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by Charlie Finch
|Back in the bad old pre-feminist days at Bennington College, David Smith organized a contest with his fellow hetero male art faculty members to see who could bed the most Bennington co-eds.
To document this chauvinist fuckfest, Smith photographed his young conquests Edward Weston style: spread naked, with all body parts visible except the face. He would then mail the snapshots to his faculty buddies as a way of keeping score.
Most of these stunning photos have disappeared, but a few survive in the hallway of Larry Gagosian's uptown space.
They were the visual basis for the exhibition, "The Last Nudes of David Smith," a show of paintings currently on view at Gagosian.
Smith would take a particular femme snapshot and, while looking at it intently, paint it mimetically on a small canvas, black-on-white, in what appears to be one long masturbatory stroke.
Smith especially enjoyed the feeling of coming in black semen as he smoothly jerked his way around the canvas.
The results have the lingering mustiness of art brut, smelling of the unbridled lust behind the project.
When Smith's hand grazes a clitoris or ass, he opens the legs of his objectified subjects with the lever of erotic memory. Conversely, there is an element of repetition in the less spectacular body parts from one painting to the next, but the overall impression of "The Last Nudes" is of a master draughtsman on top of his game.
Collectors appear to agree, as gallery sources say that the nudes are moving swiftly at six figures a pop.
These paintings also beg questions of David Smith's larger purpose as a sculptor.
He comes across as a creator, like Degas, obsessed with the figure, beginning with his own bearlike body and its insatiable needs, leaving little room for the spiritual transcendence so many observers have gleaned from Smith's sculpture.
Perhaps this show will draw out more of Smith's nude photographs from the attics of his contemporaries, as they pass on, contributing to a new view of un homme sensuel et chauviniste.
CHARLIE FINCH is coauthor of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula.