David Smith, "Sprays"

Smith's experimentations with spray paint are as fresh today as when they were made.

 Untitled, 1963

Untitled, 1963 Photograph: Courtesy the Estate of David Smith and Gagosian Gallery

Time Out Ratings :

<strong>Rating: </strong>5/5

When I first saw the sculpture of David Smith, it was at the Guggenheim Museum in 2006, and I was slogging through the worst breakup of my life. Anyone who has been through a tortuous split knows the only comfort comes from cleaving to something as complex and deep as you feel. The stark discrepancy between my roiling interior and what seemed like the inane calm of everyone else made me feel like a disembodied zombie­—until I trudged into Smith’s show. Smith seemed to be wrestling with immovable steel and iron to force out every form in his imagination. It was a struggle I could relate to.

Revisiting the artist through his current exhibition at Gagosian—which is a must-see and only up for one more week—I was brought back to my initial awe and was struck once again by his ability to explore a medium to its very ends, in this case a medium that is not even his main endeavor.

Born in 1906 in Decatur, Indiana, to a telephone engineer and a schoolteacher, Smith moved to New York in his twenties, where he was introduced to the works of Picasso and the Russian Constructivists, and to such contemporaries as Arshile Gorky and Willem de Kooning. Over the next three decades, he would move constantly between the country (a place in upstate New York) and the city, and between means of employment, working alternately as a machinist and assemblyman for the American Locomotive Company and at a sporting goods store. In this respect, his work was not only affected by his contact with the Expressionist painters of his time, but also, arguably, by his peregrinations between urban and rural environments, which surely afforded a vast array of spatial experiences.

“Sprays” suggests as much. The show covers two floors of Gagosian’s Madison Avenue outpost and comprises 46 works, all of which were begun by placing objects on a two-dimensional support and using spray paint (new at the time) to shadow their outlines. In the works on paper downstairs, the range of experimentation is broader than it is deep. The stenciled forms serve different purposes in different sets of drawings. In a group on the left-hand wall, the silhouettes are sparsely arranged with an emphasis on juxtaposing one shape against another; they function as symbolic elements, reminiscent of Kandinsky or Miró. In other works, like those on the far wall, the forms are slighter and less clearly delineated. They are scattered across the page, tossed as randomly as a handful of grass in the wind. Still other images intimate weight, their deliberate stacking of forms alluding to gravity; they seem to be sketches for the artist’s sculptures.

Smith’s process is more difficult to divine in the works on canvas, though in the first small compositions on view, the bare bones of his approach are clear enough: It’s simple to guess what types of things (probably metal plates) were used. But in larger works, this stenciling technique becomes more complicated, creating a kind of painterly expressionism. The original outlines are virtually obliterated by subsequent marks, which sometimes serve as backdrop and at other times, fill in the blank spots left behind by the spray-painted objects. These works are characterized by the serious tone of the Modernism that was seeing its last hurrah during Smith’s heyday. In the best examples, the painting goes beyond the symbolism of the drawings to achieve something closer to spirituality, as in one untitled work from 1959 in which the paint imparts a ghostlike presence to the forms.

Throughout this magnificent show, there is a depth of purpose rarely encountered in contemporary art. Although Smith’s life and career were cut short by a car crash in 1965, he left behind an oeuvre of both painting and sculpture that feels impressively complete. As he put it in his own words, “as far as I am concerned, after I’ve made the work, I’ve said everything I can say.” To this day, his work continues to speak in countless ways—even to those who aren’t going through emotional turmoil.

Gagosian Gallery, through Sat 23