David Smith – Photo of the artist – Image via premierwelding.co.uk - work gallery page

David Smith /   Roland David Smith

United States 1906 - 1965

Sculpture, Abstract Expressionism, Painting

David Smith
Roland David Smith
United States
November 29, 2016
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Working as a welder at automotive factories before devoting himself to a full-time art-making career, David Smith was an Abstract Expressionist sculptor and painter who was also a pioneer of sculpting with welded metal. Regarded as one of the greatest American sculptors of the twentieth century, Smith developed a rich vocabulary he based around his knowledge gathered at the car body workshop. Interested in the painterly potential of sculpture, he built his works by welding together found objects, machine parts and forged metal – all virtually unconventional artistic materials at the time[1]. This unprecedented approach to sculpture making was also underlined by concepts of Cubism, Surrealism and Constructivism. It should also be noted that David Smith was close to many contemporary artists who shaped the modern art history of the 20th century, such as Robert Motherwell and Jan Matulka.

Smith's new landscape work can be found in the New Work gallery
David Smith – Don Quixote, 1952 – Image via tate.org.uk

From a Car Welder to an Artist

Roland David Smith was born on the 9th of March in the year of 1906. His hometown was the city of Decatur, Indiana, but his family moved to Paulding, Ohio, when he was still a young child. There, he attended high school and later enrolled himself at the Ohio University in Athens and the University of Notre Dame. However, he did not stay long at both institutions as none of them were providing worthwhile art classes – something young Smith was desperately wishing for. During summers, David took a summer job working on the assembly line of an automobile factory. He then briefly studied art and poetry at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., but after a while decided to keep on working as a car welder. By his own claim, Smith did not feel talented enough and there was simply something he found calmly and comfortable with fixing and working on cars. In the year of 1926, David relocated to New York City where he met and fell in love with Dorothy Dehner. The two lovers were married the next year.

Listening to his wife’s advice, Smith joined her painting studies at the Art Students League of New York. Among his teachers were the American painter John Sloan and the Czech modernist painter Jan Matulka, both of whom were very influential to the art scene of the Big Apple. It was Matulka that introduced Smith to the artworks of Pablo Picasso, Piet Mondrian, Wassily Kandinsky and the Russian Constructivists. A few months later, David saw for the first time the welded metal work made by Pablo Picasso and Julio González which changed both his life and career. He saw himself as a perfect fit with such a practice and decide it would be the perfect technique for his own creative expression[2].

Amongst many of his contributions to the medium, David Smith’s most important innovation to the world of sculpting was to abandon the idea of a core, decentering the entire piece

David Smith - Untitled, 1952 - Image via Work gallery
David Smith – Untitled, 1952 – Image via e-torch.org

Introducing Incredible Sculptures

Smith’s early friendship with various talented painters definitely played a big role in the young author’s early development. His increasing interest in combining paintings and constructions was only furthered as David met the likes of Arshile Gorky and Willem de Kooning. During a vacation in the year of 1931, Smith made his first sculpture from pieces of coral. A year later, he installed a forge and anvil in his studio at the farm in Bolton Landing that he and his wife Dehner had bought a few years earlier. There, David started making three-dimensional objects from wood, wire, coral, soldered metal and other found materials[3]. Smith would use an oxyacetylene torch to weld metal heads onto his sculptures and this is the first recorded time that a person welded metal sculptures in the United States. Spurred by the potential this kind of a technique had inside it, David decided to completely leave New York City behind and start spending all of his time in Bolton Landing making art. Interestingly, he ran his studio like a factory, stocked with large amounts of raw materials in an industrial-like atmosphere. Furthermore, the artist would put his finished sculptures in what was referred to as an upper and lower field of rows, a similar way factories would stock their products upon completion. Unfortunately, Smith’s development was put on a hold as the World War II broke out. During this horrific period of human history, David worked as a welder for the American Locomotive Company where he was in charge of assembling locomotives and M7 tanks. Additionally, he also held classes at Sarah Lawrence College.

Smith sought to keep the viewer at a distance from his sculptures both emotionally and intellectually by experimenting with different approaches to composing

Read the home page of New Work Gallery as this gallery keeps the home page clean
David Smith – Cubes and Anarchy – Image via indiana.edu

Later Career of David Smith

After the war ended, Smith released his energy and neglected ideas in a burst of creations. Using the additional skills that he had acquired making tanks, the number of his artworks soared and David began perfecting his own personal symbolism. It should be noted that Smith made his sculptures from scratch, welding together pieces of steel and other metals with his torch – a practice often compared to the way a painter applied paint to a canvas. Interestingly, David always claimed that he belongs with the painters and that his artworks are not genuine three-dimensional pieces in a spiritual sense. In order to explain such a bold claim, Smith stated the following: My conception is as free as a that of the painter. My wealth of responses is as great as his draftsmanship.[4]. In 1950, Smith was awarded the prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship reward. As he became famous, David got rid of any financial strain that might have strangled his expression earlier. Now, he was able to dedicate himself to making sculptures without any sort of restraint. In 1955 and 1956, the author produced the Forgings, a series of eleven industrially forged steel sculptures which are arguably his greatest work. His Cubi series (1961–65) was also popular as this project saw David’s pieces gaining size and volume[5]. Smith remarried in the meantime and had two daughters, Rebecca (born in 1954) and Candida (born in 1955). Unfortunately, during the time his art was in the process of extremely advancing itself, David lost his life in a fatal car crash. This incident played out on May 23, 1965. Smith was 59 years of age at the moment of his death.

David Smith’s career embraced a wide range of styles, from the figurative expressionism of his early sculptures to the fantastic geometric constructions that marked his later years

An artist makes new landscape works in order to stay in contact with traditional paintings
David Smith – Cubi XXIII, 1964 – Image via huma3.com

David Smith and his Heritage of Sculptures

Creative and not willing to compromise, Smith was far from being an artistic follower. His achievements in sculpture were distinctive and influential, having far reaching effects that can still be felt even on the contemporary scenes around the world. David brought qualities of industrial manufacturing into the language of art and proved to be an important influence on many modern movements, especially Minimalism[6]. It’s interesting to analyze how Smith was able to evolve over the years, starting as a car welder, progressing as an artist under the influences of various styles and developing his own unique vocabulary which was crowned with his late masterpieces of geometric abstraction. Ultimately, Smith finished his career as an elite sculptor and his name will forever be one of the better starting points to anyone dreaming of becoming a successful sculptor.


  1. Fry, E., McClintic, M., David Smith: Painter, Sculptor, Draftsman, George Braziller; 1st, No Additional Printing Listed edition, 1982
  2. Smith, D., Form in Color, Snoeck, 2016
  3. Brenson, M., David Smith: To and From the Figure, Rizzoli; 1st edition, 1995
  4. Hamill, S., Smith, D., David Smith: Works, Writings, Interviews, Ediciones Poligrafa; First Edition edition, 2011
  5. Eliel, C., David Smith: Cubes and Anarchy, Prestel, 2011
  6. Hamill, S., David Smith in Two Dimensions: Photography and the Matter of Sculpture, University of California Press; First Edition edition, 2015

Featured image: David Smith – Photo of the artist – Image via premierwelding.co.uk
All images used for illustrative purposes only.

YearExhibition TitleGallery/MuseumSolo/Group
2016AccrochageGalerie Karsten Greve - St. Moritz, St. MoritzGroup
2016David Smith - Form in Color Hauser & Wirth - Zürich, ZurichSolo
2015David Smith Lime Tree Gallery, BristolSolo
2015David Smith - Drawing and Sculpture: Acting in Space Galerie Karsten Greve - Paris, ParisSolo
2015David Smith - Drawing and Sculpture: Acting in Space Galerie Karsten Greve - Cologne, CologneSolo
2014Raw Color: The Circles of David SmithSterling and Francine Clark Art Institute - The Clark, Williamstown, MASolo
2013David Smith - The ForgingsGagosian Gallery , New York City, NYSolo
2012David Smith - Points of PowerGalerie Gmurzynska - St. Moritz, St. MoritzSolo
2012Nudes Galerie Gmurzynska - Zürich, ZurichSolo
2011David Smith: Drawing SpaceMargo Leavin Gallery, Los Angeles, CASolo
2011David Smith: Cubes and Anarchy Whitney Museum of American Art, New York City, NYSolo
2010David SmithGagosian Gallery, New York City, NYSolo
2009Marble Gagosian Gallery, New York, USAGroup
2009UntitledInstitut Valenciá d'Art Modern (IVAM), Valencia, SpainGroup
2009The Third Mind: American Artists Contemplate Asia, 1960-1989 Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, USAGroup
2009Innovations in the Third Dimension: Sculpture of Our Time Bruce Museum, Greenwich, Connecticut, USAGroup
2009The Thaw Collection of Master Drawings: Acquisitions Since 2002 The Morgan Library and Museum, New York, USAGroup
2009UntitledLora Reynolds Gallery, Austin, USAGroup
2009UntitledRussell Bowman Art Advisory, Chicago, USAGroup
2009UntitledWashburn Gallery, New York, USAGroup
2008Sprays Gagosian Gallery, New York, USAGroup
2008Working Surface -- Drawings, Paintings, Sculptures 1932-1962 Galerie Gmurzynska, Zurich, SwitzerlandGroup
20081945-1949: Repartir à zero comme si la peinture n'avait jamais existé, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon, FranceGroup
2008Untitled (Vicarious): Photographing the Constructed Object Gagosian Gallery, New YorkGroup
2008In Pursuit of the Masters: Stories from the Raymond and Patsy Nasher Collection Nasher Sculpture Center, Dallas, USAGroup
2008For What You Are About to ReceiveGagosian Gallery, Moscow, RussiaGroup
2008Abstract Expressionism -- A World Elsewhere Haunch of Venison, New YorkGroup
2008Modernist Sculpture: The Teresa and Alvin S. Lane Collection Chazen Museum of Art, Madison, USAGroup
2008Sand: Memory, Meaning and Metaphor The Parrish Art Museum, Southampton, NY, USAGroup
2008Collecting for Chicago: Prints, Drawings, and Patronage; Art Institute of Chicago, Art Institute of Chicago, USAGroup
2008The 1930s: The Making of 'The New Man'National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, CanadaGroup
2008Action.Abstraction: Pollock, De Kooning, and American Art, 1940-1976 The Jewish Museum, New York, USAGroup
2007Landscape: Form and Thought Waqas Wajahat in association with Ingrao Gallery, New York, USAGroup
2007Nineteen Going on Twenty: Recent Acquisitions from the Collection of The Contemporary Museum The Contemporary Museum, Honolulu, USAGroup
2007Art for Yale: Collecting for a New CenturyCelebrating the 175th Anniversary of the Yale University Art Gallery and the Centennial of Paul Mellon's Birth, Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut, USAGroup
2007Abstract Expressionism and Other Modern Works: The Muriel Kallis Steinberg Newman Collection in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USAGroup
2007Don’t Look,Contemporary Drawings from an Alumna’s Collection (Martina Yamin, Class of 1958) Davis Museum and Cultural Center, Wellesley College, Wellesley, Massachusetts, USAGroup
20071937: Perfektion und Zerstörung [1937: Perfection and Destruction] Kunsthalle Bielefeld, Bielefeld, GermanyGroup
2007Abstract Expressionist Drawings The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New YorkGroup
2007The Luther W. Brady Collection at the Picker Art Gallery Colgate University, Picker Art Gallery, Colgate University, Hamilton, New York, USAGroup
2007Art Basel Miami Miami, USAGroup
2006A Centennial Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, USAGroup
2006Personage Gagosian Gallery, New York, USAGroup
2006Seeing David Smith: Photographs by Dan Budnik Knoedler & Company, New York, USAGroup
2006Sprays American Contemporary Art Gallery, Munich, GermanyGroup
2006NEW YORK, NEW YORK - Fifty Years of American Art Grimaldi Forum Monaco, with Otto Hübner as curator for the Abstract ExpressionismGroup
2006Archival to Contemporary: Six Decades of the Sculptors Guild, Hillwood Art Museum, Long Island University, Brookville, New York, USAGroup
2006Toward a New American Cubism Berry-Hill Galleries, Inc., New York, USAGroup
2006New York New York: Fifty Years of Art Architecture, Film, Music, and Video, The Grimaldi Forum, Monte Carlo, MonacoGroup
2006Coming of Age: American Art, 1950s to 1950s Addison Gallery of American Art, Andover, Massachusetts, USAGroup
2006The Picasso Influence in Pollock Rothko and Smith, Washburn Gallery, New York, USAGroup
2006Surrealism: Then and Now Paul Kasmin Gallery & Edelman Arts, Inc., New York, USAGroup
2005Ecole de New York MAMAC Nice, FranceGroup
2005Drawing + Sculpting Nasher Sculpture Center, Dallas, USAGroup
2005Paintings and Drawings 1955-1958 Margo Leavin Gallery, Los Angeles, USAGroup
2005David Smith Alexander Calder: Large Scale Works Gagosian Gallery, New York, USAGroup
2005Paint on Metal: Modern and Contemporary Explorations and Discoveries Tucson Museum of Art, USAGroup
2005Surrealism USA National Academy of Design, New York, USAGroup
2005Black Thomas McCormick Gallery, Chicago, USAGroup
2005Works on Paper Danese Gallery, New York, USAGroup
2005Salute to the 130th Anniversary of the Art Students League of New York Joan T. Washburn Gallery, New York, USAGroup
2005Continuum: Celebrating the 130th Anniversary of the Arts Students League of New York ACA Galleries, New York, USAGroup
2004École de New York: Expressionisme abstrait américaine oeuvres sur papier [New York School: American Abstract Expressionism, Works on Paper] Musée d'art moderne et d'art contemporain, Nice, FranceGroup
2004Action Painting-Arte Americana 1940-1970 Fondazione Cassa di Risparmio di Modena, Modena, Peggy Guggenheim Collection Venedig in cooperation with american contemporary art GALLERYGroup
2004Related Clues: Drawings, Paintings and Sculpture 1931-1964 Gagosian Gallery, New York, USAGroup
2004Dibujante. Entre Eros y Tánatos [David Smith: Draftsman. Between Eros and Thanatos]IVAM (Instituto Valenciano de Arte Moderno), Centro Julio González, SpainGroup
2004UntitledGagosian Gallery, London, UKGroup
2004UntitledGagosian Gallery, London, UKGroup
2004Sculpture Monumentale Américaine [Monumental American Sculpture] Donjon de Vez, FranceGroup
2004Bare Clay: Ceramic Nudes in 20th-Century Art Garth Clark Gallery, New YorkGroup
2004Forging New Visions: Teaching the Visual Arts at Sarah Lawrence College, Sarah Lawrence CollegeMonika A. and Charles A. Heimbold Jr. Visual Arts Center, Bronxville, New York, USAGroup
2004Reuniting an Era: Abstract Expressionists of the 1950s Rockford Art Museum, Rockford, IL, USAGroup
2004Life Understood Hill Gallery, Birmingham, MI, USAGroup
200320th Century Sculpture Acquavella Gallery, New York, USAGroup
2003El Expresionismo Abstracto Americano en las Colecciones Españolas [American Abstract Expressionist Works in Spanish Collections] Museo de Arte Contemporáneo Esteban Vicente, Segovia, Group
2003Black,White Danese Gallery, New YorkGroup
2003Dessins de David Smith: un choix d'Alain Kirili [Drawings by David Smith; Selected by Alain Kirili] École nationale supérieure des beaux-arts, Chapelle des Petits-Augins, Paris, Group
2003UntitledA Selection from the Estate: David Smith -- Works on Paper 1952-1960Group
2002Lois Orswell, David Smith, and Modern Art Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, USAGroup
2001Ink Drawings from 1957 Margo Leavin Gallery, Los Angeles, USAGroup
2001Jackson Pollock and David Smith: Paintings and Sculptures from the 1930s and the 1940s Washburn Gallery, New York, USAGroup
2000Two into Three Dimensions Douglas F. Cooley Memorial Art Gallery, Reed College, Portland, OR, USAGroup
2000David Smith on the Roof The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USAGroup
2000The Last Nudes Gagosian Gallery, New York, USAGroup
2000Voici, cent ans d'art contemporain Societe des expositions du palais des beaux-arts de Bruxelles, Brussels, BelgiumGroup
2000Crossroads of American sculpture: David Smith, George Rickey, John Chamberlain, Robert Indiana, William T. Wiley, Bruce Nauman Indianapolis Museum of Art, USAGroup
1999Paintings, Sculptures and MedalsTel Aviv Museum of Art,Group
1999The Fields of David Smith Storm King Art Center, Mountainville, NY, USAGroup
1998The Fields of David Smith Storm King Art Center, Mountainville, NY, USAGroup
1998Photographs 1931-1965 Matthew Marks Gallery, New York, USAGroup
1998Painted Steel: The Late Works of David Smith Gagosian, New York, USAGroup
1998La sculpture moderne au Jardin des TuileriesMinistère de la Culture et de la Communication, Paris, FranceGroup
1998Stop Action Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami, USA (cat.)Group
1997The Fields of David Smith Storm King Art Center, Mountainville, NY, USAGroup
1997Replacing the Shower of Sparks with the Spray of Paint Sprays and Drawings, Hill Gallery, Birmingham, MI, USAGroup
1996IVAM (Instituto Valenciano de Arte Moderno) Centro Julio González, SpainGroup
1996Medals for Dishonor Columbus Museum of Art, OH, USAGroup
1995The Inspiration of MusicWashburn Gallery, New York, USAGroup
1995To and From the Figure Knoedler Gallery, New York, USAGroup
1995David Smith in Italy Prada MilanoArte, Milan, ItalyGroup
1995This Work Is My Identity Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, USAGroup
1994UntitledSezon Museum of Art, Tokyo, JapanGroup
1994UntitledMargo Leavin Gallery, Los Angeles, USAGroup
1994Medals for Dishonor, 1937-1940Matthew Marks Gallery, New York, USAGroup
1993Picasso and the Age of Iron Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, USAGroup
1992UntitledKnoedler & Company, New York, USAGroup
1991Medals For Dishonor, 1937-1940 Imperial War Museum, London, UKGroup
1991Art of the FortiesMuseum of Modern Art, New York, USAGroup
1990UntitledMargo Leavin Gallery, Los Angeles, USAGroup
1990Nudes: Drawings and Paintings from 1927-1964 Knoedler & Company, New York, USAGroup
1990The Fourth Australian Sculpture Triennial Heide Park and Art Gallery, Bulleen, Victoria, AustraliaGroup
1990UntitledWashburn Gallery, New York, USAGroup
1989Human Concern,Personal Torment The Grotesque in American Art Revisited, Phyllis Kind Gallery, New YorkGroup
1988From the Southern Cross: A View of World Art c.1940-88 The Australian Biennale, Art Gallery of New South, Sydney, AustraliaGroup
1988UntitledAkira Ikeda Gallery, Tokyo, JapanGroup
1988Drawings of the Fifties Anthony d'Offay Gallery, London, UKGroup
1987The Prints Pace Prints, New York, USA (cat.)Group
1987Paintings from the 1930's Washburn Gallery, New York, USA (cat.)Group
1986Skulpturen, Zeichnungen [Sculpture and Drawings] Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf, GermanyGroup
1986David Smith, Die reifen Jahre, 1951-1965: Skulpturen und Zeichnungen [David Smith, the Mature Years, 1951-1965: Sculpture and Drawings] Galerie Hans Strelow, DüsseldorfGroup
1985Drawings and Sculpture M. Knoedler & Co., Inc., New York, USAGroup
1964Sculpture and DrawingsInstitute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, USA (cat.)Group
1964UntitledThe Hyde Collection, Glens Falls, NY, USAGroup
1964UntitledMarlborough-Gerson Gallery Inc., New York, USAGroup