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b. 1906, Decatur, Ind.; d. 1965, near Bennington, Vt.
David Smith was born March 9, 1906, in Decatur, Indiana. During high school, he took a correspondence course with the Cleveland Art School. In 1924, Smith studied at Ohio University, Athens. He worked as an automobile welder and riveter in the summer of 1925. He then attended University of Notre Dame, Indiana, for two weeks before moving to Washington, D.C. In 1926, Smith moved to New York, where he studied at the Art Students League with Richard Lahey and John Sloan and privately with Jan Matulka. In 1929, Smith met John Graham, who later introduced him to the welded-steel sculpture of Pablo Picasso and Julio González. This year, he bought a farm in Bolton Landing, near Lake George in upstate New York.
Stuart Davis, Willem de Kooning, Arshile Gorky, Edgar Levy, Jackson Pollock, and Jean Xceron were Smith’s friends throughout the 1930s. In the Virgin Islands in 1931–32, Smith made his first sculpture from pieces of coral. He began making completely metal sculpture in 1933, and in 1934 he set up a studio at the Terminal Iron Works in Brooklyn. From 1935, Smith committed himself primarily to sculpture. In 1935–36, he visited France, Greece, England, and Russia. Upon his return to New York, Smith began the Medals for Dishonor, antiwar medallions. In 1937, he made sculpture for the WPA Federal Art Project. Smith’s first solo show of drawings and welded-steel sculpture was held at Marion Willard’s East River Gallery in New York in 1938.
In 1940, he settled permanently in Bolton Landing. From 1942 to 1944, Smith worked as a locomotive welder in Schenectady, New York. A solo show of his work took place at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, in 1941. Smith taught at Sarah Lawrence College, Bronxville, New York, from 1948 to 1950, and at Bennington College, Bennington, Vermont, and other schools during the 1950s. About 1951, he met Kenneth Noland. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, presented a Smith retrospective in 1957 and organized a major traveling exhibition of his work in 1961. In 1962, at the invitation of the Italian government, Smith went to Voltri, near Genoa, and executed 27 sculptures for the Spoleto festival. In 1963, he began his Cubi series of monumental, geometric steel sculptures. Smith died May 23, 1965, in an automobile accident near Bennington. The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, organized an exhibition of his work in 1969.