David Roland Smith (March 9, 1906 - May 23, 1965) was an American abstract expressionist sculptor best known for creating large steel abstract geometric sculptures.
Born in Decatur, Indiana on March 9, 1906, Smith studied at Ohio University and the University of Notre Dame, but dropped out to become a welder on an automobile production line in South Bend, Indiana. He joined the Art Students League of New York in 1927. There, he discovered the works of Picasso, Mondrian, Kandinsky, and the Russian Constructivists, and became friends with Arshile Gorky, Willem de Kooning, Jan Matulka, and Jackson Pollock.
Profoundly influenced by the welded metal sculptures of Julio González and of Picasso, Smith started devoting himself entirely to metal sculptures, constructing compositions from steel and "found" scrap material. In the summer of 1929, Smith, along with his then wife Dorothy Dehner, bought a house in Bolton Landing, in upstate New York and won the Logan Medal of the arts.
In 1940, Smith moved permanently to Bolton Landing and created the Terminal Iron Works studio. In the long term, this allowed him to enlarge the size of many of his welded sculptures, moving to installations that increased in size as time passed by. In the short term, the Second World War disrupted Smith's supply of metal and reduced the demand for abstract art, leading Smith to draw and paint more than he had done previously. Smith painted prolifically throughout most of his career. He created landscapes, cubist abstractions and in the 1960s a series of sprayed pictographs that resemble visual studies for his Cubi sculptures.
However, with the end of conflict came a flood of new works, on a larger scale than ever before. In 1950, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation awarded Smith a fellowship, removing the financial constraints and allowing him to spend more time sculpting. Furthermore, it allowed Smith to continue to create larger works and longer and more articulated series of works. The first of these were the Agricola (1951-1957) and Tanktotem (1952-1960) series.
In 1957, the Museum of Modern Art, New York City, presented a Smith retrospective, complete with work dating back to 1932. In 1961, MoMA organized a major traveling exhibition of his work.
In 1962, the government of Italy invited Smith to create two works for a festival, and gave him free access to an abandoned welding studio in the small town of Voltri, in Liguria. There, finding massive stockpiles of material, Smith decided to switch his plans from stainless steel to steel. The result was his Voltri series: 27 sculptures created in just 30 days. Still not satisfied with these, he shipped many tonnes of steel from Voltri back to the Bolton Landing, so that he could continue to work with the same material. Throughout late 1962 and early 1963, Smith produced a similarly-themed series, which he called Voltron, which was more varied and more prominently incorporated the trademark verticality of Tanktotem.
He began his Cubi series of monumental, geometric steel sculptures in 1961 (although he began in earnest only in 1963). They are considered some of the most important works of 20th century American sculpture. In recognition of his influence on abstract expressionism, Smith was appointed to the National Council on the Arts by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965. However, at the peak of his influence and still working on Cubi, he died in a car crash near Bennington, Vermont in May 1965.
Cubi XXVIII, executed in 1965, is the name given to a large metal sculpture created by American artist David Smith. Formerly housed at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, on November 9, 2005, the sculpture became the most expensive work of contemporary art ever sold at auction, selling for $23.8 million at Sotheby's Manhattan auction house to art dealer Larry Gagosian who was acting on behalf of billionaire art collector Eli Broad. "This exceedingly rare work was the pinnacle of a four-decade career," said Tobias Meyer, Sotheby's worldwide head of contemporary art and the auctioneer for the evening. It was the last significant work that Smith produced before he unexpectedly died in a car crash.
Pillar of Sundays, produced in August 1945, was inspired by Smith's memories of events, rituals, foods, and sounds associated with the Sundays of his teen years. His mother, Golda, was active in the Methodist Episcopal church two doors away from his home in small-town Paulding, Ohio. Some of the images, attached like leaves on a tree, are obvious, such as birds and an inscribed heart, but on the whole, the sculpture is ambiguous, suggestive, and intriguing. In a 1959 speech at Ohio University, Smith said, "When I lived and studied in Ohio, I had a very vague sense of what art was. Everyone I knew who used the reverent word was almost as unsure and insecure. Mostly art was reproductions, from far away, from an age past and from some golden shore, certainly from no place like the mud banks of the Auglaze or the Maumee, and there didn’t seem much chance that it could come from Paulding County." The sculpture is in the collection of the Indiana University Art Museum. Smith taught art at Indiana University during the 1954-1955 academic year.