When David Smith’s pick-up truck veered off a Vermont road in a fatal accident in 1965, America lost one of its two undisputed leaders of postwar art.
The other, Jackson Pollock, had also died prematurely in a car crash nine years earlier, and the twin fast-lane deaths now crystallised the patriotic myth of abstract expressionism.
In this heady version, Pollock and Smith were pioneers of America’s first national art form – macho, free-wheeling, spontaneous – who finally broke with European tradition, but at the cost of a high-testosterone creativity that was too super-charged to survive.
The myth dwindled, but it yoked painter and sculptor inextricably and, encouraged by Smith’s executor Clement Greenberg, helped define Smith’s late abstract work as his contribution to art history.
At Tate Modern’s new exhibition, an outsize visitor, “Cubi XVll”, a stainless steel sculpture composed of strict geometric forms scribbled with burnished lines, stands like a gate or portal, leading the eye through open space as it shimmers against the grey London light.
Look forward, and here is the elegant ancestor of more or less everything in Tate’s minimalist section. But look back, and this huge, stark structure is cubism magnified to the proportions of American open spaces and factory floors.
Early works such as “Aerial Construction” suggest the link: in thickly painted burnt orange iron, an intersection of lines, planes and spaces recalls a cubist drawing of a guitar, the curves and transparency echoing the classical grace and lightness of Braque.
This momentous retrospective, which marks the centenary of the sculptor’s birth, radically repositions an American hero by looking back as well as forward.
Curated by a Spaniard, the Guggenheim’s Carmen Giménez, it comes to Tate Modern from New York via Paris’s Pompidou Centre, and argues persuasively for Smith as the long transatlantic bridge of the mid-20th century: an artist as firmly rooted in the abstract-
figurative tension of European modernism as in the steely monumentality of mechanised America.
The scale and lush surface materialism of his work always responds vibrantly to museum architecture and light – the Guggenheim ramp, the Pompidou’s steel and glass skeleton and tubes – but of all this show’s venues, Tate Modern is most closely Smith’s spiritual home.
Like the Bankside building itself, his basic materials, iron and steel, belong to the industrial age but are transformed by an aesthetic vision.
Early 1930s work here uses discarded industrial tools to create sculptural personages and heads reminiscent of Picasso’s: strainers and metal shears welded to the serrated circular blade of an industrial saw for the threatening face in “Saw Head”, for instance.
A fabulous large gallery recaptures Smith as a maker of images in painted steel in the 1940s, indebted both to cubism/constructivism and to surrealism’s fantasies.
The curvilinear “Pillar of Sunday”, a tree-like structure with figures suspended as leaves – a mermaid-woman singing in a choir, a roast chicken lunch, a bird in flight – references Smith’s mother, a puritanical Sunday school teacher; “The Cathedral”, dominated by a large claw or pitchfork pinning down a man, “dead or alive, it doesn’t matter”, is a symbol of repressive power.
By the early 1950s, the fluid movement and expansive energy take flight in rhythmic, sweeping abstract expressionist masterpieces such as “Australia”, a massive, prehistoric-looking skeletal form that suggests a giant insect, or “Hudson River Landscape”, a series of curves and spins in a rectangular frame evoking the flow of the river, the passage of a journey or of time; it began as a drawing made on a train trip.
Flickering metal illusions, these have the tough strength yet fragility of Pollock, and make one understand why Robert Motherwell called Smith “delicate as Vivaldi and as strong as a Mack truck”.
In 21st-century Tate Modern, as crowds shriek down Carsten Höller’s steel slides and industry has given way to leisure, these painted metal works are poignant. For Smith, born in Indiana in a family descended from blacksmiths, iron and steel were natural materials chosen for directness, lack of resonance with art history, connection to modernity – associations, he said, “of this century: power, structure, movement, progress, suspension, destruction, brutality”.
Yet, like so much in modernism and abstract expressionism, what once looked crude or formless now appears not only beautiful – the looping lyrical lines of “Song of the Landscape”, the swirl of flowing hair metamorphosing into weaving loom into harp strings in “Ancient Household” – but affecting for its faith, still strong at the mid-century, in art’s power as witness and record.
Smith carried that belief through from Picasso-like derivations to the abstract play of curves against straights, horizontals against verticals, in the “Zig”, “Voltri” and “Wagon” series. Heavy with history – Babylon’s terraced pyramidal temples, American frontier life – they are also light, new, unlike any sculpture made before and, for all their industrial scale, insistently human in their reference points.
“Man always has to work from his life,” Smith said; how he continued to do so while reinventing sculpture is the triumphal story of this show.
If Tate Modern is Smith’s spiritual home, the London outpost of New York’s Gagosian Gallery, a set of towering, light-filled rooms behind King’s Cross, is his perfect aesthetic setting. To complement Tate’s retrospective, Gagosian has extrapolated the strand of Smith’s mature work, the mid-1950s standing figure, that most emphasises his humanist concerns, and devotes to it a dazzlingly theatrical show, David Smith, Personage.
Here, Smith’s vertical figures – the graceful bronze “Portrait of a Painter”, the steel arabesque “Personage of August” – seem to soar across the space, thrusting upward with an optimistic force and élan that looks unmistakably American, although European references leap out playfully from all sides.
The head of “Painter” is a Miró-like biomorphic form. “Anchorhead” is a mesh of curving, taut black lines, the classic Smith “drawing in space”, but its dash of white and red paint nods at Malevich’s abstractions, while its feet are surrealist dreams.
The tapering, etiolated “Forging” series in varnished steel, some painted in succulent, drippy Pollockesque hues, suggest abstract versions of Giacometti – but often with the joky addition of a phallus.
Seen together, these intimate, expressive, often autobiographical pieces are a revelation: rich with narrative implication, wit, bravura. “Woman Bandit”, for example, has ballet-posed feet and a skirt that plays on Degas’ “Little Dancer”, a bulbous bowl-like bronze body, the woman-as-vessel of African primitivism.
Beneath her head is a handle like that of a slot machine – a pun on the “one-armed bandit” gaming machines that is laced with menace when you know that Smith made the piece just after his wife had left him. Opposite stands the pared-down, bleakly beautiful self-portrait “Lonesome Man”, made in pure silver: luminous, asymmetrical, one leg poised as if in a dance.
Behind it, an ink sketch of dancers highlights Smith’s ability to convey movement, flight and transience.
Paintings and drawings – including a magnificent nude series, by turns savage and lyrical, reminiscent of de Kooning and made with ink squeezed from an ear syringe – emphasise the graphic intensity that underlies the sculptures; oddball pieces such as a delicate collage of a family group made from chicken bones surprise and delight.
Tate portrays the full weight of Smith’s achievement; Gagosian allows the protean, irrepressible, fecund artist to unfold before our eyes, extending our experience of his scope, significance and sheer pleasure-giving quality.
‘David Smith’, Tate Modern, London SE1, to January 21, tel +44 20 7887 8888. ‘David Smith, Personage’, Gagosian Gallery, London, to December 9, tel +44 20 7841 9960