorable and destructive elements of society. Certain elements, though true, might be interpreted as conflicting with war effort. One fact I wish to re-state –that my basic conception has always been anti-fascist and pro-democratic.
David Smith, 30 May 1942, The Estate of David Smith Archives. Published by McCOY, Garnett: “The David Smith Papers” Archives of American Art Journal, The University of Chicago Press, vol. 8 no. 2 April, 1968, p. 9.
Medals for Dishonor is a series of fifteen reliefs produced between 1937 and 1940. Through them he executed a profound critique of a period marked by the far-reaching social and political consequences of the economic crisis and the onset of war. The series, exhibited at the Willard Gallery in New York in November 1940, was influenced by the sense of disappointment in humanity’s regression through fascism in Europe and the injustices of world capitalism. Therefore, after the series was displayed in various US states, in December 1941 the artist told the gallerist Marian Willard that the medals reflected an “anti-fascist and pro-democratic” stance.
David Smith, Study for Preliminary Version of 'Propaganda for War' (Medals for Dishonor), 1938-39. Red ink and pencil on tracing paper, 8 ¼ x 13 ¾ in. (21 x 34.9 cm). (c) Estate of David Smith/VAGA, NY.
In contrast to the majority of his compatriots, among whom isolationism was prevalent, Smith was concerned by the progress of Fascism and Nazism, the development of the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939), the Popular Front in France (1935–1939), and the outbreak, in 1939, of the Second World War, which the artist saw as an imperialist conflict. The reliefs expressed the injustice of war, and contradictions in society and its fight for freedom, for instance with its support for Spanish Republicans, and the war against fascism.
David Smith, Untitled (Study for ‘Propaganda for War’), 1938. (c) Estate of David Smith/VAGA, NY.
David Smith, Untitled, 1936. Oil on unstretched canvas, (90.2 x 76.2 cm). (c) Estate of David Smith/VAGA, NY.
David Smith, The Occupied Country, 1942. Pen and ink on paper, (49.5 x 63.5 cm). (c) Estate of David Smith/VAGA, NY. Photo by Geoffrey Clements.
David Smith, Aryan Fold Type, 1943. Pen and ink on paper, (49.8 x 63.7 cm). (c) Estate of David Smith/VAGA, NY. Photo by Geoffrey Clements.
David Smith, Untitled, ca.1938. Oil on canvas, (81.3 x 86.4 cm). (c) Estate of David Smith/VAGA, NY.
David Smith, Fascist Royalty, 1943. Pen and ink on paper, (49.5 x 63.5 cm). (c) Estate of David Smith/VAGA, NY. Photo by Geoffrey Clements.
The entirety of Smith’s artistic output is characterised by a particular engagement with the most artisanal side of the work. From the 1930s onwards he welded and soldered his own abstract pieces, combining the production of steel sculptures with the ambitious work Medals for Dishonor, on which he would work night and day.
For these reliefs Smith employed the technique used by the Sumerian seals carved in reverse - the huge demands and attention to detail in the whole process, from the preparatory drawing to the finished plaster casts, for which he even used dentist’s tools, explain the time it took him to finish the series. The rigorous technique was carried over into making up the first edition of the medals in metal, a process which saw Smith work with a local jeweller.
David Smith, Study for 'Sinking Hospital and Civilian Refugee Ships’ (Medals for Dishonor) , 1938-39. Ink on tracing paper, 23,8 x 29,5 cm (c) Estate of David Smith/VAGA, NY.
In these compositions specific references can be found to the tumultuous political period and the situation at the time in the United States. In Private Law and Order Leagues, Smith satirised the Ku Klux Klan and the Nazi organisation German-American Bund, which even marched in New York. In Co-operation of Clergy he mentions the anti-Semitism of Father Coughlin, who indoctrinated people through his radio programme. Compositions such as War Exempt Sons of the Rich parallel the exploitation of the working class with artists, in opposition to the privileges enjoyed by the rich. In The Fourth Estate he delves deeper into the issue, underscoring the use of the press and censorship by the media powers-that-be and magnates in contributing to maintaining a situation of injustice. In this relief, as emphasised by Jeremy Lewison, the collusion of justice, represented by a building held in a clenched fist, can be seen, while Diplomats criticises the attitude of diplomacy in the period leading up to the USA’s involvement in the war, analysed by the artist when he wrote: “The deadliest weapons aren’t in the field; they’re in the embassies!”.
David Smith, Study for ‘Elements Which Cause Prostitution’ (Medals for Dishonor) , 1938-39. Pencil on paper, 36,2 x 27,3 cm (c) Estate of David Smith/VAGA, NY.
Bombing of Guernica didn’t surprise me too much. I thought it was pretty much Capitalist Perfidy- especially the way the blockade went- I had gone to Europe in 1935 to see it before I expected it to be bombed out […]. I was very saddened at the fall of Spain but I had also witnessed the invasion of Ethiopia by Fascism and was fully aware of the Nazi penetration of Greece when I was there.
David Smith: «Events in Life. Autobiography», ca. 1950 in: GRAY, Cleve (ed). David Smith by David Smith. N. York 1968. p. 27.
Smith’s interest in myths and their symbols from pre-history explains the complex and personal iconography used in these reliefs, with his preparatory drawings brimming with nudes in grotesque poses, threatening weapons, scenes of destruction, musical instruments, game birds and marine animals, originating from the notebooks from his travels in Europe; these books contained numerous protozoans, skeleton shapes, prehistoric beings, amoebas, etc. The image representing the brutality of war in the form of a canon raping a woman that appears at the top of Propaganda for War is also significant and has links to Surrealist imagery, while the universal symbolism of myths is summed up in the presence of Greek inscriptions throughout the entire series.
David Smith, Study for ‘Death by Gas’ (Medals for Dishonor) , 1938-39. Pencil on paper, 15,2 x 17,8 cm (c) Estate of David Smith/VAGA, NY.
The medals were exhibited in New York just months after the exhibition Picasso: Forty Years of his Art, which opened in November 1939 and included Guernica and its preparatory drawings, which since 1938 had been travelling around Europe and the United States to support Spanish refugees. Both ensembles are made up of works that defend freedom and democracy, works that are tied to contemporary events, and which diverge from realist accounts to shape a narrative through a personal system of symbols.
David Smith, Study for Medals for Dishonor, 1938-39. Pencil on paper, 23,5 x 29,2 cm (c) Estate of David Smith/VAGA, NY.
Texts by Carmen Fernández Aparicio, Curator in charge of the Sculpture Collection at the Museo Reina Sofía (Download text on PDF)
Acknowledgements: Peter Stevens and Caroline Nelson. The Estate of David Smith, New York