David Smith b. 1906, Decatur, Indiana; d. 1965, nr Bennington, Vermont
111 1/4 x 87 1/4 x 34 1/8 inches (282.6 x 221.6 x 86.7 cm)
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York By exchange, 1967
Estate of David Smith/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY. Photo: David Heald
David Smith was foremost among the welder-sculptors who came to prominence in the U.S. after World War II. Following the example set by Julio González and Pablo Picasso, who created welded-steel sculptures as early as 1928, the Americans constructed their work directly out of iron and steel sheets and wires rather than employing the traditional method of casting. In the 1930s and 1940s, influenced by Surrealism and Constructivism, Smith created hybrid figural sculptures and dramatic mise-en-scènes. During the 1950s he began to work in stylistic series ranging from the complicated abstract drawings-in-space of the Agricolas to the anthropomorphic and totemic sculptures incorporating machine parts such as the Sentinels and Tank Totems. In the later part of the decade and into the 1960s his work became more volumetric and monolithic.
Smith completed 28 works in his last series of monumental abstract structures, the Cubis, before his death in May 1965. These celebrated sculptures were composed from a repertoire of geometric cubes and cylinders of varying proportions. All of the Cubis are made of stainless steel, which Smith burnished to a highly reflective surface. He told critic Thomas Hess, “I made them and I polished them in such a way that on a dull day they take on a dull blue, or the color of the sky in the late afternoon sun, the glow, golden like the rays, the colors of nature.”
Some of the Cubis are vaguely figural, while others, such as Cubi XXVII, suggest architecture. This example is one of three Cubis usually referred to as “Gates” (although Smith called them “arches”), which rise like giant rudimentary doorways framing a central void. By counterbalancing a cylinder that appears to rest precariously on edge with two small tilted blocks that look equally unstable, Smith emphasized the potential energy captured through the welding technique. The artist activated the surface of the structure through the curling traces left by the polishing process, creating, in his words, “a structure that can face the sun and hold its own against the blaze and the power.”