David Smith: Cubes and Anarchy, Whitney Museum of Modern Art, New York

Even though he died in a car crash at 59, David Smith is among a tiny, golden group of artists who have enjoyed a late, great style. Along with Titian, Rembrandt, Bonnard, and Matisse, he was graced with creative endurance and the chance to keep soaring toward transcendence. At the untimely finish of his protean career, Smith had discovered a way to wrap emotion in classically balanced containers. Beneath the smooth elegant surfaces, bridled feelings roil and burble, and it’s that tension between suppression and explosion that makes them splendid.

Most of his friends and rivals among the Abstract Expressionists followed a sadder trajectory: They spent years in cold studios, struggling to render existential truth as a series of lines and shapes. Each endured a succession of failed experiments until, late in the 1940s, they all “broke through” and the New York School was born. Yet epiphany rapidly gave way to decline or repetition, and bold gestures devolved into gimmicks.

Unlike Rothko, Gottlieb, Kline, and Newman, Smith kept evolving, and his work got better and better. The Whitney’s quirky new exhibition, “Cubes and Anarchy,” starts with the 1960s masterpieces and unfolds backward through the decades toward the less polished work from the Depression. When you step off the elevator, you’re face-to-face with Smith’s magnificent clusters of shimmering steel boxes, discs and cylinders. These sublime “Cubis” from the 1960s bask in Marcel Breuer’s Brutalist gallery space, twinkle in the angled window and resonate with the cubist apartment buildings along Madison Avenue.

If you follow Smith’s career chronologically, the leap from the dark, matt, organic ironworks of the 1940s and 1950s into the sleek bright “Cubis” feels shocking, as if Smith’s already feverish imagination had received an electric jolt. But “Cubes and Anarchy” weirdly attenuates the impact of that revelation and smooths out the contours of his whole career. Organised by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the exhibit presents a thematic annotation to the conventional narrative. It follows just one thread of his profligate creativity and surrenders only one idea: that Smith was a lefty geometrician to his bones. His gods, according to curator Carol Eliel, were the radical Russian constructivists who, earlier in the century, raised the banner of proletarian solidarity. By cherry-picking a small group of sculptures and trotting out some rather uninteresting early endeavours, the exhibition searches for connections at the expense of texture.

It’s true that Smith always stressed his brotherhood with the worker. He cultivated a rough image of himself as a twister of metals who swaggered out of the Midwestern plains. Born in Decatur, Indiana in 1906, he was descended from blacksmiths. His father, a telephone technician and part-time inventor, inspired in him a durable passion for machinery. After a stint in art school, Smith got a summer job as a welder and riveter at a Studebaker car factory in Ohio. That’s where he picked up the skills, and the proletarian stance, he brought to his sculpture.

Smith arrived in New York in 1926, and started out as a painter. But his preference for tools over brushes led him to sculpture, and by 1934 he had installed himself in an improvised studio at the Terminal Iron Works in Brooklyn. There he forged idiosyncratic construction out of scrap metal, odd parts of machines, and other detritus. Smith slurped up a wide range of influences in these years: Picasso, Russian constructivism, Mondrian, Surrealism and, especially, Giacometti. He processed the Italian’s formally complex and symbolically freighted style into a series of fussy biomorphic works that carried him through the 1940s.

“Cubes and Anarchy” aims to pry Smith from the clutches of the effete Surrealists and thrust him into the tougher company of the common man. No mention is made of Giacometti, or of Smith’s existentialist, psychoanalytically-minded allies among the Abstract Expressionists. At the Whitney, it is the proletarian revolutionary Vladimir Tatlin and the hard-edged utopian Piet Mondrian who take the starring roles as his progenitors. The curator marshals a slew of Smith’s most derivative constructions, paintings and works on paper to prove that he was first and foremost interested in the political power of shapes.

She is undoubtedly right that Smith learnt a great deal from the early modernists: a copy of one of Mondrian’s “Pier and Ocean” images fills in part of a page from a 1946 sketchbook. But above and around that austere arrangement of pale squares are the other things he was thinking about, live-streaming from his visual unconscious. A frog makes love to a woman in the presence of a pink duck; a totemic female, in the style of Picasso’s Demoiselles, shelters another fuzzy fowl – this one bright yellow – under one arm; a third female decomposes into a sensual series of plump circles and ovals. In the catalogue, Eliel says that Smith’s work was “infused with Mondrian’s sense of geometry and purity”. Geometry, yes, but purity? Surely not. Smith admired Mondrian, but even within a single page, he couldn’t confine himself to just one strain of influence.

Eliel is searching for a missing link in Smith’s career, a logical continuum between the earlier ornate abstractions and the brawn of the “Cubis”. That unity is there, not so much in his concern with geometry as in the balance of austerity and passion, of industrial materials and hand-wrought effect. Come up close to the “Cubis”, and the polished surfaces look practically liquid, with undulating painterly strokes that seem to dive below the impermeable skin. Smith’s real unbroken allegiance was not to radicalism or the machine age, but to the eternal ability of emotions to infuse metal or stone.

‘David Smith: Cubes and Anarchy’, continues through January 8. www.whitney.org

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