FOR YEARS--decades, really--when encountering a sculpture by David Smith in a museum or an art gallery, I've looked at it long and hard, from up close and far away. I've walked all around it and peered at it from every point of view; and then, if it was a piece I found compelling (and no one was watching), I made a loose fist with my right hand and lightly rapped the sculpture in order to hear--I almost wrote "see"--how it sounded. Only then do I ever feel that I know a work by Smith, whatever else knowing it might be taken to mean. So imagine my satisfaction when I read Michael Brenson's essay "The Fields" in a catalogue accompanying the artist's recent retrospective at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, in which Smith's daughter Candida is quoted recalling her experience visiting the scores of sculptures Smith had placed in the fields adjacent to his house and studio at Bolton Landing in upstate New York: "My father encouraged my sister and me to run among the sculptures," she remembers, "to climb, to put our heads into the elements of the sculptures, to bang out tuneless rhythms and hear the difference between the sound of flat and volumetric elements."
Of course, Smith may simply have been thinking of what kids in the countryside would enjoy doing, away from other amusements. But I believe there is something more to his encouragement. Smith recognized, I think, that one of the great strengths of his art, and maybe its overriding strength, is its sheer physicality: the intensity, or intensiveness, with which sculpture after sculpture by Smith contrives to mobilize--and then invites the viewer to register and acknowledge--every conceivable dimension of its sensuous being as a particular sort of material artifact. It's far from easy to put what I am driving at into words. But I am trying to point to an aspect of his work that isn't captured at all by notions such as drawing in space, Surrealist imagery, Cubist structure, the tension between two- and three-dimensionality, disparate views, totems, or (perhaps least of all) opticality. All of these considerations, despite their unquestioned relevance to his art, seem to me too general--too concerned with works of art as iconic or conceptual wholes--to capture the specific mode of sensuousness (of presentness?) I have in mind. Nor is it easy for this mode of sensuousness to be captured in even the best photographs of Smith's work, for the simple reason that such photographs are invariably taken at a distance sufficient to show the whole of a given sculpture. The sorts of features I am referring to are most effectively registered at very close range--sculpture-rapping range, one might say.
Probably the clearest instance of what I mean occurs in pieces from the '40s and '50s, where the "drawn" element--the steel "line," such as it is--more or less continuously varies in thickness and, equally if not more tellingly, in cross section as it arcs, arrows, meanders, or curves sharply through space. Similarly, the "drawing" itself is anything but regular, clean-cut, geometric; instead it more or less continuously divagates as it goes, so that the viewer is invited, almost compelled, to pay those divagations just as much attention (even closer attention) as he or she does the overall configuration made by the "drawing" or, for that matter, the piece as a whole. Then too there are the welds, the actual points of jointure between elements, which almost always are visible, indeed tangible, in their own right. That is, one of Smith's most brilliant innovations turned on the recognition that, by means of the simple technology of welding, elements that seemed merely to touch could be securely joined to one another, often in configurations defying customary expectations with respect to weight, gravity, practicality, and so on. (The marvelous Tanktotem IX, 1960, with its narrow, flat, rectangular body supported by three legs that no more than graze it, is a particularly inspired case in point. …